Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Sunday, January 14, 2007

93 Hardcore, East Side: clichy-s/s-bois

Like Magellan, I didn't quite succeed in my attempt at circumnavigation. Fortunately, unlike him, I came out alive. Although we both shared some transportation issues. Granted I got a late start, and granted it was Sunday, but intra-banlieue transportation in Île-de-France is painfully slow, which is easily its own strike against the state's urbanism: in Paris proper, one is never more than 1/2 kilometer from a métro station. The density obviously justifies the extensiveness of the métro network, but it just about dead stops outside of the city limits, with only a few lines reaching into the suburbs. And in contrast, the buses and tramways are much slower and much less frequent. But that's out of kilter in a metropolitan region where the city proper is more than four times smaller in population than its environs.

There is the RER, or commuter rail, which plays its own questionable role in the relationship between Paris and the banlieue -- Les Halles, where four of the five lines converge, resembles an immigration checkpoint as much as a subway stop, as police and RATP security are always out in force, checking for tickets and then checking your papers if you look North African . . . they were practically corralling non-whites on New Year's Eve when the métro ran all night.

But I made it out eventually, arriving at Clichy-sous-Bois, infamous flashpoint of last years "évenements" (commemorated in the graffiti at the top). It's a bleak place for sure, big concrete tower after big concrete tower.

This is one of the nicer looking ones, as I ran out of camera battery before I got to the peeling paint, dilapidated exteriors, barren yards. But no matter the outside aesthetics -- or interior, for that matter, I can recall reading a few articles that point out they're just normal looking apartments inside -- it's mostly a matter of location.
I saw what an ordeal it is just to get to/from Paris, where the bulk of any potential job opportunities would be (most of the cités were built to house factory workers during the post-war industrial boom, which now post-post-war is post-industrial with no more factories). And of course, as this sign indicates, by car is probably the best way to go -- not always the most affordable means of transit.

As the other direction points to, of course, there's a town nearby. Each of the communes (municipalities, essentially) of the banlieue that are now known for their cités began simply as small villages on the outskirts of Paris. While I didn't make it to Clichy-sous-Bois's centre ville, I passed through adjacent Livry-Gargan.

It was Sunday market day, a scene that could have been lifted from any side street in Paris. To that extent, I think the Banlieue 13 vision is unfairly dystopian. There are more than just housing projects surrounding the city. Saint-Denis, for example, is home to the stunning Basilique de Saint-Denis, royal necropolis since the 12th century (a more worthwhile visit than Notre Dame). The towns proper sometimes live in tension with the cités that started cropping up 50 years ago, but there's enough pride in them that they'll retain their identity.

Vis-à-vis the cités, I wrote in my somewhat hasty (and uninformed) banlieue commentary about the lack of pride or ownership in the communities. It's still a largely valid point -- litter everywhere, for example, and hardly a Rio-style residents' association in sight. They just seem to suffer from neglect, plain and simple.

Kids making a soccer field out of whatever flat patch of dirt they can find, burned out wreckage of exactly what I don't know. A lot of loitering, lingering, killing time. A few folks fixing cars, some teens pumping some bass out of a stereo in a parking lot. Someone blew by on a 4x4, getting his thrills however he could. Pure anomie.

Like the Soviet housing blocs I visited in Berlin (as always, blog post TBA), there's nothing you can do about housing projects once they're already there. It's a not a configuration conducive to mixed-use -- the best East Berlin's Marzahn neighborhood could muster was a shopping mall (the commercial counterpart of a housing project, I guess), the best Clichy-sous-Bois could offer was a McDonald's and a few scattered municipal services (elementary & middle school, firehouse).

The département (Seine-Saint-Denis, postal code 93), for its part, tries to build up some sense of civic engagement with its own reformulation of the Republic's "liberté, égalité, fraternité." Most noticeably, it addresses the New Year's well-wishes to "citizen." Immigrants' children, born in France, are French citizens, just like Jacques who can traves his ancestors back to Charlemagne. It's been an enormous sticking point, however. While their parents fleeing poverty or political upheaval abroad were content to have a home and a job, their children are frustrated by location, unemployment, and systematic discrimination, all of which make it easy to forget -- or at least not believe in -- the values of citizenship.

Ultimately, it's an intractable problem. Such buildings are good housing, in a utilitarian sense, and I understand economics don't permit the demolition and reconstruction of . . . what, exactly? How do you artificially create a home, or a sense of home? I'm still firmly convinced that, whatever the housing pressure, without a sense of ownership (not necessarily a legal sense, as favelas prove) there won't be any civic pride. 24 Rue de Banque's squatters or the camp-in along the Canal St Martin take better care of their spaces than they would if they were installed on the 20th floor of a dilapidated cité. And ennui-inducing as they are, as my professor Alain Bertho has told me, no one is happy when a cité is razed.

Instead, there's a gritty pride inspite of itself, like the braggadocio of banlieue bloggers (fr & a fee, sorry, but tags like "93, département le plus hardcore!" as an indication). Or, for that matter, rapping.

Mac Tyer - 93 Tu Peux Pa Test

You can't test 93, the title goes. But the refrain closes, "j'oublierai jamais la banlieue qu'on brûlé" (I'll never forget the banlieue that one burned). Ambiguous in its phrasing: the 3rd person impersonal 'on' (like the English 'one did this or that') is common enough in French, so is Mac Tyer using it out of habit, or purposefully distancing himself from the events? (He could have used "nous", 'we'.) Treading the line between approval of the flames and simple acknowledgment. Will he never forget because of their effect on him, his home, his family? Their effect on the media attention to the problems of the banlieue? Because he participated?

Production-wise, it sounds like it's lifted straight from American commercial hip-hop . . . same old story. I got it off the Rap 2 Bandit Part 10 mix tape, which opens with "remixes" of Rick Ross and Chamillionaire -- basically the original with long instrumental gaps during which French rappers jump in.

The style is called "hardcore" in French. Perhaps taking its name from Ideal J's 1995 "Hardcore", banned on French radio for its explicit lyrics ("Hardcore, as if I'd thrown a bomb at Disneyland", for example).

Ideal J - Hardcore

While Rap 2 Bandit seems to buy into bling & bitches American rap hook line and sinker, some of the other mix tapes I snagged have some very intense political consciousness, like L'Emeute ("The Riot", a term used to described Nov '05).

All acquired at the Marché aux Puces (flea market) of Saint-Ouen, quite a francophone melting pot. But that'll have to wait for a West Side post.

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At 3/11/2007 10:52 PM, Blogger Mark Slutsky said...

i'm almost certain the use of "on" there is meant to imply "we."


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