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France Trip Report: a Visit to a Seedy 'Banlieue'

France Trip Report: a Visit to a Seedy 'Banlieue'

May 2nd, 2007, 06:46 AM
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France Trip Report: a Visit to a Seedy 'Banlieue'

I had heard lots about the vast housing projects largely full of immigrants that are often in the suburbs or 'banlieue' (sp?) of large cities but had never actually been to one.

So in Orleans with family we ventured to the city's infamous Argonne district, on the very edge of the Orleannais conurbation. We went with the goal of finding a place for cous-cous - after all Argonne was full of North African immigrants so it had to have good cous-cous.
But i was more interested in what life was like there. During the riots in Paris a few years back Argonne erupted as well - car burnings, building burnings, etc. and had a very tought reputation in Orleans.

We went in the day and didn't expect to feel threatened at all and weren't. But the scene there was appalling - the usual high tenement type public housing with buildings marred by cracks, peeling paint, graffiti and a few with fire scars. Junk cars were sitting around amongst a fair amount of litter.

The area was depressing - just tall buildings and very little parks or playgrounds for kids. And nearly no stores - in fact there only place to eat we found was a pizzeria - there was no cous-cous in Argonne to be found.

The police station looked like a fort with barred windows and had graffiti scrawled all over it.

The tenements had broken windows and were a drab tan color.

I'm not going to comment on sociological/political causes of this ghetto-ization of immigrants in France except to say that sticking them all in places like this would seem to breed the crime and anti-social attitude that many ethnic French, epitomized by Sarkozy calling them scum, find so upsetting.

Orleans had some of these tenements right in town once by the train station and actually demolished them because of the feeling there were breeding grounds for crime, etc. and spaced the tenets in smaller buildings all over town. But i know that's a daunting problem to do in say the northern Paris suburbs, with so so many.

Anyway visiting a 'banlieue' tenement seems not dangerous and gave me an insight into living conditions in these drab places.
PalenQ is offline  
May 2nd, 2007, 01:21 PM
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I lived in Paris' banlieue rouge when I was a child, in one of those pre-W.W.II HBM (Habitation Bon March&eacute. The buildings were not as tall (5 stories) as post war buildings because no elevators existed, and they were interspersed with lower apartment buildings and duplexes. There was no central heating (although the system was in place), we had a coal burning pot-bellied stove in the living room, with the chimney pipe going out through a replaced window pane. The floors were concrete and ice-cold in the winter. We used heated bricks to warm the beds. But all this was better than the slum housing of Paris proper. This type of housing can still be seen in Chatenay-Malabry. I believe that the changes that occurred in the quality of this housing is not only due to the massive construction of tall buidlings, but also to socio-economic and cultural changes. A similar shift has occurred in public housing in the States. I remember that public housing in NYC was also for blue-collar workers, with the implication that government employees had priority--subway workers, firemen, etc. Then there was a shift in population with disastrous consequences. The difference is that the late 50s early 60s housing developments in the northern suburbs of Paris hardly survived a generation before becoming a disaster. I would not be surprised in the Orléans housing was built unconsciously but with all the proper verbal pieties as a form of warehousing, because the provincial cities had a later population pressure.
Michael is offline  
May 2nd, 2007, 10:12 PM
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Yes, but...

What you're descibring could just as easily be any of the British housing estates which, by historical accident, haven't had a non-indigenous ethhnic group become dominant. Most of the horrible estates round Liverpool and Glasgow are still heavily white, and for all the many problems they create (including much higher unemployment than average), mass rioting isn't among them.

Viewed just in terms of buildings and facilities, it could also just as easily be the similar estates put up round Milan and Turin in the 50s and 60s. I lived in one for a year or so in the mid-70s - and, while Kirkby or Easterhouse were even then grafitti-ridden, stinking, neo-slums, the Milanese estate was perfectly adequate, if not exactly inspiring.

There are all sorts of underlying complexities in all this. Britain's Hindu and Sikh immigrants haven't gravitated to places like this, but a huge proportion of Muslims have (for which my saloon-bar explanation is the different role women play: no Hindu wife would let the family live in places like that). Germany seems to have far fewer of its Muslim population in such places than Britain or France. Britain, France and Romania have let these estates turn into horrors: Italy and Hungary seem not to have done so.
flanneruk is offline  
May 2nd, 2007, 11:29 PM
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This is a complicated problem that exists -- gasp! -- even in the States.

I mention this only to add a little balance to the discussion, but all the HLM's in Paris are not in the banlieue, but are mixed into neighborhoods in the city. I was having a drink with a neighbor the other night at a café, and she pointed to a building that was an HLM. (I had never noticed anything, other than that it was quite a bit larger than the others surrounding it.) This is on rue Saint-Placide, between Cherche-Midi and the Bon Marché -- not exactly ghettoization. As far as I know, there have been no problems.

I have been to Saint-Denis a couple of times, and it is seedy, but I have never felt threatened.

This reminds me of something else, and maybe some Londoners can comment. I have lived in cities (i.e., Washington, Paris) that have large immigrant populations. It was only in London that I felt, on their part, a hostility that was almost palpable. One example, at the end of Portobello Road, I had to step into the street (to avoid being pushed) by three men (not kids, but at least 50-ish) hogging the sidewalk. This was not a market day, so it was not crowded. And from others, just these looks, as if they wished I would disappear. No major incident, but intereseting enough that I commented on it to a friend (also an immigrant). I'm really not paranoid, but this was pretty obvious. Is this unusual, or were they all just having a bad day?

Toupary is offline  
May 2nd, 2007, 11:56 PM
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I've never noticed any hostility from immigrants. Most immigrants (I mean people who've recently got off the plane or lorry) are too frightened of deportation anyway.

