Monday, June 13, 2016

Drancy: this is not somewhere people choose to be.

Yesterday I went with a friend to Drancy, a Paris banlieue about half an hour from the Gare du Nord to the North-East. Drancy didn't seem to have that much going for it. In the rain, newer and older blocks of social housing, a copy-and-paste French mairie, a street market which seemed busy. We walked around and my friend, an expert in urban planning, told me about the different blocks, some pebble-dashed, some newer ones with bold curves and cheerful two-tone paint. At the end of a block in the main square was a billboard advertising new flats to come. Another, cheerless building reminiscent of lower-budget new build flats in East London was advertised with a drooping banner: 'Dernières Opportunités'. Between run-down businesses were small pavilons, modern and older detached cottages with small, floral gardens. 
Drancy Town Centre with statue of Charles de Gaulle

Drancy must be a lot like many other banlieues, but we had come here for a reason. Ten minutes walk from the main square, twenty minutes from the railway, stands the remains of the first high-rise social housing in Paris, La Cité de La Muette, designed by Eugène Beaudoin, Marcel Lods et Bodianski and built between 1934 and 1936. We weren't sure, but we guessed it had originally been built to serve railway workers, or perhaps there were factories near by. The old photo shows it as impressively large, although it is very difficult, with all the associations which large housing estates now hold for us, to imagine how it must have seemed rising out of the patchy industry and blistered countryside of the Paris outskirts in the 1930s. Most of the things we now believe about social housing on a large scale comes from post-war planning. We know at least that the development was very modern for its time, was inspired by American skyscrapers, represented at least 650 dwelling-places. Architectural reports talk of a cité-jardin concept and up-to-the-minute building techniques including steel skeletal structures inside the towers. 
La Cité de la Muette, Drancy, in its completed form

Between 20th August 1941 and August 1944, French Jews who were being sent to German concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz, were held inside the complex. After the infamous Vel' d'Hiv round-ups in 1942, 13,152 Parisian Jews including more than 4,000 children were brought here from the Winter Velodrome, and overall up to a hundred thousand French Jewish people were imprisoned in and sent through the housing estate. (I have seen several different figures but the monument at Drancy says 'près de 100,000 Juifs Hommes Femmes Enfants Veillards'). 285 people were shot at Drancy. 1,518 returned from the concentration camps to France at the end of the war. 
Foreground: monument to victims of the Drancy camp (1977). Background: the remaining building of La Muette development, still in use as a residential block.

Over the last week or so, wandering around more central parts of Paris, I've seen some of the plaques- on schools, in public squares, on town halls, on synagogues- which attest to the raids and round-ups of Jewish people during the Second World War. They often give a number of people from that area, or children from that school, and sometimes the date of the raid. It is interesting to note the date of the plaque. Many are from this millennium. Others date from the 1940s, the 70s, or the 90s. Why were they placed there at different times? What drove people (and which people?) to reassess the need for these very necessary monuments and plaques as time went on? What happened in 2012, when, I have noticed, many new plaques were put up? Was it a reaction to the well-documented resurgence of antisemitism in France? Was it time to reflect again on a war and on atrocities which will soon be lost from living memory? 

The second notable feature of these plaques is how their description of events has changed. The older ones do not acknowledge French involvement in the deportations. Newer ones have differing phraseology: I wish I had written them down now but I didn't. A plaque on a school near Chateau Rouge referred to the 'complicité' of French police, while the later plaque under the railway wagon at Drancy commemorates 'des crimes contre l'humanité sous autorité de fait dite "Gouvernement de l'État Francaise"'[my emphasis]. 
Railway wagon in front of the remaining buildings of La Muette

I have not yet found out why the building was under-occupied before this, or why it was chosen. We looked at a small piece of railway track which was part of the monument, and couldn't decide if there had been a railway line right up to the buildings, or if the piece of track had been put there afterwards. On it is one of the wagons we have seen in pictures of Auschwitz. In fact here, too, there are a series of different memorials of different dates, saying slightly different things. 

I'm piecing together what happened after the war. The buildings, which belonged to l'Office HLM, the French social housing body, remained empty for a while until sold by them to the French army in 1973, after which the estate was used as a military barracks. In 1976 it was decided that all the high-rise buildings should be destroyed, leaving only the low, horseshoe building in these photographs. That is when the curving monument shown above was put in place, designed by French-Israeli artist Shelomo Selinger. I believe the railway wagon was put (back) later: the plaque under it, I would guess, dates from the 90s or after. 

Now there is a small museum and centre across the road, opened in 2012. It is served by a shuttle bus which runs daily from the Mémorial de la Shoah museum in central Paris, but I would recommend going the way we did: on the RER from the Gare du Nord, through the town centre, across the market, in order to try to make sense of this strange place in its social context. The centre itself is a new, mirrored box of a building. Closed during our visit due to a Jewish holiday, it looks outwards not inwards, reflecting the reality of Drancy implacably back to the visitor. We stood outside trying to peer in- behind our own reflections stretched the busy main road, some quiet cafés, a tired, grey residential area with its incongruous railway wagon between a municipal building and a 1970s residential block. If the destruction of most of the Cité de la Muette left a space, it has long been filled by various mismatched blocks of flats from different eras. 

We looked at the two memorials, we walked around the horseshoe. People were coming and going. The demography seemed similar to what I expected in the banlieues but our walk was short, and quickly ended in lunch in a cheap Italian restaurant nearby. Clichés of the run-down, forgotten banlieues: washing hanging from windows, a basketball court, boys on the corner. Perhaps not the worst and again the symbolism of these images is something I have learnt form films and books describing poverty and alienation. We were fairly silent, trying to work the place out, but places do not always allow themselves to be worked out by a pair of scholars on a day trip. Gloria finally said: 'This is not somewhere where people choose to be.' 

Further reading (in French): 
There is also a documentary film:

No comments: