Famous Robert Capa Photo Brings New Life to a Tenement and its Residents

Famous Robert Capa Photo Brings New Life to a Tenement and its Residents

Famous Robert Capa Photo Brings New Life to a Tenement and its Residents

Famous Robert Capa Photo Brings New Life to a Tenement and its Residents

MADRID — In 1936, the photographer Robert Capa trained his lens on children outside a pockmarked tenement in Madrid that had been bombed by the German Luftwaffe. That image of the Spanish Civil War remains a powerful reminder of the effects of armed conflict on civilians.

This month, some 85 years after the picture was made, plans are underway for the decrepit, century-old building to be preserved and converted into a cultural center that will celebrate the photographer’s work and commemorate Madrid’s wartime history. Residents of the tenement were permanently moved to subsidized housing.

For those who had made their homes in the building, the change was long overdue. Most of them could not afford something better because of a chronic shortage of subsidized housing in Madrid. In January, the discrepancy between the city’s haves and have-nots was on full display when a giant snowstorm deepened the misery in one of the poorest areas of Madrid.

In their new homes, the residents will pay the same or even less for more space, proper heating and other improvements.

“Capa has been wonderful for us,” said Cristina Uquillas, who, along with her two children and mother, moved out last week — the last of the 14 families living in the building to do so. “But I also feel that people should get decent housing without having to get this kind of miraculous help from a great photographer.”

Underlining the problem, when the last occupants moved out, builders immediately sealed off the doors and windows of the tenement to prevent squatters from moving in.

Ms. Uquillas, a meatpacker in Madrid’s main food market, said she was happy to leave behind the damp, peeling walls but acknowledged that she would miss the tenement’s tight-knit community.

“Everybody always had a problem,” she said. “But there was also always somebody to help out.”

Since the 1980s, Spain’s economic growth has relied heavily on its construction sector. But the country has reduced the amount of state-subsidized housing to less than 1 percent of the total available — about a quarter of the average across the European Union.

Amid a deep recession precipitated by the pandemic, the shortage of public housing has become a political hot potato, even straining the relationship between the two left-wing parties that form the coalition government.

Last month, seven smaller Spanish parties banded together to urge the government to oblige large real estate owners to make some of their holdings available for subsidized housing.

José María Uría, who works for a labor union foundation that led the efforts to salvage the Capa building, said that when the tenement opened in 1927, it was billed as a “new housing model for the working class.”

Some local residents even called the building “the home of the rich,” Mr. Uría added, because one of its inner courtyards had the relative luxury of a water well.

Since then, the Capa tenement, in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid, has led something of a charmed life.

It survived not only the Spanish Civil War but also the extensive overhaul of the area in the decades after the fighting, leaving it as one of the few buildings barely changed from that era.

The photograph taken by Capa, who was born in Hungary and had traveled to Spain to document the war, initially made the front cover of a French newsmagazine, Regards, in December 1936. It was later used by other European and American publications, including The New York Times.

The picture “launched his reputation,” said Cynthia Young, former curator of the Robert Capa archive at the International Center of Photography in New York. “It was the first time he had been called out for his work on the cover of a magazine, rare for any photojournalist at the time.”

The decision to preserve the building was made in 2018, when the parliament of Spain’s capital region voted to create the cultural center. To take ownership of the building, the city paid off the old owners at a cost of about $1 million.

Confronting the history of the Civil War has long been divisive in Spain. And like other projects linked to Spain’s wartime past, this one became mired in politics, particularly when right-wing politicians took back control of Madrid’s city government the next year. They delayed confirming what would be displayed at the center.

Mar Espinar, a city lawmaker from the opposition Socialists, said she wanted the center to document the air raids of the war.

“Politicians can disagree on many things, but people need to know our history and that bombs were once dropped on the homes of civilians — as a significant fact and not a matter of opinion,” she said.

In 2019, the Socialist-led government exhumed Gen. Francisco Franco, whose victory ushered in a dictatorship that only ended with his death in 1975. His remains were reburied in a family crypt.

On the other side, last year, Madrid city employees removed a plaque from the home of Francisco Largo Caballero, a Socialist who became prime minister of the Republican government in 1936, a few months after Franco and other generals started a military coup.

The bombing of the Vallecas neighborhood in 1936 was not an obvious military priority for Franco and his forces, but it offered a proving ground for his German allies.

Walther L. Bernecker, a professor emeritus at Erlangen-Nürnberg University in Germany who has studied the war, said the attack on Vallecas, as well as later bombings like the one that devastated the town of Guernica, provided “a perfect laboratory” for the Luftwaffe to test its weaponry and for Nazi Germany to “spread terror among the civilian population.”

Capa did not write specific captions for his Vallecas photographs, so they also appeared in some publications without attribution or even in a manipulated context. In Italy, a pro-Fascist magazine headlined his picture with the words “The cruel war” but did not mention which side had carried out the bombing.

Nowadays, any poignancy about living in the historical building was outweighed by its practical disadvantages, residents said.

“The only reason I lived here so long is that I could never afford anything better,” said Rosa Báez, who spent eight years in the building.

“I’m now getting a better apartment and am among the lucky ones,” she added.

Ms. Uquillas, as she left with her family, offered thanks to Capa for his indirect role in her move. Finally getting an upgrade, she said, felt like “winning the lottery.”


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