Spanish Port Fighting Tide of Time


In the early 18th Century, this majestic Atlantic port was thriving from the monopoly it held on trade with the Americas.

Today, weather-beaten and cramped, it is struggling to survive.

Cadiz and other once-proud ports from Liverpool, England, to Szczecin, Poland, are victims of changes in trade patterns and in industry practices such as the use of deep-draught ships and containerization, the fastest and most cost-efficient way of handling ocean-going freight.

The future of these European maritime cities and their inhabitants has been the subject of a series of conferences sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


At a spring meeting in Cadiz, for instance, discussions focused on how urban-renewal projects, job programs and local economic strategies might be combined to put new life into old harbors.

Many suffer from similar problems: They’re located off major world trade routes, situated at the head of an estuary too shallow for modern ships, and they lack space for shipping containers. Container ports need an extraordinary amount of space to park containers awaiting shipment or collection.

Another problem is the rise of megaport Rotterdam. In 1986, the Dutch port handled 258 million tons of cargo. By comparison, Marseille, France, handled 98 million tons and Genoa, Italy, 44 million tons.

Cadiz handled 3.1 million tons last year.


The port, Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, was founded by Phoenician traders in 1100 BC on a small peninsula that juts north into the Bay of Cadiz. It was first named Gadir. Then the Romans Latinized it to Gades, and the Spanish transformed it into Cadiz, usually pronounced here without the z .

In the two centuries after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, Cadiz grew in importance, aloof from the distant royal court in Madrid and scarcely aware of its rolling green hills behind the bay.

That narrow view blinded Cadiz to the port’s decline and to finding other sources of income as the times changed, said Manuel Castells, a professor of sociology who works in Madrid and also at Stanford and Harvard.

Meanwhile, other communities developed around the bay, appropriating the land that Cadiz now sorely needs.


“Even if some new business would want to set up shop here, there is no land for them to build on,” said 30-year-old Jose Antonio Morillo, a former salesman turned taxi driver. “We have a beautiful city, but we missed the boat. Everyone’s going to San Fernando, Puerto Real or Puerto de Santa Maria.”

Morillo thinks the city should demolish its ailing shipyards to free up land.

Large-scale demolition took place in Baltimore, Cadiz’s sister city, for the Charles Center urban-renewal project that later revitalized tourism at the city’s abandoned inner harbor. But that’s not regarded as a viable alternative for Cadiz, a national monument and beautiful old city built right up to the waterfront.

The tightly packed blocks of low, off-white buildings intersected by narrow streets are the city’s urban and historic heritage and home to many of its 157,000 inhabitants.


But the buildings are corroded by the salt air and the Levante, a blistering wind from North Africa, and the heirs to what once were comfortable mansions can no longer afford to keep them up.

Through an imaginative program thought up in 1985 by Spanish architect and political cartoonist Jose Perez Gonzalez, the Ministry of Labor and the European Community are funding on-the-job training programs for unemployed youths. The programs teach them the traditional and modern skills necessary to restore and rehabilitate the country’s historic monuments and dwellings.

The overall rate of unemployment in Cadiz is at least double Spain’s current 16%.

The school-workshops have trained about 500 young people, who are now at work under a 1988 plan by the city and the Andalusian regional government to restore 1,200 private and public residential buildings. The project is receiving EC funds under provisions for Spain’s overall development.


Leaders hope that some of the trainees will leave the state payrolls and set up their own restoration businesses.

But however attractive renovation may be, it cannot create new land that is needed for housing or shipping containers.

Deputy Mayor Manuel Vera Borja sees the creation of a metropolitan area encompassing the five towns around Cadiz Bay as the only viable means of attracting industry and providing quality services.

Such an arrangement would have to be approved by the regional government and would mean doing away with the jobs of at least four of the five mayors, a politically delicate proposition.


So far, the five communities have been able to form a loose association. Their first common project is the construction of a new cemetery, something Vera Borja says Cadiz needs urgently as the port no longer has room to bury its dead.