The view from Château Rouge

As I mentioned last week, I’m in Paris, and for the last five years my Paris home has been an apartment in the Château Rouge neighborhood. In lots of ways it’s the perfect space for me– an old building (meaning built around 1900), quiet, reasonable rent, a wonderful landlady, the right amount of space.

It also happens to be located in just about the only part of the city that still feels like the working class, anything-goes Paris I grew up imagining– the Paris-the-Wicked you might see in a (good) movie like Les Enfants du Paradis or a (ridiculous) one like Irma la Douce. There’s endless street action, prostitutes on the corner (mostly at midday– go figure), and a wild assortment of goods being peddled on the streets: weird foods, counterfeit designer purses and shoes, stolen cell phones, fake perfumes. (For a sense of what it’s like, check out the array of internet pictures here.)  Every morning there are trucks blocking the streets delivering meat the old-fashioned way, as quarters of beef and lamb hanging on hooks. The police come through periodically and the street merchants scatter, but nobody seems very concerned; the next morning it’s business as usual.

After five years here, I still don’t understand 90 percent of what I’m seeing every day. Are the street vendors really making a living selling their peanuts, vegetables, and dried fish, or are some other transactions going on? (It’s not drugs, that much is clear.) Why does everything quiet down so dramatically at night? Who actually lives here, anyway, and who’s just spending the afternoon?

This is basically what nineteeth-century Paris looked like, except for the one big difference: nowadays Château Rouge is a majority immigrant/ethnic neighborhood, mostly African, plus some Chinese shop owners, South Asian street merchants, and gentrifying Euros. Nineteenth-century Paris was an immigrant city too, but then it was immigrants from the impoverished French countryside, drawn by the big city’s endless employment possibilities.

That makes it quite an experience to take the subway across the city, because some other sections of Paris are about as lilly-white as you could imagine. Not just the very rich neighborhoods, either, but formerly bohemian areas like Montparnasse and the 14th arrondissement, where several of my intellectual friends live. In the US, you’d only find neighborhoods that uni-ethnic in the most carefully-manicured suburbs. Maybe not even there.

It does interesting things to the experience of race here. The good news is, the basic race outlook is so much more sensible than in the US. The police look plenty mean as they march through the neighborhood, but there are no shootings I’ve heard of.  That’s a major plus, given that American police currently kill people at the rate of two per day, with ethnic victims way more frequent than in the general population.

And yet, it feels like the US has something going for it that’s missing here– interactions, mutual awareness, the back-and-forth flow of language habits between groups. Paris opinion makers and intellectuals look at immigrants with sympathy and concern; they support progressive social and educational programs; they protest anti-immigrant rhetoric from nationalist policians. There’s lots of concern, but little of that overlap you feel every day in the US, that feeling that different people’s lives intersect, and that the learning experiences go both ways. Partly for that reason, there’s zero push here to make universities and other culture-shaping institutions more multi-ethnic, though there’s a lot of concern about immigrant students not doing very well. Nobody shares the American-style belief that the culture as a whole loses if it doesn’t incorporate outsider voices.

Maybe all this just adds up to the usual traveler’s experience: I’m seeing my home territory better for spending some time away.