Story written for European Culture Reporting Class, June 2009. Photos taken by me.
Men sitting along a wall at the far end of the market while their wives do the shopping. Saint-Denis market, June 2009.
Saint-Denis basilica in the suburb of Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, June 2009.
Parisian suburbs still feel separation
SAINT-DENIS, France – The 20-minute Metro ride north from the center of chic and urban Paris takes the commuter into what seems like a different world. The market in this banlieue, or French suburb, is a far cry from the comparatively monotone street markets in the French capital, where urban men and women outfitted in neutral black pants, boots and suit jackets shop for fruit, bread or meat, and the brightly-dressed tourist often draws a disapproving stare. No, the market in this suburb most known for its high crime rates and unemployment is just the opposite – the market is in fact one of the most colorful and accepting places in the area.
The patrons of the market in Saint-Denis are diverse – some women wear brightly colored African dresses, flowered and beaded in oranges, greens, blues and purples. Some wear hijabs, the traditional Muslim headscarf, while others sport an outfit no fancier than jean shorts and t-shirt. