Another Paris: Imagining Barbès
I. Different Imaginations
My neighborhood does not exist in space so much as it exists in imagination. Every resident and visitor has their own vision of this neighborhood whose heart is the Barbès-Rochechouart intersection. Some see Barbès as a place of community and normalcy. They might also call it home. Others see it as a neighborhood of multiple enclaves, and multiple social codes. For others still, Barbès is a place of fear and danger, a neighborhood to avoid if at all possible. Each imagined vision of the neighborhood seems to contradict the next.
“I never get off the Metro there,” a coworker tells me. “It’s not safe.” To her, Barbès is a place of intimidation and anxiety, a place where she feels outnumbered and out-of-place. “There are so many men at that station. And you can see that it’s just men in the neighborhood even from the Metro. There are never any women.” But my coworker, like others I have talked to, has never been to Barbès. Once, she had taken stock of the neighborhood from the window of the Metro, or had taken to heart advice from peers or parents. “Don’t go there,” they told her. And she never has.
Rumor governs the city. Perception of place, the ‘type’ of people that places contain, and the economies within all shape different imaginations of this and other neighborhoods. Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a coworker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”
In spatial terms, the Barbès-Rochechouart neighborhood encircles the Metro station of the same name that touches the 9th, 10th, and 18th Arrondissements of Paris. The Metro station and two major streets are named after Armand Barbès (1809-1870), a revolutionary, and Maguerite de Rochechouart (1665-1727), the 43rd abbess of Montmarte. Several boulevards intersect under Line 2, which is elevated at the Barbès stop. Arching over the neighborhood, Line 2 provides shelter from the rain for a long strip of vegetable stalls forming the Wednesday and Saturday markets. During the rest of the week, Tati is the neighborhood’s social hub. Spanning nearly two blocks, Tati is a major discount department store with neon pink signs. The streets are lined with Halal butchers, phone shops, and African hair salons. Men roast husks of corn on mobile charcoal grills on the sidewalk. Baklawa sits next to pain du chocolat at the patisserie. The neighborhood is alive.
But to outsiders, this vibrancy instills fear and apprehension. In imagined urban space, ‘immigrant area’ is re-conceived of as ‘poor area.’ Informal economy becomes illegal economy, ethnic shops become foreign shops, and street salesmen become drug dealers. Disorder becomes danger. One coworker considers Barbès as one of many neighborhoods she avoids visiting. “You can draw a map of Paris and split it in quadrants,” she says. “And the entire upper-right quadrant is a ‘no-go.’” This imagined quadrant includes Barbès and the other major West and North African immigrant districts within Paris: Chateau Rouge and the Goutte d’Or, the neighborhoods around Gare du Nord, and Belleville, a bit further south. Speaking about these and other neighborhoods, my coworker remarks that “there are some places you just never get off the train at.”
“They think of my neighborhood as a neighborhood for blacks and Arabs, and they’re scared.” This is what a friend who has lived in Barbès her whole life tells me. In her eyes, urban renewal projects and media treatments alike have contributed to negative reputation of Barbés by portraying the neighborhood as a crime-infested ‘ghetto.’ But this is not the same Barbès that I and my friend see on a daily basis. We see some of the same things like prayers in the street on Friday, informal markets, lots of men outside the Metro station, but little very little that seems dangerous. My friend was never told in her youth to avoid certain areas of Barbès and she wasn’t told that the neighborhood was dangerous. “I was told not to run in the street and ‘don’t talk to strangers,’ but that was all,” she tells me.
Unaccustomed to ethnic stores, outsiders often feel uncomfortable by the multitude of African hair salons and halal butcheries in Barbès. But if the neighborhood’s economy is insular, it’s due to larger social forces. Shops outside of Barbès “don’t have products for black and Arab people,” my friend says. Although it is changing slowly, you can’t go into just any Monoprix and buy halal beef. The same is true for other products. Since skin bleaching creams are generally illegal in France, individuals have to buy the creams informally or they need to know who to ask at which stores, which are almost always in immigrant neighborhoods like Barbès.
How does my friend feel when I tell her that outsiders are scared of her neighborhood? She’s not surprised. It’s not new information. “I used to be ashamed I came from Barbès,” she tells me. Just like anyone else, she did not want people to think less of her because she was from “the ‘ghetto’ of Paris.” The news shows and articles misrepresenting Barbès as crime-ridden and dangerous used to be deeply frustrating, but she’s grown not to care what the outside world thinks. To a degree, she’s proven herself. Whether at university or in work, her successes have begun to overcome the stigma of coming from Barbès. “I’m the good black to them,” she says. She’s made it.
IV. Outsiders inside
“Don’t go there,” my landlord says. “If you have to, watch your bag and wallet.” I have just moved to the neighborhood and he’s telling me where to go for groceries and where not to. I have to be careful, he says, and I shouldn’t go to the market behind the Barbès Metro stop. “It’s not safe,” he says. Where should I go instead? “Dia, Franprix, anywhere — just not there.” Having only just moved to the neighborhood, this was difficult to understand. The two grocery stores he mentioned–Dia and Franprix–are both only a three minute walk from the Barbès market. And, in my mind, if something is dangerous there, it must be dangerous by the Dia and the Franprix, too. “No, it’s different,” he says.
He means that there is division between ‘that’ neighborhood and ‘our’ neighborhood. And when this invisible line in the urban imagination is crossed, we leave safety and enter a danger zone. This third vision of Barbès began to make more sense to me as I looked more closely at the urban landscape around me. I discovered on my way home from work that somewhere along the three minute walk between the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro and my apartment, the people-scape morphs from African and Maghrebi to almost entirely white. Only a few remnants of the ‘immigrant neighborhood’ my friends and coworkers describe remain in the surrounding blocks. Gone are the Tunisian public baths, the wig shops, and corn husk grills. There are cans of harissa alongside tomato paste at the Dia, but little else.
V. Making sense of the urban imagination
The last imagined vision of Barbès is my own. I have asked the questions, written down answers, and formulated perspectives into a modest story of a neighborhood. But my own experience is missing.
I take the Metro from Barbès-Rochechouart every morning, and return to the station every evening. Each and every time that I walk through the station, I let my arm and hand dangle behind me so that they rest lightly on my back pocket. Depending on the time of night, I will also rotate my messenger bag to hang around my front. And if I have to walk through a large crowd, I make sure to walk quickly and with purpose.
In writing this column, I feel deeply conflicted about these ‘precautions’ and the difference between my actions and my convictions. I try to convince myself that it’s not prejudiced to be concerned for my own wellbeing, that it’s not prejudiced to be way in crowds. I try to convince myself that the reason I’m worried about petty crime is because decades of social and economic oppression of this neighborhood and its immigrant inhabitants created the need for pickpocketing, and that when I take ‘precautions,’ I’m taking them against the system not the people.
But this is unconvincing and I remain troubled.
What is clear is that this neighborhood whose core is the Barbès-Rochechouart intersection cannot be defined in terms of its security or hazard. Barbès is imagined. It can only be defined by ourselves and the ways we choose to see it.