The Library: The Island that Never Was, by Robert Alcock

Review: Paul Scraton

As stories go, the building of the Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao is a fascinating one. In the 1950s and 1960s a canal was dug to improve access to the Euskalduna shipyard as part of Franco’s policy of industrial expansion. Many of the residents of the area had already been rehoused when the plans changed and the project ground to a halt. The canal, that would have created an island, never reached its destination. And as Robert Alcock explains in his short but fascinating The Island that Never Was:

Instead of an island, after the economic collapse of the early eighties the peninsula had become a lost world, forgotten by the rest of the city. Most people had no idea that four hundred residents still clung on.”

It was into this forgotten neighbourhood that Alcock moved in 1999 with his partner, and overthe course of the nine chapters that make up this book he creates a portrait of a community, of his neighbours and their worries and concerns, of the graffiti and where it came from, of its plant- and wildlife, and crucially how different people – some important and listened to, others not – had plans for Zorrozaurre that would completely transform the peninsula and by definition the lives of those people who called it home. Faced with a development master plan that would see many of them evicted, the locals were finally roused into action, including forming a residents association and taking to a bit of street-art themselves to paint a mural depicting life in the neighbourhood:

“It was a reminder that the neighbourhood existed – a fact of which, even now, most people in Bilbao remained ignorant – and a collective nose-thumbing at the authorities. It wasn’t only the squatters who could paint walls.”

It is not simply the story of an anonymous neighbourhood and its struggle for recognition and self-determination that makes this book interesting, although it most certainly does. It is the fact that it reminds us once again that everywhere – every district, every estate, every village, every town – has its story and there is a value to listening to what it is. It is the fact that it reminds us once again that communities develop on what seem, on the face of it, unlikely and perhaps even unappealing locations. And that what makes a community is worth fighting to protect.

Although it is not explicitly stated, the fact the The Island that Never Was has been published in a tri-lingual edition – English, Spanish and Basque – would suggest that Alcock’s intention was to make sure his neighbours in Zorrozaurre have access to this telling of their story. I am sure that they would be very proud.

Robert Alcock is a writer and ecological designer who moved to Bilbao in 1999 to undertake fieldwork for a PhD in marine ecology. He and his partner lived in Zorrozaurre for several years and were founder members of the Forum for a Sustainable Zorrozaurre. They still keep active ties with the neighbourhood. You can order The Island that Never Was via the Abrazo House website, where it is also possible to purchase an Ebook version.