PARIS — It’s that time of year again, the summer lull when my neighborhood bakery shuts down for all of August, when it’s so easy to find a spot on a café terrace it seems something must not be right. It’s my favorite month here, a reprieve from the frenetic pace that keeps Paris moving the rest of the year. People seem happier, more relaxed.
When the city clears out, some things come to light. In the past few months, several studies have exposed the widening inequalities that have transformed the French capital. Even in northeast Paris, long a hub for the working class and immigrant communities, rents have skyrocketed, pushing people out. The Ile-de-France department, which includes both Paris and its surrounding suburbs—some of which are extremely impoverished—is by far the most polarized in France. Property prices have tripled in the past two decades; much of Paris sells for at least 11,000 euros a square meter, forcing many residents, especially young professionals, into traditionally working-class districts, where prices are now on the rise as well. In the 19th arrondissement, one of the city’s lowest-income areas, property prices jumped 14 percent in just a year. That doesn’t mean the salaries of longtime residents have increased, experts say; it means new populations have arrived.
In a month, I’ll leave Paris and move back to New York, to Sunset Park in south Brooklyn. Parisians love Brooklyn—“Williamsburg is so cool,” they often say—but nobody’s ever heard of my future neighborhood. To be honest, I’ve hardly spent any time in Sunset Park myself. It’s a part of Brooklyn that hasn’t quite gentrified yet, but I know my sheer presence means it’s starting to.
I’ve been thinking about gentrification a lot these days. When I first moved to Paris in 2009, I—like so many other Americans—was taken by what I saw as the city’s “authentic” charm. Something about the place felt timeless and special; American cities are constantly in flux, but Paris is Paris, I thought. It has a soul. I was enamored by the comforting consistency of its cafés, the waiters’ universal aloofness, the fact that an espresso tasted the same everywhere—pretty bad, but reliably bad, at least—that all the bakeries sold the same pastries.
When I came back for grad school in 2012, my glorified vision of an immutable Paris slipped off its pedestal. Recently, I’ve been looking through some writing I did at the time, trying to tap into the starry-eyed worldview I still had in my early 20s. I was apparently horrified by a New York Times article about the arrival of food trucks on the Canal Saint-Martin, not far from where I currently live. This line made me particularly upset: “It could have been Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles, but the truck was parked at the north end of the Canal St.-Martin on the Right Bank.” “NOOOOO!!!!” my 23-year-old self wrote. “I’m moving across the WORLD to hang out in a neighborhood that now camouflages with the ZERO-POINT OF AMERICAN HIPSTER CULTURE! Damn you, globalization!” Some friends had sent the article my way to see what I thought about it. “DESPAIR. FEAR,” I recalled telling them, refusing to relinquish the all-caps.
I railed against new coffee shops that looked like Brooklyn or San Francisco and betrayed my idea of Paris. I lamented the “proliferation of carrot cake, muffins and bagels,” as I called it, and declared that I would never eat any of those things on French soil. I still won’t—one can only consume so many carbs in a given day, and choices must be made—but I guess I’ve become a bit less dogmatic in my insistence that the city can’t change. It turns out that I do enjoy good coffee and occasional customer service; that I like being able to camp out with my laptop without the leering gaze of a grumpy, chain-smoking waiter.Street art reads, “It’s us, the Ménilmontant guys,” on Rue de Ménilmontant
From my place of privilege, I was upset that these new places—the visible symbols of gentrification—clashed with my contrived nostalgia. But they can’t be divorced from the capital’s very real alienation of the working class, or from its transformation into mainly an enclave for the wealthy.
Around 5 o’clock on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, I leave my apartment and head up Rue Oberkampf. I’ve only ever known the street as a fun place to go out, but it didn’t used to be that way. People who have been in the neighborhood for decades cite it as a prime example of the city’s gentrification since the late 1980s, which has accelerated in recent years. And although the Paris mayor has been active in building social housing to compensate for rising rent costs, some neighborhoods have benefited from public intervention more than others. In the 1980s, the city demolished much of its remaining insalubrious housing stock, a good portion of which it reclaimed and turned into low-income housing units. But Oberkampf is an area where more room was left for the private sector, and now few would call it working-class.
It doesn’t look like a wealthy neighborhood, either. There aren’t designer boutiques, and some of the buildings still look a bit run down. That’s why it’s so appealing for a certain demographic—young, mostly white, progressive, interested in living in a “multicultural” environment. Everyone knows whom I’m referring to: the milieu, of what I’m probably (definitely) a part, referred to as hipsters, or here, bobos—bourgeois-bohemians. It’s the population that Christophe Guilluy, a controversial geographer whose work on “peripheral France” came into the spotlight when the Yellow Vest protests broke out last year, calls the “cool bourgeoisie.” It sees itself as righteous and open-minded—economically, it’s part of the middle or upper middle classes, but it’s hostile to the accouterments of the bourgeoisie, which it considers arrogant and out-of-touch. Instead, it seeks out “diverse” neighborhoods, although the extent to which it actually interacts with other classes and ethnicities is another story. It’s more about the decorum than anything else.
From my place of privilege, I was upset that these new places—the visible symbols of gentrification—clashed with my contrived nostalgia. But they can’t be divorced from Paris’s very real alienation of the working class, or from its transformation into mainly an enclave for the wealthy.
