Monday, March 8, 2010

Squatting in Paris

Squats have always provided a venue for alternative lifestyles and experiments in artistic creation, but in recent times, an increasing number of squatters in Paris have succeeded in transforming illegally occupied spaces into legal art galleries and respectable cultural centers. Could this benevolent trend herald the end of squatting as we know it?

At 59 Rue Rivoli, a street which is bang in the centre of Paris, a group of people have gathered in front of a freshly refurbished building. After three years of renovation work by Paris city hall, owner of the building since 2002, the highly decorated façade of the most famous Parisian squat has been given an insignificant Haussmannian facelift. But you can just about make out the word "Aftersquat" beneath the paint. At the opening ceremony Gaspard Delanoë, president of the artists collective 59 Rivoli, is reassuring those complaining that the place is now looking somewhat too conventional. "Come back in six months!" he says. "Things will have changed!"

But squatters - the term doesn’t quite fit. The Paris municipality is now renting the building to a group of artists for 130 euros a month as they do in several similar places. It’s a subtle difference that some feel needs clarification. "We aren’t squatters," insist the artists from Frigo, a squat which lies in the 13th arrondissement, in the south of Paris site of the old grain silos. "We pay rent to the city." Another artist from 59 Rivoli rolls a cigarette. "We have to evolve because times are changing. From being 'illegal' and 'underground' we have become 'alternative'," he explains. If these changes are constructive from an artistic point of view, the general public seems to be left out. There’s no question of just popping in for a coffee or a beer unless there’s an exhibition on, unlike other, more accessible and participative concepts, such as La Suite in the 13th district. Here, the "Grooms collective" welcome workshops and a variety of good initiatives.

Squats depend on each other in this city. When one is threatened, it’s the whole community that reacts. "We are still running thanks to the Stock Exchange (Bourse) site, which has since been closed down," continues the 59 Rivoli artist as he finishes his cigarette. "And if La Suite is still up and running, it’s due partly to our efforts." The battle continues to be waged. ‘We shall continue to squat and invest in unoccupied buildings to set up art hives wherever possible," promises Gaspard Delanoë. "The reopening of 59 Rivoli is a step in the right direction for artists."

Meanwhile in the Marais another type of squatters took over a vast, vacant 17th-century property, which once belonged to the Marquise de Sévigné, boasts listed rooms with period painted wooden beams and panelling and a spectacular view over the Place des Vosges.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, lives directly opposite and Victor Hugo used to dwell next door.

The squatters claim to be a group of highly educated individuals who broke into the 1,400sq ft hôtel particulier to draw attention to the plight of low-paid workers unable to afford housing while countless properties are left vacant. The mansion in question has not been lived in for more than 40 years.

However, they had not banked on its 87-year-old owner storming out of her retirement home to demand they leave. Béatrice Cottin knocked on the arched wooded gate, walking stick in hand, and is demanding compensation of £103,000 a month for illegal occupation. Mrs Cottin owns a string of sumptuous properties, including an estate in Cap Ferrat on the Riviera, hunting grounds in Sologne, north-central France, and land in the Arcachon basin in the south. She also has another luxury town house behind the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

“She feared for her property. Squatters in her eyes were vandals and would degrade it,” said Stéphane Roques, 36, a literary translator living and working in the mansion, rent-free.

But the 33 squatters, including university students, a pianist, a lawyer and architects, were not what Mrs Cottin had expected.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Cara - In my area we don't call them squatters; we call them students.

    In very close proximity are Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, Emerson College, Northeastern University and MIT. Large sections of Boston are referred to as the student ghetto; Harvard and MIT are actually in Cambridge, but fraternities and graduate students can be found in Boston, a very short walk across a bridge over the Charles River. Housing is cheape in Boston than in Cambridge, which is not to say that Boston is cheap. (I'll get back to this).

    Harvard provides housing for their students for 4 years; living in Harvard Yard is part of the package. Most of the other schools only require that students live in dorms for the first and second years. Upper classmen and grad students do the best they can to find housing in the neighborhoods near their schools. Do the neighborhoods welcome them with open arms? No. Weekends begin on Wednesday and despite the drinking age being 21, students never have a problem getting booze.**

    Never come to Boston and Cambridge on Labor Day weekend. Actually stay out of the state that weekend. Massachusetts has nothing if not colleges and universities and everyone is on the move. Most of the streets in Boston aren't wide enough for two cars. U-Haul vans plus parents' cars = total gridlock. Kids buy furniture before they move in only to find that the furniture won't fit up the narrow staircases in the old 3-story houses. Their solution, after two years or so of very expensive education, is to leave the furniture on the street.

    Getting back to the notion of cheap housing and ** weekends that start on Wednesday - students and many landlords do not pay attention to building and fire codes. There are always more students in each apartment than there are supposed to be and, because rents are very high, the more kids you can cram in, the lower the rent per person. Landlords charge outrageous rents so families can't afford the apartments. Of course with the partying and drinking going on for most of the week, families don't want to live there anyway.

    Students do keep the city and environs vibrant and they add to the economy. They just never go home. As recent graduates know well, whether they are receiving bachelor's degrees or doctorates, staying in the place you have built your life as young adults becomes a problem when thousands are competing for the same small pool of jobs.

    The schools just keep getting bigger and bigger, eating up more and more property, tax exempt property. Boston and Cambridge can only dream of being paid property taxes for the half of Cambridge owned by Harvard. When Harvard couldn't find anymore terra firma in their home city, they crossed the bridge into Boston where they ran right into the property owned by Boston University. BU wants to spread out, too, but they don't have any place toward which to spread because Boston College owns what BU doesn't.

    Artistic squatters would be such a welcome change. I bet they know enough to measure before they buy that big sofa.

  2. Beth,

    I had no idea about the Harvard package offering housing! Or the competition for living space until you brought up all the colleges in the area.

    Years ago I remember London had many squats in buildings abandoned after the War...and now it's a different story,


  3. Cara - Harvard doesn't offer housing, they require it. A friend, who lived an easy bus ride from Harvard, was accepted there ans assigned to one of the houses. Students live and eat at the house for the four years they are enrolled. Well, he got some fairly good financial aid but he still had a very big bill. So he contacted the admissions office and asked if he could live at home and have the housing and meal plan fees subtracted from his bill.

    Not a chance. Harvard considers the "house experience" integral to a Harvard education.

    Ted Kaczynski, the UNABOMBER, got his undergrad degree at Harvard. He lived in one of the houses but when his identity was revealed, no one who had lived with him for four years remembered him. Didn't seem like the house system did much for him.

    Cara, I only listed some of the colleges. There is also Simmons, Emmanuel, Mass College of Art, Mass College of Pharmacy, the Boston Campus of the University of Massachusetts, Suffolk University and about 10 smaller ones.

    You can see why "moving in" weekend is a nightmare.


  4. The Paris is an excellent city of the world. It is the cultural center of the world. It has so many attractive sights for visitors. The Eifel Tower is the wonder of the world.

    I would also like to recommend the readers to visit The Shenandoah Valley of Luray Virginia has the finest and the romantic accommodations. The surroundings are much enchanting and refreshing.