14

Saint Denis

SD intro 3

 

Apologies for the late post but I decided to take the advice of many on this blog and catch my breath. After one attempt at sight-seeing (Eiffel Tower) Coco and I retreated out of the rain and cold, and did nothing over Easter but eat macarons and sleep.

Ironically, having now missed a week, I feel far more relaxed about it – my first project ran over time so this one is bound to as well. As long as it doesn’t run over too long, I surrender to the inevitable.

So, to this week’s suburb – and a ‘real’ suburb at that. Having last explored the neighbourhood around Faubourg Saint Denis, I thought it would be interesting to follow up with another Saint Denis. Same saint, different address.

Very different in fact. Because Saint Denis is one of the much maligned Northern suburbs – banlieues – of Paris. Not quite riot territory (2005) but not far from it. I expected that people would warn me off it and they did. But others I asked were far more neutral – yes, there were problems there but no, I wasn’t likely to be knifed. Pickpocketed maybe but not knifed.

So, hide your jewels and on y va Saint Denis!

 

Part 1: The saintly side of Saint Denis

Despite its reputation, some tourists do in fact venture ‘all the way’ (10 km from the city centre) out to Saint Denis. Because in the midst of all the apparent horror lies the beautiful Basilica of Saint Denis. Gothic and old (10th century), it’s the burial site of 43 kings and 32 queens. You see a few adventurous souls hop off the metro and make a beeline directly to the church before scuttling back, warnings not to dally no doubt ringing in their ears.

The Basilica is lovely but what impressed me more was the general environment around it. From what I’d heard Saint Denis was dirty and pretty crap so I wasn’t expecting much. Instead I found a generous town square with a beautiful mairie (town hall) on one side, the Basilica on another and a handful of charming cafes facing both. On the days I visited that were sunny, older kids raced around the square, on foot or bike, while little ones whizzed around on an amusement ride. Twice I found markets nearby the square, general and flea, the latter complete with wonderful old books.

This was more South of France than scary suburb, and far from feeling uptight, I felt my shoulders drop. After weeks of intense Paris, here was space to breath.

 

outside kids play while inside kings and queens sleep quietly

outside kids play noisily while inside kings and queens sleep quietly

 

 

 

crowning glories

crowning glories

 

 

 

loved the stained glass light

love the stained glass light

 

 

 

old France

old France

 

 

 

Maxim, struggling with his numeration

Maxim, struggling with his numeration

 

 

 

My initial impression of Saint Denis as somewhere thoroughly pleasant was also helped by the fact that the first people I met were a delightfully rambunctious group of school kids on an outing to see the Basilica. Although they were from the Stalingrad area in Paris, their teachers told me they had similar backgrounds to kids in Saint Denis, and as a result were sometimes challenging but never boring.

 

United Nations of Paris

United Nations of Paris

 

 

 

Hossama

Hossama

 

 

 

energy

energy

 

 

 

Abdoulaye

Abdoulaye

 

 

 

Sokona

Sokona

 

 

 

didn't catch his name but delighful he is

didn't catch his name but delighful he is

 

 

 

au revoir, kids of Stalingrad

au revoir, kids of Stalingrad

 

 

 

Part 2: Beyond the Basilica

Leaving the town square, I braved the main street, rue de la République. I say braved because this of all the areas I explored was the one the locals told me to avoid. I’d stop somewhere and someone would say in hushed tones, you shouldn’t be carrying that camera around here, it’s dangerous. Or, ‘No, Saint Denis is fine – but don’t walk down the main street, it’s… dangerous.’

Aside from one incident when a bunch of police cars screamed up the road to man-handle some dude into a van while shouting to the crowd, ‘Regarde!’, by which I think they meant, ‘Let that be a lesson to you!’ but can’t be sure, nothing much happened. La vie ordinaire.

 

life on the 'dangeorus' street

life on the 'dangerous' street

 

 

On another visit, I headed west of rue de la République to find the public housing blocks you hear so much about. Just prior to doing that I popped my head in to see a local exhibition, ‘Cent ans de logement social‘, ‘100 years of public housing’. It was all in French but from what I could understand, things had improved but they were still far from rosy. The worst HLMs had been demolished and replaced with smaller, more humane apartment blocks, but many still remain. As do their problems.

HLMs – Habitation de Loyer Modéré (House at Moderate Rent) – were built to house a largely immigrant population, needed to work in the factories during France’s great industrial boom in the 1950s-70s. While the boom ended, the people stayed. The result? An unhappy trio of unemployment, crime and drugs. And a fondness for setting cars on fire. At least that’s what you read. I wanted to see for myself.

 

then and now - better but not best

then and now - how much had changed?

 

 

 

the worst were demolished but many remain

HLMs - the worst were demolished but many remain

 

 

 

rising heavenwards

in need of heavenly help

 

 

 

I was shocked by my visit to the HLMs, but not in the way you’d expect. They were remarkably unremarkable. Quiet, clean with just a smattering of graffiti here and there. And the two young residents I ran into, Chris and Stephen, were more than happy to be photographed and very sweet. I asked them, what was it like living here, did they like their home. “Oui, bien sur”, yes, of course, they replied.

 

Stephen and Chris :: 1

Stephen and Chris

 

 

 

their HLM

their HLM

 

 

 

Chris loves his HLM too

Chris loves his HLM too

 

 

 

I later learned that I’d merely chanced on a better group of public housing and that other areas really did have issues.

But then youth unemployment, crime and drugs are the same problems much of France faces. Hence the comment left at the exhibition – it’s not just the disadvantaged banlieues, “La France est en crise!” It will be interesting to see how this plays out at the presidential elections in two weeks time.

 

what will Sarkozy's response be - let them eat cake?

what will Sarkozy's response be - let them eat cake?

 

 

 

Part 3: Green and cultured

In spite of the social problems, Saint Denis has a lot going for it. Sure it has its HLMs but it’s also blessed with lovely centuries old buildings, as well as being green – and clean. And on top of that, Saint Denis has culture, by the bucket load. A thriving theatre scene, jazz festival (ends today), classical music concerts, a delightful art school – and if anyone reading this is in Paris and has nothing to do this weekend, une fete des tulipes, a festival of tulips. Suffice it to say, its Saison Culturelle booklet for spring and summer is a chunky number.

 

Saint Denis, surprisingly green

Saint Denis, surprisingly green

 

 

 

the Armenian gang, enjoying the peace and quiet

the Armenian gang, enjoying the peace and quiet

 

 

 

Abrehim's into theatre, the other fella, literature

Abrehim's into theatre, the other fella, literature

 

 

 

fun and games at the theatre cafe

fun and games at the theatre cafe

 

 

 

Banlieu Blues Festival, jazz en Seine-Saint-Denis

Banlieu Blues Festival, jazz en Seine-Saint-Denis

 

 

 

Donnell, bookish yet hip

Donnell, bookish yet hip

 

 

 

who needs the Eiffel Tower when you have so much culture in Saint Denis?

who needs the Eiffel Tower when you have so much culture in Saint Denis?

 

 

 

Part 3: The sweet life

It’s sweet tooth heaven in Saint Denis, from the 100 year old Boulangerie/Patissier, to the more recent ‘Oriental’ arrivals.

 

nothing and everything changes

nothing and everything changes

 

 

 

cherry blossoms and Easter bells

cherry blossoms and Easter bells

 

 

 

nice nests

nice nests

 

 

 

Delice de la Casbah

Delice de la Casbah

 

 

 

succulent Saint Denis

succulent Saint Denis

 

 

 

not easy with braces

not easy with braces

 

 

 

Faxsa with her Orientale wares

Faxsa with her Orientale wares

 

 

 

new and old France

new and old France

 

 

 

Part 4: The art of living in Saint Denis

On another visit, I took Coco with me and we stumbled on a beautiful old house that looked like it had been plucked out of the French countryside and plonked in Saint Denis. We stuck our heads in the door to see what or whom lived there to find Peggy, a lovely French woman with a very unFrench name.

The house turned out to be the ‘Ecole d’arts Plastiques‘, a school of visual art for children and teens, and Peggy, its director.

While she insists she doesn’t speak good English, it was more than sufficient to allow us to have an in-depth discussion about all manner of stuff, from the unjustified bad rap that Saint Denis gets to the positive role art can play in a child’s life.

What was also interesting to hear was that Peggy doesn’t consider she lives in Paris. She lives in Saint Denis, an altogether different place – despite the fact just 10 km separates the two. And she’s not alone; many teens who live here have never been to Paris. Ever.

 

 

you could be in the country - at the art school with Peggy

you could be in the country - at the art school with Peggy

 

 

 

new energy enlivening the old beauty

new energy enlivening the old beauty

 

 

It was Peggy who enlightened me about the fact that I’d only seen the better HLMs and that, yes, there were worse areas with real problems. Did I want to meet her when she was visiting another branch of the art school in one of those worse areas? Oui, bien sur!

And that’s how Coco and I ended up in the Franc-Moisin/Bel-Air quartier of Saint Denis. Looks can be deceiving but again, from the outside at least, it all seemed pretty benign. And it just so happened that when we visited the art school, three of the sweetest kids from the neighbourhood were happily moulding clay into pots before patiently lining up to have their photos taken. I had visions of what the place might be like before I arrived and I have to say, a perfect picture of domestic-creative-happy bliss was not one of them.

 

 

 

we arrived when the sun was shining

we arrived when the sun was shining

 

 

 

Maryam, Aisseta and Moukthar

Maryam, Aisseta and Moukthar

 

 

 

the joy you can create with a box of pencils

the joy you can create with a box of pencils

 

 

 

making pride from clay

making pride from clay

 

 

 

nature tamed vs wild

nature tamed vs wild

 

 

 

The kids were just delightful as were the two art teachers in there helping them with their work. But the fact is, they’re kids still, not yet at the more challenging teen age. Peggy mentioned the drug problem and the challenges of having such a different culture exist within the French one. Almost as a reminder that not everything is a walk in the park in Saint Denis, the sun had disappeared by the time we left, and in its place, a dark and threatening sky.

 

the darker side of Saint Denis

the darker side of Saint Denis

 

 

 

Still, as I said before, many of the problems at Saint Denis exist elsewhere throughout France. Aside from them, the suburb has so much that’s positive, things you’ll never hear about on the 7pm news.

 

but rain or shine, there's a lot to love about Saint Denis

rain or shine, there's a lot to love about Saint Denis

 

 

 

For one thing, they have Peggy, a beautiful soul who’s passionate about art, kids and the place she calls home. After thanking her for giving us a deeper insight into another side of Saint Denis, Coco and I hit the metro and headed back to Paris. A whole different place indeed.

 

back to the maddening crowds

back to the maddening crowds

 

 

The Wrap

Will Saint Denis ever make it onto the average tourist’s ‘Must See’ list? I doubt it when there is so much on offer in Paris proper. But then, as much as I’d like to see the place prosper, I wouldn’t want it to be. A whole load of tourists roaming rue de la République would ruin it for sure.

 

 

bon chance banlieues

prayers for Saint Denis

 

 

On the ‘home front’

I feel like I’ve walked more than I have in my entire life since I posted last. After turning many corners, I’ve turned my own corner – I like Paris! I don’t know, maybe it was the macarons from Laduree (disinterested until I popped one in ma bouche). Or the metro (you could spend a year doing that as a project in itself). Or the people – I get them now – they’re quirky in an entirely new and fascinating way. Or maybe just having some time to myself and then a break from the uber-urban in Saint Denis.

Whatever it was, I’m starting to understand what all the fuss is about. Paris, and its suburbs (well, the one I’ve visited anyway) are indeed tres bien. Or is that tres bon?

This suburb has been brought to you by Richard Hawson and Gerry Roubin

A favour to ask before I go. One of our cats, Jinx, has gone missing from our friend’s place in Maroubra. I haven’t told Coco yet as I know she’ll be devastated. I don’t usually go in for this sort of thing but I’m so sad about it, I’ll try anything: Could I ask you to just close your eyes and say to yourself, ‘Go home Jinx’. I know, kooky, but maybe, just maybe the power of positive thinking will drive the little guy home. Merci beaucoup.

See you next Friday.

 

Order my first book online

Buy the 52 Suburbs Book online

Find out more about the Sydney book here

Sponsors

Advertisers

EnglishItalianChinese (Traditional)GermanFrenchHindiTurkish
Site Meter