Can the Olympic Games rejuvenate one of the poorest corners of France?

Can the Olympic Games rejuvenate one of the poorest corners of France?

Parisians are already complaining about the crowds attending this summer’s Olympic Games. They imagine sweaty tourists clogging the subway cars, making commuting hell even more… well, hellish. They are planning their summer getaways; in the worst case, a “télétravail” schedule to work from home.

But not Ivan Buyukocakm. Looking 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 a harbinger of something entirely different: opportunity.

“They are redoing the streets and renovating the buildings,” Buyukocakm said, as a woman in a thin coat dragged a shopping cart toward a dilapidated housing complex. “This area is going to be improved. “Life could get better.”

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

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

Just down the street from Mr. Buyukocakm’s store, work is progressing on a pharaonic 52-acre project to convert former industrial land into a new neighborhood of skyscrapers that promise to be filled with offices, restaurants and shops. Nearby, a new 5,000-seat aquatic center will become a sports center for locals.

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

Only one question hangs over this immense ambition: will it work?

“The question is how to transform forbidden zones into welcome zones,” said Mathieu Hanotin, socialist mayor of St.-Denis, the city that will receive much of the new Olympic infrastructure. “The Games are an incredible opportunity. “They will allow us to change our image and also deliver housing to help improve the social balance of the city.”

The challenges are enormous: unemployment in the region exceeds 10 percent, and double that in St.-Denis. Nearly a third of Seine-Saint-Denis residents live in poverty and the public housing rate is approaching 40 percent.

Known by its nickname, “le Quatre-Vingt Treize,” or 93 (a riff on its postcode), Seine-Saint-Denis is littered with the corpses of failed government rescue plans dating back to the 1970s. 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 football stadium) in 1998 marked a turning point, attracting new urban transport and attracting tourists, as well as the headquarters of leading French companies. Many government programs They focused on improving social housing and education.

None of this has been a miracle solution.

“Massive infrastructure efforts and visibility may be the right catalyst, but they will not solve all problems,” said author Agnes Audier. from a report on Seine-Saint-Denis by the group of experts from the Montaigne Institute of France. “Poverty is not going to disappear.”

Companies that moved their headquarters there often brought their own administrative employees, who traveled from Paris. Meanwhile, many residents are traveling in the opposite direction: in search of low-income jobs in the heart of Paris.

In 2005, amid persistent neglect, unemployment 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 Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change social dynamics forever, leaving a lasting legacy of urban and economic renewal. Local mayors are taking advantage of the Games to solicit and accelerate other investments and create or renovate affordable housing.

“The Olympics are an accelerator,” said Karim Bouamrane, mayor of St.-Ouen, a small town near St.-Denis. Among the Olympic gifts he has received is a renovated stadium and part of the Olympic Village, which spans three municipal boundaries.

Like several mayors of cities near his, Bouamrane has taken advantage of the international attention to request and accelerate much-needed investments.

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

Bouamrane also used the Games to secure funding for a €500 million renovation of two run-down housing projects in his city. He wants to ensure that the Games improve the lives of many people throughout his city, and not just in some parts of it, particularly around the Olympic Village.

From afar, the town looks like a multicolored forest, with about 40 buildings rising to different heights in different shades and designs. After housing 14,500 athletes, its 2,800 new units will become permanent homes for up to 6,000 people by the end of 2025.

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

The rest will be sold on the free market. But some are already warning that homes 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 the units were going for a third more than the department average Last year’s sales price. “They could never buy at that price,” she said.

Some charities have accused local authorities of carrying out “social cleansing” operations, expelling migrants and homeless people from Olympic venues. The government forced about 3,000 people to leave abandoned buildings and occupied homes and seek better accommodation, albeit in more remote cities, according to Antoine de Clerck, coordinator of Reverse Side of the Medal, a charity that helps vulnerable people.

Nadia Bey, who lives in a public housing building just a couple of blocks away, doubted the Olympic investments would improve her life.

He pointed to other modern apartment buildings recently built in an even larger green development called The Docks, which offered many of the same big promises.

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

Although her building was among those to be renovated, she still had doubts. “We’ll see if it happens,” she said.

None of those concerns dampened the optimism of Henri Specht, director of the Olympic Village. As he walked along a newly installed boardwalk along the Seine River on a recent day, he imagined how he would transform what used to be an industrial bank into a pedestrian zone where locals could practice the flâner’s famous Parisian pastime: strolling.

“It will totally change the way people live along the Seine,” said Specht, who works for the state-run Olympic construction company, Solideo, which has provided about 30,000 people with contracts to work for the games, 6 percent of them. previously unemployed. residents of Seine-Saint-Denis.

“We always thought it would be a legacy after the Olympics,” he added. “We wanted to make sure it made sense for future generations who will live there.”

Shops, restaurants, bakeries and other small businesses will be added to boost economic activity. Restaurants will be set up in converted old barges along the new Seine promenade.

Chedi Meftah, 40, a sports instructor at a primary school who lives nearby, looked on enthusiastically. “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 a jog. That is one of the thousand advantages of this.”

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John C. Johnson

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