Instead, the factory has been turned over to groups within the community of Madrid, some of which were already using the deserted building. Currently, it operates as el Centro Social Autogestionado(CSA) La Tabacalera, a self-managed social center open to all who want to participate. Though La Tabacalera has a contract with the Ministry of Culture, the space is managed directly by the people who use it.

Main room of La Tabacalera

La Tabacalera is made up of a collection of groups that share the space and the responsibilities of managing it. There is a skateboarding rink, several gardens, a wood and metal workshop, a library, a soap-making room, and spaces set aside for musicians and dance troupes. Members meet regularly and provide public workshops (or “talleres”), including free English, French, and Spanish classes.

Schedule at La Tabacalera

One group, whose space within La Tabacalera is known as The African Temple, teaches African drumming and dance classes. The room is decorated from floor to ceiling.

There is also a bike collective that sells bikes and provides bike maintenance and repair.

Because anyone can propose performances, exhibits, and workshops, the services and events offered at La Tabacalera are constantly changing. Recently, an organization that celebrates Latin American culture held a benefit in La Tabacalera with live music and food.

But on a quiet afternoon when no events are planned, La Tabacalera feels less like an unofficial community center, and more like the ghostly, abandoned factory that it is. The factory, which was finished in 1790 and designed by Manuel de la Ballina, is a beautiful example of eighteenth-century industrial architecture. Even when no event is scheduled, La Tabacalera’s vast, dimly lit rooms, graffiti-covered courtyard, and exhibits are open for visitors to wander through.

There is a café near the entrance—although there is also a sign claiming otherwise that reads: “Really, this is not a café. We are here to tell you about the CSA Tabacalera and to help you realize your projects while serving you coffee.” The coffee—and the beer and wine—costs one euro. From time to time there is a free store in the café. Anyone can donate or take clothes and shoes.

On La Tabacalera’s colorful walls, both inside and out, there are announcements for upcoming demonstrations and political discussions. The building’s history as a center of political activism started long before it was known as La Tabacalera. The tobacco factory was famous for its progressive employees, thousands of working women who played an important role in fighting for workers rights in Madrid.

La Tabacalera is an ongoing experiment of community-managed public space, one that demonstrates the challenges and potentials of handing city planning over to its inhabitants.

Graffiti at La Tabacalera