Can the Olympics Rejuvenate One of France’s Poorest Corners?


Parisians are already grumbling about the crowds for this summer’s Olympics. They envision sweaty tourists jamming the subway cars, making the hell of commuting even more, well, hellish. They are planning their summer escapes; at worst a “télétravail” schedule to work from home.

But not Ivan Buyukocakm. Glancing out at a corner known for drug dealing near his family’s kebab shop in the low-income district just north of Paris, he sees the upcoming Olympics as heralding something totally different: opportunity.

“They are redoing the streets and refurbishing buildings,” said Mr. Buyukocakm, as a woman in a thin coat dragged a grocery trolley toward a dilapidated housing project. “This area is going to be improved. Life could get better.”

That is the hope anyway. French officials have made a lofty promise for the 2024 Olympics: To leverage the 4.5 billion euros being spent on infrastructure for the games to transform one of the country’s most notorious suburbs, Seine-Saint-Denis.

A dense, 90-square-mile department northeast of Paris, it encompasses 40 small cities and has for generations been synonymous with poverty, immigration and crime. Now it will be home to an Olympic Village that, it is hoped, will provide an economic jolt when the games start in July and lasting revitalization once the athletes move out.

Just up the street from Mr. Buyukocakm’s shop, work is advancing on a pharaonic, 52-acre project to turn former industrial lands into a new neighborhood of high rises that promise to be filled with offices, restaurants and shops. Nearby, a new 5,000-seat Aquatic Center will become a sports hub for locals.

The nearby stock of dilapidated social housing is being revamped. New roads, bridges, cycling paths, parks and schools are being added. There is also the promise of jobs and training for locals in a region dogged by stubborn unemployment.

Only one question looms over the immense ambition: Will it work?

“The issue is how do you transform no-go zones into welcome zones,” said Mathieu Hanotin, the Socialist mayor of St.-Denis, the city that is getting much of the new Olympic infrastructure. “The Games are an incredible opportunity. They will allow us to change our image, and also to deliver housing to help improve the social balance of the city.”

The challenges are enormous: Unemployment in the region is over 10 percent — and twice that in St.-Denis. Nearly a third of Seine-Saint-Denis’s residents live in poverty, and the rate of public housing is close to 40 percent.

Known by its nickname, “le Quatre-Vingt Treize,” or 93 — a riff on its zipcode — Seine-Saint-Denis is littered with the carcasses of failed government rescue plans dating back to the 1970s. That is when the region, an industrial hub since the 19th century, lost car and steel factories to cheaper countries, setting off a debilitating downward spiral.

The construction of the Stade de France — the national soccer stadium — in 1998 marked a pivot point, bringing in new urban transport and luring tourists as well as the headquarters of French blue chip companies. Many government programs were focused on improving social housing and education.

None of it has been a silver bullet.

“The huge infrastructure efforts and visibility can be the right catalyst, but it’s not going to solve all the problems,” said Agnes Audier, author of a report on Seine-Saint-Denis by France’s Institute Montaigne think tank. “Poverty is not going to disappear.”

The companies that moved headquarters there tended to bring their own white collar employees, who commuted from Paris. Many residents, meanwhile, commute in the opposite direction — for lower-income jobs in the heart of Paris.

In 2005, amid persistent neglect, joblessness and police brutality, riots broke out in Seine-Saint-Denis. Part of the government’s plan now includes beefing up security. France’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, says it will move its 2,500 employees from central Paris to new offices in the Olympic Village in 2025 — a move symbolic of those efforts.

Officials say the Olympic Games are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the social dynamic for good, by leaving a lasting legacy of urban and economic renewal. Local mayors are leveraging the Games to solicit and fast track other investments and to create or renovate affordable housing.

“The Olympic Games are an accelerator,” said Karim Bouamrane, the mayor of St.-Ouen, a small city next to St.-Denis. Among the Olympic gifts it has received is a renovated stadium and part of the Olympic Village, which cuts across three municipal borders.

Like several mayors in towns near his, Mr. Bouamrane has seized the international spotlight to solicit and expedite much-needed investments.

Tesla recently announced that it would move its French headquarters to St.-Ouen, and Mr. Bouamrane has also lured new colleges, which he hopes will create a social and economic ripple effect.

Mr. Bouamrane also leveraged the Games to secure funding for a 500-million euro renovation of two run-down housing projects in his city. He wants to ensure the Games improve the lives of many across his city, and not just in parts of it, particularly around the Olympic Village.

From a distance, the village appears like a multicolored forest, with some 40 buildings rising to different heights in different hues and designs. After housing 14,500 athletes, its 2,800 new units will be converted by the end of 2025 to permanent homes for up to 6,000 people.

A quarter of those units will be reserved for public housing. Around a third will rented out by government-linked agencies as affordable housing to modest-income workers, as well as to students.

The rest will be sold on the open market. But already some are warning the housing will be out of reach for many.

Cécile Gintrac is a founding member of “Olympics 2024 Vigilance,” a watchdog group that has been vocal about the threat of gentrification. She said that the units were going for a third more than the department’s average selling price last year. “They could never buy at that price,” she said.

Some charities have accused the local authorities of carrying out “social cleansing” operations, by removing migrants and homeless people from the Olympics sites. The government pushed around 3,000 people out of derelict buildings and squats and into better lodging, albeit in towns farther away, according to Antoine de Clerck, a coordinator for Reverse Side of the Medal, a charity that aids vulnerable people.

Nadia Bey, who lives in a social housing high-rise just a couple of blocks away was doubtful that the Olympic investments would improve her life.

She pointed to other modern apartment buildings built recently in an even bigger eco-development called The Docks, which offered many of the same lofty promises.

“They have a pharmacy, a nice market, doctors’ offices, restaurants,” said Ms. Bey, 45, a child- care worker, pushing a stroller out of her building complex, where rats scurried across the sidewalk. “Come here and look at our park. Look at our stores. It’s totally different. We are completely abandoned.”

Though her building was among those slated to benefit for renovation, she remained dubious. “We’ll see if it happens,” she said.

None of those concerns dimmed the optimism of Henri Specht, the director of the Olympic Village. As he walked down a newly installed boardwalk along the river Seine on a recent day, he envisioned how it would transform what used to be an industrial bank into a pedestrian zone where locals might practice the famous Parisian pastime of flâner — strolling.

“It will totally change the way people live next to the Seine,” said Mr. Specht, who works for the state’s Olympic building company, Solideo, which has provided some 30,000 people with contracts working for the games, 6 percent of them formerly unemployed residents of Seine-Saint-Denis.

“We’ve always thought of it as how it would be a legacy after the Olympic Games,” he added. “We wanted to make sure it made sense for the future generations that will live there.”

Stores, restaurants, boulangeries and other small businesses will be brought in to seed economic activity. Restaurants in old converted barges would be installed along the Seine’s new boardwalk.

Chedi Meftah, 40, a primary school sports instructor who lives nearby, looked on with excitement. “Before, people didn’t like to go there. It was considered dangerous,” he said of the riverbank. “Now, we could go for a walk or jog. That is one of a thousand advantages of this.”



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