Some children and grandchildren of migrants have hostility, but I've certainly never noticed it in central London, though there are parts of the periphery I get iffy about. There's clearly a problem with a hyper-radicalised minority of young Muslims, but I've never encountered it in the flesh, and it's generally supposed to be so hostile they don't show it in public, but reserve it for bomb making.

Public manners in Britain are a lot worse than in the US or France, and aggressive, territorial, behaviour isn't desperately unusual anywhere, though it tends not to be too visible in areas tourists congregate. In very public areas, like city centres, it's commonest among white, Celtic or anglo-saxon, youths born in the British Isles.
flanneruk is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 12:21 AM
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I regularly visit Tower Hamlets where there is a large Muslim population.
I have never received even a dirty look, but I am female and elderly.
If I were a young or middle-aged male, it might be different.

On the occasions when somebody has given up their seat to me on the Tube, it has always been a young Afro-Caribbean man.
I always have the vision of a fierce Jamaican granny saying, "Show some respect, son. Give the old lady your seat!"
MissPrism is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 06:16 AM
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The situation in the States is much much more grave than anything i saw in Argonne, though Argonne arguably may be better than the much more vast complexes in northern Paris burbs.

But i've been to Detroit and Chicago's worst areas and Argonne seems like a country club compared to them. It's our national shame and few people outside the area seem to care at all about the quais third-world conditions there. (Infact mortality rates in say parts of Detroit rival some of those in the third world.)

But back to France. Toupary pardon me if i refer to my son again but he says he and his friends were bullyied several times with demands for money at night on Orleans streets and it's not uncommon - he actually feels safer here than there he says (he does live in a posh university town however and not Detroit) - so part of the animus of French towards immigrant types could stem from these negative incidents - and again it's a few that ruin the reputation of the whole and most immigrant types are no doubt hard-working folk doing jobs ethnic French would be aloof to do.

As for the Paris suburbs - i did have a similar incident there on a train platform when i was changing trains to get to Auvers-sur-Oise - i had a pain aux chocolate and was munching it and an immigrant type came up and asked if he could have some of it - i said 'non' and he gave me a very menacing look so i gave the whole thing to him. Left me with a bad taste (or no taste!) in my mouth and made me want to get out of the area.

I'm not anti-immigrant and feel for them and this type of problem seems to be intractable.
PalenQ is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 06:31 AM
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PalenQ, I can't disagree with anything you've said. It seems these problems exist around the world.

Toupary is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 06:35 AM
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Last summer I went with some Swiss friends interested in architecture to 2 suburban locations around Paris. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday. There was some very interesting public housing built in the mid 1970's. First we went to see the "cloud towers" in Nanterre. These look great from La Défense.

When you reach the foot of the buildings, they are all cracked with the tile coming off, lots of junk lying around. Yet, at the same time, it seemed like a real neighborhood to which the residents were attached. Music came out of the windows and children played in the crummy playgrounds. We did encounter some hostile hooded teenagers who especially didn't like seeing people taking pictures. "No undercover police!"

This would have sent me packing immediately, but my Swiss friends, from Zürich and Bern, being naive (?) spoke to them in a friendly matter and joked with them, explaining that they were interested in the architecture and that it seemed like a very interesting place. The atmosphere cleared up instantly and we had absolutely no problem. This made me wonder about my own reaction: when you are expecting trouble, do you actually provoke it with your fear? It seems quite possible.

Then we went to see the Ricardo Bofill building in Noisy-le-Grand (where Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" was filmed) and also the round "button buildings" almost exclusively populated by Malians now. We encountered no hostility whatsoever, but these buildings are a tiny step above social housing and already populated by people who know they are moving up in society. It seems to make a big difference on how they treat their surroundings.

kerouac is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 06:42 AM
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In my town, the immigrant youth is a problem. Not downtown but mostly in the suburbs. If a violent crime is committed or a car is stolen, it (in the vast majority) is a non native person. There must be some feeling of alianation among immigrants, however in most cases their physical living conditions aren't that bad at all. If locals can lead a decent life without much money, not getting themselves into trouble, why can't they? Well, I'm not willing to accept critizism from immigrants about their living conditions. Some seem to expect heaven before they arrive, yet after a while they realize they are still poor (and uneducated) people in a mostly wealthy society.
logos999 is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 07:12 AM
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Part of it is the authorities' willingness to deal with the problem. I recall riding in the early 80s on the elevated in the Bronx where the buildings looked bombed out. They now have been rehab'ed. I believe that Koch started the housing rehabilitation programs. But I have the impression that NYC was always more progressive in that regard than Chicago or St. Louis--hometown prejudice, I guess.
Michael is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 07:42 AM
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"however in most cases their physical living conditions aren't that bad at all.."

If YOU lived there would you still feel the same way, Logos999?

Nothing is quite as bad as "not so bad." This is reminiscent of an American "public figure" who made the comment about the people living in a shelter post Katrina that their conditions were probably as good as anything.
Dukey is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 08:49 AM
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Public figure being Barbara Bush who said the refugees in Houston Astrodome shouldn't be so sad because they were in better conditions than previously before their homes were destroyed.

Callous! (But i'm not relating this to Logos999 at all - not quite the same equation i think as in most likely their German digs are far superior to those they immigrated from.)
PalenQ is offline  
May 3rd, 2007, 09:10 AM
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>If YOU lived there would you still feel the same way, Logos999?
Yes, I doubt, you'll find any quaters in this town whith really poor living conditions. Crime here is not a problem of extreme poverty. I could live in any area of the city or the suburbs. I would not WANT to live in Neuperlach or Hasenbergl, but there are worse things. Even a 10m2 flat is acceptable. The majority in my quater are immigrants.
logos999 is offline  
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