New high-rise buildings in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, France. Credit: Nicolas Oran.Rows of low-rise buildings and litter have disappeared from the field of view of residents living in the neighborhoods of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil. At the end of an ambitious urban renewal project begun ten years ago, this neighborhood located in the Seine-Saint-Denis department just outside of Paris is barely recognizable.

“They had to change something, they could not abandon us,” says Sandrine Dejesus in her new 96m2 duplex home. In 2005, the most serious riots in the history of France’s suburbs erupted beneath her windows. Now, she can walk down the quiet streets with their new buildings, with her three year old boy in her arms.

The End of the Ghetto

“When we see Marseille’s nearby projects… Here I live like a queen,” exclaims the mother of three who has glued silver butterflies on the wall, illuminated by large bay windows. From the window you can see an imposing, sinister block of concrete: one of the few buildings to not have been demolished. Laadj Talaa, a former resident of les Bosquets, a deteriorating and partially demolished condominium building, has left the dilapidated building for a neat, new building enclosed by a fence. “It’s no longer the ghetto,” says the 54-year old cafeteria worker. “It is more like a private home than a housing project. When I wake up in the morning I have a nice view, it’s beautiful, it’s clean.” Around tea with former neighbors, she only admits to feeling a touch of nostalgia for the “family life” she shared with them for 20 years.

1,4000 Homes Destroyed

“It was really the bottom of the bottom, there was a meter of waste around the feet of the towers” remembers Serge Dubreuil, director of urban renewal for the housing association Opievoy. The neighborhood, located 17km from Paris, is now entrusted to the care of the architect Vincent Cornu, who wants to offer to residents “things that Parisians are not necessarily always able to have,” like small buildings with apartments that are “double-oriented, with many orientations, and have patios and balconies.”

670 million euros later there have been 1,400 demolished units, 2,762 renovated, and 1,209 new ones. The apartments of the deteriorated and bankrupt condominium buildings were bought up one by one, then destroyed or transformed into social housing. For Olivier Klein, Clichy-sous-Bois’ Socialist Party mayor, the project went beyond housing: “We created a city, public facilities, streets, and squares,” in zones at risk of feeling abandoned.

Larger Debts and Bills

Yet, despite the opening of a police station, which is the first sign of the State’s return to the area, and then a public employment agency in February, the urban renewal has not erased all difficulties. The rehousing intended to “balance financial difficulties” of individuals impoverished by excessive charges, notes the sociologist Sylvaine Le Garrec who works for the association of co-ownership managers, but some are “ending up with problems again.”

Their apartments were “bought at low-cost” by the state at 20,000 to 30,000 euro for 60m2. That is not enough to balance their debts. For others, their families have grown, and the renewal has translated into a larger and more expensive apartment. Others were surprised by the individual water meters, which increase expenses.Outside of the Bosquets condominium complex in Montfermeil, France. Credit: Nicolas Oran.

Social Diversity

The new neighborhood is also struggling to attract new inhabitants in order to promote social diversity. “For the new buildings, we aimed for 60% of the housing to be public, especially to rehouse the neighborhood residents,” and the remaining 40% would be other housing. This objective “has not yet been reached and it will still take several years to be realized,” states Thierry Asselin, managing director at the National Agency for Urban Renewal (ANRU). “Some people have kept their bad habits and throw their trash out the window,” laments the custodian Idriss Djocu, even though he judges that there is less antisocial behavior and above all “a different atmosphere than in ghettos.”

To avoid falling back into their previous state, the housing associations are doing their best to explain regulations to residents. A portion of the budget for renewal – too small according to some – is going to go to social care. A part of these funds will expire at the end of 2014.

Waiting for the Area to Open Up

“We took care of the urban, not the human,” reports Clichy’s deputy mayor Mehdi Bigaderne who also belongs to the ACLEFEU. “We placed the same populations with the same problems into these buildings.” For the researcher Renaud Epstein, Clichy-Montfermeil is a good example of “the failure of urban renewal in terms of social diversity.” “Some small, cute houses and small buildings in place of ugly towers,” is not enough to “make other populations come.”

The majority of those involved are waiting for the arrival of the tramway in 2018, a project postponed several times, in order to open up the neighborhood to the outside. By 2023, it will also benefit from a future Grand Paris metro station. But no one can predict if this will be enough to change the image of this suburb.

Aside from greater infrastructural integration, what can be done to make an area like Clichy-sous-Bois more attractive to potential residents without alienating current inhabitants?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.