Sunday 18 October 2009

Signs of the Suburbs

One of the biggest differences between France and the UK or US is the role of the suburbs. In Britain or the States, the inner city has traditionally been synonymous with low incomes and crime, whereas the opposite is true in France. The city centre is the domain of the rich, and it is the 'banlieue' or suburb which has the negative connotations.

Parisians rarely venture out into the suburbs. Many though are obliged to quit the city on a daily basis to go to their place of work, but even on these occasions they are whisked in and out by car or train, and spend as little time as possible in this neighbouring environment.

I am one of these people, taking a train each day away from Paris. My morning commute takes me beyond the city limits, over the peripherique and across the Seine, out into another world. As I leave Paris, the heights of the buildings drop, and I can begin to see a broad skyline, punctuated with the straight lines of the overhead power cables.

Entering the world of the suburbs does not mean fear for me, but often a kind of ennui. With a few rare exceptions, the suburbs of Paris are not attractive places. They are scruffy, the result of inexistant urban planning. Fast roads send cars thundering through what were their historic hearts and viaducts carry streams of trains through industrial estates or over back gardens. And yet there is something endlessly fascinating about these places if you scratch through this opaque vision.

It is the raggedness that gives these places their charm. Paris with its strict planning rules and its facade of wealth makes for a very homogeneous picture which in itself can become dull. The suburbs, with their tower blocks neighbouring quaint houses and Parisian style Haussmannian buildings makes for a much more disorderly spectacle. As you walk through the suburbs, you literally never know what will be around the corner.

Often it is the car that has dictated how these towns have developed, and as a result they are not particularly pedestrian friendly. Nevertheless, taking a walk here gives many rewards to the curious. Even the street signs are different here. Collapsing against a wall, a crumbling relic in solid stone and cracked enamel from several decades ago.

Pasted around the town, an affiche for an upcoming event. In Paris, this poster would have been laughed out of town for being so uncool, but here it is a celebration of a local community. Those that will attend this event care little for the snobbery of their more illustrious neighbours, and simply want to meet friends, eat some traditional foods and dance to the music they grew up with and have always known.

It's a sign of the suburbs. Defiant, unfashionable, proud, untidy and authentic.


Nathalie H.D. said...

Adam, that final poster is an amazing find. I had no idea posters like these were still produced today. And not even in the Creuse or some distant region!

On another subject I was raised in the banlieue (admittedly a rather nice one, St Cloud) and I have rather desperate images of taking the train to Saint Lazare as a teenager and looking at the suburbs through the window. I wouldn't want to live there again.

Anonymous said...

In Chicago they built large, tower blocks of housing for the poor in the heart of the city.
Today, most of them are gone, demolished to make way for "mixed-income" housing. For some, code words for the more affluent.
But, suburban living remains the American dream. Which in return makes our cities much more culturally and economically diverse - and frankly, far more interesting places to live.

Cergie said...

Alors là, je tombe des nues ! Je croyais que tu habitais Paris intra-muros !
Nous avons habité en proche banlieue, et puis nous sommes "exilés" parce qu'on nous a proposé un pavillon en location avec jardin en ville nouvelle, desservie par le train de banlieue départ de St Lazare, mon mari a eu du mal à se décider puis n'a pas regretté de pouvoir prendre un train avec des horaires, des toilettes, et d'arriver dans un endroit tout à fait "humain"
Ensuite nous avons acheté encore plus loin, en limite du Vexin Français et le RER a finui par arriver à nous. Nous avons des marchés tous les jours de la semaine si nous voulons, et des producteurs et une qualité de vie certaine. Il y a banlieue et banlieue comme il y a capitale et capitale. Que de gens pour être à Paris habitent dans 7m2 sous les toits avec WC sur le pallier, pas d'ascenceur ni de douche ?

Adam said...

Cergie: si, j'habite Paris, mais je travail maintenant en banlieue. C'est un changement pour moi, mais je commence à m'habituer. En fait, j'ai grandi dans un banlieue en Angleterre, mais comme j'ai dit, là-bas c'est plus des maisons et les classes moyennes (pas tout à fait mon cas) et...l'ennui! Je dénigre pas les banlieues, je dis juste que c'est pas de tout le même chose que d'être à Paris. Tu as bien raison de dire que c'est illogique d'habiter dans un 7m² en ville plutôt que dans un bon apartement en banlieue, mais les gens sont illogiques. Personellement j'ai pu choisir, et j'ai choisi d'habiter dans Paris

Starman said...

I didn't spend much time in the suburbs. I prefer the inner city, no matter which one. In Europe that is, because your opening remarks are right on the money.

Ken Mac said...

what a great post. This really tells me so much about Paris and its environs. And you tell it so warmly. It used be like that in the US, back in the 50s living in the city center was all the rage and you still find grand houses close to downtown. But urban flight created suburbs that are now devoid of any character, just shopping malls. thanks.

PeterParis said...

You are so right! Immediately when you have crossed the periferique, you will se some striking differences! Now, there are of course some quite nice suburbs also... But, as you, living in "Paris", I prefer to live really in Paris... as long as you have the choice!

Ariane said...

Très bien vu... c'est en banlieue qu'on retrouve cette délicieuse ringardise très années 50... un jour je t'inviterai à un salon d'art en banlieue (je ne dis pas où, on se connait tous ici et je crains pour mes jardinières de pelargonium...). Tous les matins, avec le RER, je voyage dans le temps...

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