I’d met Guilluy earlier that day for a coffee near Place de la Nation, where the 11th arrondissement hits the 20th. He’s in his 50s, with a shaved head and a five o’clock shadow, and the gravelly voice of a longtime smoker. “What’s happening is very explosive,” he told me. Increasingly, socio-economic divisions have emerged along ethnic lines. “The American metropolitan model has come to France, and it’s brought a paradox: That inequality is good for business. For a French person, that’s very difficult to understand.” Indeed, the idea that capital markets could disrupt the national myth of Republican equality and its prized welfare state must be tough to swallow. It’s not easy to accept—as a nation or an individual—that the story you’ve forever told yourself isn’t true. But it’s impossible to ignore.
Rue Oberkampf jets eastward and turns into Rue Ménilmontant, a precipitous mountain of a street. It gets less polished as you go, and observably less white, as cocktail bars and shiny burger shops give way to halal butchers and Tunisian sandwich stands. As you climb farther, you’ll hit Rue des Pyrénées; turn around for an unexpected view of the Eiffel Tower, keep going and you’ll leave Paris altogether.
On this day, I walk all the way up. Paris gets smaller when you head toward its eastern edges, less bustling, more like a sleepy village, especially in August. I cross over the Boulevard Péripherique, the highway that circumscribes the city, and walk into the suburb of Les Lilas, all trees and cobblestones and quiet. I loop back around, past an old woman reading by the window of her ground-floor apartment, and then back into the city, heading west. I keep to the northern edge, leaving the 20th arrondissement for the 19th, through Parc de la Villette, where on summer evenings young parents watch their kids spin on carousels and teenage couples find hidden corners to kiss. It was completed in 1987, and its modernist architecture seems out of place in Paris—it’s a vast expanse of playgrounds, museums, theaters, chrome structures with bright red accents. The Canal de l’Ourcq, where a slew of bars and restaurants have emerged over the past decade, cuts through its center.A building slated for demolition in the 20th arrondissement. Although Paris has been active in reclaiming insalubrious housing stock for public housing, a good chunk of it goes to the private sector, paving the way for gentrification
I leave Parc de la Villette and find myself on Avenue Corentin Cariou. Here the buildings look more like Paris, gray and grand, with those picturesque balconies and their railings of patterned steel. I pass a series of kosher restaurants and supermarkets before making a left on Rue Curial, which takes me straight to the Rosa Parks projects, a clump of high-rises, identical and towering. I see a few makeshift tent camps for migrants or maybe homeless, but the city’s been more active in dispersing them in the recent months.
The light’s starting to change—I’ve been walking for two hours, and it’s after seven—and the area thins out and becomes less descript, the way outskirts do, and then I’m in the 18th arrondissement, by Porte de la Chapelle. It’s unequivocally the city’s grimiest stretch. The garbage cans overflow, and it’s not unusual to accidentally step on a discarded needle or pipe. The area’s lined with fast-food chains and run-down high-rises, and brushes shoulders with La Colline—The Hill—the area The New York Times recently called “France’s largest open-air market for crack” in a stark dispatch.
Porte de la Chapelle is an example of what Guilluy was talking about—a troubling sign of how rising inequality has relegated the capital’s most vulnerable to its rough margins. It’s just half an hour by metro from the moneyed city center, where the average apartment sells for 17,000 euros a square meter. The contrast is striking, but it’s not surprising. Today’s cities are inherently unequal; they need to be to survive. “Bobos need nannies to watch their kids while they work,” Guilluy told me. “The dishes at this restaurant cost 15 euros instead of 50 because there’s an underpaid immigrant working in the kitchen. It’s horribly unjust, but it’s perfectly coherent.” It’s a simple question of supply and demand.
I hop on the metro at Porte de la Chapelle and head back to Belleville, where I grab a seat on the terrace of a café I often go to. It’s a nice spot on the main boulevard, next door to a hip pizza restaurant where “Fuck off, gentrifiers!” was recently graffitied on the side. The thing is, I like this bar: It has great happy hour and a decent selection of beers, but I like it best for the people-watching: the steady flow of this side of Paris, a hodgepodge of immigrants and starving-artist types and bobos, of course. Yes, there’s also the self-loathing: Here I am, hanging out in a “diverse neighborhood,” sitting on the gentrified side of the street, enjoying my craft beer and the view across the boulevard, a dusty old theater and a long line of North African bakeries and sandwich shops. My 22-year-old self would be horrified.A March 2018 protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s labor reforms, widely criticized as disproportionately benefiting the wealthy
Upon returning to Paris back in 2012, what I found most disappointing about the brunch and carrot cake—on the rise then and still very much à la mode now—is how they made Paris resemble any other city. That might seem like some frivolous search for authenticity, a cloying nostalgia for a world I never knew, but there’s more to it. It’s what Guilluy calls an “intellectual enclosure.”
When cities gentrify, he told me, “they homogenize, socially, culturally and intellectually.” It prevents us from thinking, he argues, from understanding people who don’t resemble us. It’s why when I tell people I’m American—from the Bay Area, and in Paris by way of Brooklyn—they say, “So you probably don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump,” and they’re right, I don’t. It’s why, as Guilluy said, “the French intelligentsia was horrified by the Yellow Vests, why the London intelligentsia was horrified by Brexit. As if, all of a sudden, people realized, ‘the working class exists!’”
I’m not sure what to do with all of this information other than acknowledge my own fatalism and hypocrisy and contradictions, and recognize that my attempts at self-awareness don’t mean much. When I talk to friends about it, there’s no clear answer, either. Paris is a “global city” like New York or Los Angeles, people say. Can’t cities change? Yes, of course they can, it’s inevitable. The question, then, is how, and on whose terms.