Prior to the worldwide recession at the end of the last decade, Spain’s economy was, if not thriving, in a much healthier state. Immigration was increasing, jobs were plentiful, and the construction industry was booming. In the province of Guadalajara, 45 miles from Madrid, Ciudad Valdeluz was built in the midst of this era, when people were dreaming up all kinds of ambitious property developments. It was intended to be a self-containing ‘urbanizacion’, essentially an estate without the sometimes negative connotation of social housing that that term carries in England. An urbanisation is a collection of blocks of flats or apartments, often but not necessarily all sharing the same massive structure. Urbanisations have become hugely common in Madrid since the urban sprawl has put a premium on space and developers have had to build increasingly upward instead of outward (not that inhabitants of Spanish cities have ever been particularly averse to that). They often include swimming pools, sporting facilities like tennis courts, and always a large number of people sharing a relatively small space.
Ciudad Valdeluz is an urbanisation in a slightly different mould. Built entirely on greenfield land, it lies in the rolling hills 10 miles or so from the city of Guadalajara, just off the national motorway N320. In the giddy atmosphere of the Spanish construction industry in the years after the new millennium broke, the town seemed like a great idea. Intended to be a base for young professionals and families commuting to nearby Guadalajara or Madrid (less than an hour’s drive away), people were attracted, and started to buy up apartments there. One of its main selling points was its placement near to Guadalajara station, on which the famous AVE high speed train between Madrid and Barcelona (arguably one of the great success stories of Spanish industry in the 21st century), would stop. Plans were made to build homes for 30,000 people in this settlement.
I visited Ciudad Valdeluz in February, 2015. Today, somewhere between 2000-3000 people live there, a tenth of the planned population. It is an unmitigated disaster.
In 2008, the crisis hit and thousands, millions of people lost their jobs. Suddenly, Ciudad Valdeluz was no longer an attractive proposition. Building stopped, in some cases half-way done. Almost overnight, demand had dissappeared. In my brief visit there, I saw very few people (although it wasn’t particularly warm), and lots of space marked out for land that was completely unused, not to mention the unfinished constructions. It is not always easy to read a person’s disposition with one glance, but I found it impossible not to project my own sense of gloominess about the place onto the faces of those I saw. Parents took their children out for walks or bike rides, but their options were severely limited. With motorways surrounding them, there were few places to go but through the streets, and around the half-finished, empty buildings that serve as a glaring reminder of the town’s failings. It must be a hard life there. Without wishing to upset or offend any of the inhabitants, many of them are, for all intents and purposes, trapped. Redundant ‘for sale/rent’ signs are two a penny. Some people, many of them young couples with children, bought properties there at the going price before the recession. I have heard cases of people having mortgages that are now twice the amount of the current house value. Unless something changes drastically, many of these people may well live the majority of their lives and die in a place where they were sold a dream which will never be realised. The promise of a new town, an abundant population, exceptional services… today the town has a splattering of small shops, a cafe (which was closed on the Saturday I arrived), and a golf course. The nearest supermarket is 10 miles away in Guadalajara.
The children that have been and will be brought up here will do so in a town that is almost entirely devoid of any sense of character. It is literally just an area for having a roof over your head.
What will happen to Ciudad Valdeluz in the future? Will it eventually attract the people it so desperately needs to turn it into a place? How long will that take? Ten years, 20, 50? Or will it follow the fortunes of many villages in Spain which are dying or already dead? Ghost towns in places like Soria, central Spain, number in the hundreds, and more are being created every year, as the young, discouraged by the lack of work in the disappearing agricultural industry, flee for the cities. Ciudad Valdeluz is somewhat fortunate in that it is less than an hour from the Spanish capital. But if the quality of life there doesn’t improve significantly, people will have little reason to stay. It is not like the villages in Soria where the history of generations of families keep some coming back, sentimentally or otherwise. And if it is eventually abandoned, will people remember it? Will there be anything to mark its existence? Will Valdeluz become the most haunted of ghost towns, unloved, unvisited and unexorcised? If a town loses all its inhabitants, and their descendants, whose lips the name might pass through, are absorbed into the ether by the passing of time, was it ever really there?