Friday 24 June 2016

Grand Train, a good idea on the wrong track

Running throughout the summer until October, Grand Train is a large-scale installation is a disused SNCF facility in the north of Paris. If the scale of the site and the activities on offer are impressive, the diversity of the visitors is a little less wide.

Open for 12 hours a day from Wednesday to Sunday, Grand Train mixes outdoor zones on disused rail tracks, fast food and a kind of impromptu railway museum. In a city lacking space it offers a generous pocket of air, even if the weather has not been particularly kind since it opened at the end of April.

Hopefully this will change shortly, although a trip on the Grand Train would certainly be less pleasant at full capacity. Certainly this is the view of some of the neighbours overlooking the site, mostly from looming grey blocks of social housing. Known as Ground Control last year, the installation was initially bombarded with complaints and petitions from people exasperated by the loud music and the cacophony on thousands of party goers beneath their windows.  

Grand Train seems a little calmer this year, more zen than zoo, but the uneasy relationship with the neighbours remains, partly - one imagines - because this a party to which they don't seem to have been invited.

Entrance is theoretically free to everyone, but few of the people inside look as if they have come as neighbours. "What's in there?" asks a group of teenagers outside, put off exploring by the beefy security guards and possibly a sentiment that they are not the target market. Which is a shame, as this could have been a great opportunity for inclusion.

Which children don't like trains, and who wouldn't want to relax in a (Carlsberg sponsored) deck chair? Both things can be found inside, as well as a chicken coop and a miniature railway. Beyond this though, there is the same Parisian creep as other BoBo zones (I really don't like that word, but it just seems so unavoidable here), with upmarket hot-dogs and gluten-free products rather than an African food stand or a Moroccan tea room.

Perhaps I am being a little harsh. The site is fascinating and an ideal location for such an installation, but seeing as the French national rail service, the SNCF, is so widely involved, more could have been expected. Instead they have handed over the running of the site to a thoroughly professional team, but one which has simply imported the Marais or the Canal Saint Martin into one of the city's few remaining run-down areas.

Excluding such criticisms, I would strongly recommend people visit. Most interesting of all are the traces of the site's previous life which are still extremely visible. This doesn't just concern the architecture, but also the staff lockers, an eye wash and other strange machines. In many ways its an ephemeral museum, but one that will sadly be short-lived.

The entire site is scheduled for demolition, with a proposal for hundreds more flats bringing yet more Parisian density. The organisers of Grand Train claim that they have shown that an alternative future is possible for the site, but do local residents want or need yoga sessions, organic markets and gluten-free cakes? The counter claim is that such use would bring a weathier population and greater social mix to the area, but on whose terms?

Local residents it seems would prefer to just have a new park, although why this facility could not be transformed at least in part into the transport museum that Paris has always lacked is not clear to me.

After October, I'm not sure where this particular train is going, but a sunny destination might be found if everyone travels in the same carriage.

1 comment:

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