Study of French quartier: La Goutte d’Or, drop of gold


Stories From Paris


This morning, all my senses are submerged in color: heaps of bananas, apples, yams — organized with intention, but haphazardly. Like crumbling pyramids. A cascade of pastries over a plastic, Disney-themed table cover. The aroma of halal roasting, interrupted by another. Mint.

Father away, I notice a shimmer of grey — a row of tilapias. A smiling man, holding a basket of cellphones. The theatrical gestures of a dairy seller, ignored by a pensive client in the midst of earnestly studying an onion. The scene is dotted with women in vivid dresses, their hair enveloped in silk, also bright. Their sartorial appearance altogether more joyful than the women along Saint-Germain-Des-Prés.

In this tight mass of people, our movements are highly constrained, interlinked and synchronized until someone cuts across the road, seduced by a vendor. And as I wander further into le Marché Dejean, the center of Paris (where I live and attend university) seems profoundly strange. Too reserved in some, intangible yet certainly comical way. Bienvenue à la Goutte d’Or (“drop of gold”), in the eighteenth arrondissement between the Gare du Nord and Montmarte.

Since the industrial revolution, this quartier has been populated with working class residents and immigrants notably captured in 1877 in Emile Zola’s "L’Assommoir." Moreover, 30 percent of the population was born outside of France, predominately from countries in the Maghreb.

While it is a diverse, visually-rich area, la Goutte d’or is classified by the French government as a zone "urbaine" — sensible (due to high unemployment, low home ownership, etc.) More recently, it was erroneously deemed a “no-go zone” by the always astute Fox News (the publicity of which produced a new, neighborhood tour company satirically named “No-Go Zones Paris”).

As with the rest of the city, this quartier has been the site of numerous protests and conflicts, in this case typically concerning immigration policy, the Algerian War and socioeconomic conditions.

In 1996, there was a controversial dispute between the Chirac administration and a group of African immigrants, des sans-papiers, who refused to leave Saint-Bernard-de-la-Chapelle (due to the Pasqua Laws, which made their presence illegal). Eventually, negotiations deteriorated and security forces passed through the protestors lining the church, arresting the individuals who had been seeking refuge.

Beyond Saint-Bernard, the neighborhoods host an array of cultural and religious institutions including: mosques, an Islamic school and a Buddhist Temple. Aside from representing the neighborhood’s pervasive diversity, these places often provide palpable insight into many of the social tensions and disparities in France.

For instance, I invite you to la rue Polonceau, to a white, brick square of a building. Above the half-opened door, Mosquee al-fath hangs in green. Outside, a veiled woman sits on the cement beside an unoccupied lawn chair. A red Starbucks cup perched in her tired hands. Empty, except for 50 or so centièmes.

This past fall, there was a conflict outside of the mosque — between the government and many of Muslim residents. Due to a lack of space, men would be forced to spill out into the street each week, on their knees on asphalt, to pray. The French government determined that this was a public safety matter, as well as violation against "la laïcité" (French secularism).

Today, la Goutte d’Or reflects its own permeable nature as it undergoes a major transformation, that of gentrification. Upon a visit to this quartier, you will inevitably observe traces of the “bobo” (bourgeois-bohème): quirky furniture shops, organic dog treats, and not to mention, Paris’ first microbrewery, where you can drink rooibois-infused liquor, at la Brasserie de la Goutte d’Or.

That said, the effects are, of course, highly debated. Many urban scholars argue that this process is unlikely to produce “la mixité sociale” — and that it tends to, instead, to financially ostracize the original, working-class residents. Unlike other major, international cities (e.g. Berlin or New York), anti-gentrification movements have yet to substantially establish themselves in Paris.

Nevertheless, the quartier continues to straddle this seemingly inevitable change and so, the future of la Goutte d’Or remains uncertain. Presently, one can say that it is a quartier of change, of transition — but also of fusion. Of intercommunal sharing. La Goutte d’Or is a neighborhood defined by its cultural and religious plurality, becoming only more diverse as time passes. 

Tess Rosenberg is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English and political science with a minor in French. Her column, “Stories From Paris,” runs once a month on Thursday.


Tess Rosenberg

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