Despite these signs of renewal and reinvention, the suburbs are still not the easiest places to visit. In Pantin, for instance, a walk around town requires a good map, a spirit of adventure and careful planning to avoid wandering into an unsafe neighborhood. Unemployment in this once-industrial enclave is still high; more than 30 percent of Pantin’s 54,000 residents live in subsidized public housing.
But there are signs of new life. French companies have opened offices and workshops in Pantin, lured by cheaper rents and easy access to Paris. Hermès makes upholstery and luxury luggage and handbags (including its Kelly and Birkin bags) at ateliers here. Bourjois, Gucci and Agnès b. also have operations here; Chanel is expanding its presence. A tramway connecting Pantin to Paris and other suburbs will open at the end of the year.
The Canal de l’Ourcq, which divides the town, is beginning to attract retail businesses and restaurants. Summertime water shuttles, like mini-Bateaux Mouches, offer rides up and down the canal. The Italian restaurant Brunello, opened two years ago by a Sicilian chef on the canal, offers excellent and well-priced pasta dishes and quaffable Sicilian wine (but disappointing pizzas). Nearby is La Famille de Lily, a Senegalese-French bistro and grocery that prepares dishes like carrot flan and chicken in preserved lemons and spices.
The Ropac gallery, located in an industrial no-man’s land on a grim highway, has no cafe or restaurant and few parking places. The only sitting area is the Clubhouse, a private living-room-like lounge with a fireplace, a conceptual D.J. station, vintage designer furniture and an espresso machine, accessible to collectors and special guests. A bookstore is planned, along with conferences, screenings and musical and dance performances. Fashion designers have asked to rent the space for their shows, but have been politely turned down. “We don’t want to give away our soul too easily,” Ropac said in an interview.
My favorite place in town is La Dynamo jazz and blues center, which hosts the “Banlieues Bleues” concert series in a 200-seat auditorium. On one side of the center is a courtyard that’s bordered by an apartment building where the Surrealist writer André Breton once lived and abandoned horse stables decorated with red bricks and ceramic turquoise tiles. The doors to the stables have been sealed with cement blocks. But the courtyard is big enough for a cafe. Or better, a wine bar. Xavier Lemettre, the director of Banlieues Bleues, told me that secreted a way in one of the stables is a superb private collection of wine. Maybe that’s a metaphor for the potential hidden all around the suburbs of Paris.
Emphasis added. What soul? To someone from the States, an industrial suburb is an oxymoron. Also, France does have manufacturing legacy cities. The Paris pattern of suburban blight is a glimpse of the future for many Sun Belt boom towns. Greenfields are the new brownfields.
To date, the gentrification of the banlieues is the best of evidence I've found that the costs of being in the center of it all have become too much to bear. The only game in town is geographic arbitrage. The core is played out. Opportunity is in the burbs. Rust Belt Chic.