A visit to the heart of African Paris

HarpersWeb-Postcard-ParisRef-700Maggy Donaldson at Harper's Magazine:

The Goutte d’Or—or “golden drop,” named for the wine produced there in the Middle Ages—is one of central Paris’s last truly working-class neighborhoods. It’s on the Boulevard de la Chapelle that readers first met Gervaise, the tragic protagonist of Émile Zola’s late nineteenth-century novel L’Assommoir (the slang title loosely translates as The Drinking Den), which fictionalized the lives of the area’s alcoholic workers, mired in poverty and despair. The book crystallized the Goutte d’Or’s reputation as seedy, poor, and dangerous, and, nearly two centuries later, in the minds of many Parisians, not much has changed.

As is often the case with areas the more fortunate shun, the neighborhood has historically been a haven for outsiders. The first wave of migration to the area was internal, as members of the rural French underclass arrived to toil in urban factories after the Revolution. Then came Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, and Eastern Europeans, all looking for work. By the late nineteenth century, members of North and West African diasporas were settling there. Today, it offers some semblance of sanctuary to thousands fleeing war and dictatorship.

Just outside La Chapelle’s exit, street vendors hawk their wares—contraband cigarettes, roasted corn, and cheap cell phones. Nearby is the now fenced-off lot where Abdel and several hundred others spent last winter—a particularly frigid one—in tents. Though his first Parisian home was beneath the metro tracks, Abdel told me he still thinks of the La Chapelle station as a source of comfort, a place where he “could find friends . . . from Sudan, even here in France.”

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