Published November 08, 2005
PARIS – The rows upon rows of towering concrete blocks have a dreary regularity: Most are exactly 17 stories high with six apartments to each floor.
Today, these housing projects at the heart of rioting across France are rotting, the walls smeared with graffiti, weeds sprouting through cracks, windows protected by rusty metal bars.
But in their time, the subsidized low-cost apartments were a major step up for poor families — spacious, with central heating and bathrooms
"My first reaction was, 'Wow, how modern and advanced!" recalls Sonia Imloul, 30, who moved into a high-rise as a child with her Algerian immigrant parents. "I was 7 when I saw a shower for the first time."
Imloul said that in the nearby bidonville, or slum, where she was born, the rats were so big that they chased the cats, and residents used a shared toilet and a municipal bath.
The family's new three-bedroom home was in one of the building estates that sprouted up from the 1950s as temporary housing for immigrants from the former colonies in North and West Africa who were brought to France to work in factories.
Now, those jobs have largely gone, but many immigrants and their children remain stuck in the suburbs and their dreary "HLM," short for "habitation a loyer modere," or low-rent housing.
Initially, they were a "sign of progress," said Angelina Peralva, a specialist on urban violence and sociology professor at the University of Toulouse.
Immigrants lived side by side with French professionals, including doctors and teachers starting their careers. But the French gradually left, creating a "big image" change for the suburbs, said Peralva.
Now the buildings are showing their age. The government has dynamited many to build new ones, but the original structures that remain are often in dismal condition.
The "cités," as housing projects are called, are generally isolated from neighborhoods with shops and schools, and residents complain that police stay away, leaving the neighborhoods in the hands of drug dealers and criminals.
The decaying tower blocks on leafy boulevards have a threatening feel. Windows stare out from row after row.
The housing projects that were once a source of pride for the new immigrants have become a source of anger and frustration for their children who live on society's margins, struggling with high unemployment, racial discrimination and despair.
Imloul, who works with troubled teens in Seine-Saint-Denis, the northeastern Paris suburb worst-hit by the unrest, said that while the parents who moved here were happy to be living in comfort compared to where they came from — "the children do not accept the conditions they are living in."
Imloul said the "cités" are in urgent need of investment — most importantly better schools.
"There are 15-year-old students here who cannot write," she said. "The first words children learn are swear words."
She said youths are paying the price for a French law that requires students to go to their neighborhood schools. This means parents have no choice but to send their children to a school plagued by delinquents.
"The law here is that of drugs," says Imloul as she drives past a group of men smoking marijuana. "Before this was hidden. But now, it's in the open. It's become normal."
Those who can are leaving the neighborhoods — including younger-generation parents — to save their children from crime.
Imloul, too, is determined to leave as soon as she can afford to find a place in a safe neighborhood in Paris proper.
"I don't want my son to grow up here," she said. "In our neighborhoods, people only survive, they don't live."