Why is it that we feel quite nostalgic about the old days when most often the only thing we long is to bring change to our current life, condition or position? The district of Paris I live in has improved for the better these last two decades, most people would admit. Yet, I very often miss the old days, when being of the nineteenth district of Paris had a very strong and negative connotation. Now, every year by the end of July and during the whole month of August “Paris Plage” invites itself in our district making it more attractive to all kind of people. There is no doubt that for those who had adopted the nineteenth district as an integrated part of their global identity, like myself, the changes and improvements of these last decades in the district have somehow left us alienated.
For the readers quite unfamiliar with the French capital city, let us be a bit more explicit. Paris is divided into twenty districts. The nineteenth is the last but one. It is located in the North East part of the capital city. Though it became an integrated part of Paris some 152 years ago, a short walk in the upper part of the district in the late seventies, still gave you the feeling of being outside the capital. The numerous parks and large spaces offered to the delight of the younger generations a sensation of freedom unmatched in the rest of the city.
Yet, “past childhood, it is almost finished” says the French singer Renaud in one of his songs. This is the sad reality many of the residents of the nineteenth district were unfortunately to experience by the time they reach adulthood. As a young boy in the late seventies and early eighties, I remember being the witness, more than once, of quarrels, disputes, and fights between teenagers or youngsters of the district over illicit products and goods of which I at the time ignored the names. Heroine, Cocaine, crack, or ecstasy; here are the names of the different substances that were to deprive the youth of the district of all the skills required to better stand up and fight in an unfair society. By the time I had grown up to be a young man, those who had been in their twenties in the seventies and eighties had transformed themselves into unhealthy frail drug addicts.
With the arrival from the United States of the Rap and Gang culture in the capital, people of my age group were taking a path different from that of the big brothers in the district. Dance, sports, and fights were our first centres of interest rather than Heroine, Cocaine, and Crack. At least, this is what we first thought. Leaving childhood for manhood also means getting to more independence
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and autonomy and which of course goes along with being able to support oneself financially. Stealing, nicking and selling back was the method we had first found to be totally independent before shifting to a much more lucrative form of business that involved the sale of hashish and other illicit substances.
Fortunately enough, the daily consumption of hashish and other drugs was not to get rid of us as it had been the case with our big brothers and their addiction to Heroine, cocaine, Crack and so on. Our brain and intellect was however to receive a severe blow. Years of too much addiction finally left many of us brainless and with several psychiatric internments.
Here is my story of the old days in the nineteenth. Things have changed a lot since then. Regeneration plans have been decided by the Mayor and other politicians. New populations commonly called the “Bobos”; in other words the well-off are now also part of the nineteenth.
The mayor and his ambitious politicians are keen to please the rich invaders, but tend to ignore the old inhabitants mainly composed of ethnic minorities; most of whom scarcely pay taxes or vote in times of election. As the district is becoming more fashionable, the poorest and therefore ethnic minorities are sent in the suburbs, outside the limits of the district. I am also convinced that the new inhabitants of the nineteenth despise the old ones whose parents like mine came to live here in the seventies and early eighties, when the place was rather deprived and shabby. For sure the neighbourhood has undergone considerable refurbishment plans, yet, it seems that it has been all done at the stake of our souvenirs and memories.