The Balzac

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Of all the outer fringes of Paris, La Courneuve is the most important.  As a microcosm for France’s social problems, La Courneuve stands out to offer a complete and most interesting portrayal of the country’s deepest problem: immigration.

Filled with gigantic 8 to 10 story-tall buildings for social housing, the region is heavily populated with immigrants from former French colonies, mainly, of West and North African origin.

Unemployment, high crime rates and low education levels appear to be the most distinct characteristics at the “Balzac” apartment units, in one of the most heated neighborhoods of La Courneuve. Having been sidelined by the French society, these immigrants living in public housing have their own social networks and support systems, as well as their own parallel economy. Drug rings dominate the ghetto, which the police refrains from entering. Strangers approaching the area are treated like intruders, closely watched by scouts, and if necessary, they are forced to leave. The safest and best way to visit La Courneuve is through the assistance of a former gang leader who’s given  up that life style for a calmer one, but someone who is still seen as a superior by his former colleagues and held in great esteem.

The first thing that strikes one upon entering any of the Balzac buildings is the elevators’ being constantly broken.  This way, gangs can control the entire building with greater ease. In addition, there are fenced-in doors on almost every floor. This is a method by municipal services to avoid illegal renting of the vacated apartments by fake realtors.

In 2010, the municipality of La Courneuve wants to demolish “The 4000s” housing complex (high-rise buildings which Balzac apartments are also a part of) and build, instead, shorter and smaller units. The municipality sees this initiative as an important opportunity to jab at drug dealers. Threatened by the possibility of losing their Paris clientele, the ghetto gang leaders are resisting and doing everything in their power to stop this new construction plan from being carried out.

Suburbs… How come these housing complexes, built by French architects towards the end of 1960s with a vision of creating a new, more beautiful city life style, have turned into such a nightmare for the French society is a subject that social scientists have been studying most closely throughout the 2000s, and a subject conservative politicians love to exploit. Here’s when a dream turns into a nightmare and where all dreams turn into nightmares: The ghettos!