The Hidden Cities of Paris

Paris is easily one of the most referenced cities in the world. It is the capitol of romance, of lights, wine, and of course, cheese. Every year Paris undergoes a number of strange transformations and the whims of the government. The Seine is turned into a beach during the month of August, with palm trees and imported sand lining a constructed “˜Paris Plage’.  Just last spring the Champs-Elysees was shut down and turned into a giant garden for the weekend. Hundreds of indigenous and exotic plants were shipped in and spaced down the street for no readily available reason. At this giant garden party one could peer between Alpine firs to the Louis Vuitton shop behind it and somewhere near Laduree, one of France’s most famous macaroon shops, a tangle of pineapples and sugarcane decorated the center divide.

This is all met with the delight of tourists. They sit in café’s named Refuge pour les Artistes and discuss the many whimsies of the Parisian ascetic. How, from the Pompidou to the Eiffel Tower, everything is a planned, cohesive delightfully peculiar. Downtown Paris is indeed a sight to behold. Be it rain or sunshine the strange off kilter ambiance of the city can infect even the most apathetic of souls.

But Paris is more than just the sum of its tourist hubs. Just to the East, an almost foreign feeling enclave exists out of sight. It’s not “˜technically’ Paris and thus Parisians do not “technically” have to feel responsible for it. Still woven around poorly planned streets with more empty shops than not, Les Tours dot the horizon. Les Tours, or “˜the towers’ are the tall, unremarkable beige blocks of the French housing projects. They were built in the 1960’s and based around Le Corbusier’s vision of urban development: that multi-story buildings surrounded by parks could become giant intersected communities of thriving families. This same vision (aptly named Plan Voisin) actually served later as a blueprint for the infamous Cabrini-Green Projects of Chicago.

Initially these structures attracted hopeful immigrants and residents from some of the more claustrophobic areas of Paris. For a brief moment, these new, innovative cities were labeled a success. However, it was only a matter of time before the same issues of poverty and class reached the “˜tower communities’. They soon found themselves feeling disconnected and ambivalent towards their impersonal surroundings. Regardless of the original intent, these tall cell-like structures became festering pools of agitation and social stigma.

The parks around each building became easy cover for illegal activity. With inequitable unemployment rates faced by the residents a system of gangs and alliances were soon created. Now the vestibules to most of the buildings have their own version of night watchmen, bribing and keeping track of the business in their territory.

City organizers and upkeep often shirk their responsibility in these communities. For fear of being shaken down, they will simply avoid changing the street lamps or ignore the broken manhole covers for weeks on end. Because of this, the buildings are often found in various states of disrepair with graffiti covering a number of structures. The police in the area, often recruited from the country side where they’ve never so much as met a person of color, are thrust into the melee without real knowledge of the system. Some officers with seniority will often outright refuse an assignment there.

In reality, driving into the projects in a police car is almost the most dangerous thing a person could do in France. Whereas in the United States most are taught to respect or at least fear the police, in these communities the rules are skewed. Throwing refrigerators or large rocks from project roofs onto moving police cars is not at all unheard of.  When headed into these neighborhoods its standard policy that police always ride three to a car. That way if need be two can run after a suspect and one can always guard the vehicle. If they leave it unattended? “Flipped and burned within minutes” one officer told me.

Many within Paris proper prefer to imagine this place doesn’t exist. Indeed, bringing up the 93rd can put a damper on ones conceptual discussions on liberty and equality. Of course they would like to see the 93rd cleaned up. They would like to see the entire region prosperous. But the residents there are the ones ruining it, not them. Plus all those minorities get so many handouts, and still can’t make it work. So why should it be their problem? No, no, let’s get back to discussing the abstract; it’s so much more comfortable there.

Meanwhile a vicious cycle is rearing its head within the community. French born citizens with Muslim or foreign sounding names are finding it difficult to get decent work. Those that do are often turned down for loans or denied as renters in the nicer sections of the division. I spoke with one man who rents apartments in a relatively wealthy oasis of the 93rd. He had recently signed a lease with a Senegalese couple in a renovated building. “They hadn’t been able to find any acceptance in the area” he explained, “despite meeting all the qualifications for rent. They had been stuck at his parent’s small house for the past nine months. This is a brand new family with an infant, two working parents and they were getting denied for studios.” He wondered aloud if the neighbor would be upset by living next to an immigrant family. “Not that he’d have any right to complain” he said, “but you never know.”

This common narrative has caused a backlash amongst the youth of France. Considered “˜foreign’ by the majority of citizens, regardless of their passports, they turn back to their homelands for acceptance. Young men, who have never so much as visited Algiers, now proudly insist on being called Algerians. They sport the flags of their parent’s countries and shirk their French identity completely. These attitudes can be likened to dumping your boyfriend before he has a chance to dump you. Yet the reality for these youths is a tragic and dangerous one as they have never felt more disconnected from their own nation.

There are some moves currently underway to clean up some of the more desperate areas of the 93rd. Some sections of the Towers are being torn down and recreated in three story apartment buildings that feature new and revamped living spaces. This is, however, a bittersweet arrangement for many as crackdowns on non-documented workers are being ramped up for lease signings. Before, in the towers, it was easy to get a place regardless of your documentation status. But now the government is demanding valid papers as a prerequisite for renters. This means, of course, that undocumented workers must either forge paperwork to get into the new buildings, or lose any semblance of a home.

There are no easy solutions when it comes to the area. Still, practical ideas like better funding for language programs, safer streets, and decent community investment seems to be at a standstill. Rather, the main funds and the main projects will always belong to the tourist center of Paris. The Disneyland Zone, where refurbished, revamped, reappropriated areas are always cropping up. In the West of Paris the bourgeoisie will continue to complain about the destructive nature of immigration in France. They will wring their hands and wonder why, oh why, are these kids so unhappy. After all, they could be starving in Africa! Under despot Middle Eastern dictatorships! It is a common refrain that so poignantly misses the point that when one measures success by “not a dictatorship” oppression becomes inherent within the sentiment itself. Meanwhile in the 93rd, the sidewalks continue to crumble.

Image Credit – Nations Illustrated

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

2 replies on “The Hidden Cities of Paris”

Merci beaucoup, Olivia. You have a unique perspective and can give us a fresh–or maybe not so fresh–view of the city of lights.

My vision of Paris is like a Disney fairytale movie, images from old Hollywood movies, la nouvelle vague. I know it’s not real just shadows on the screen.

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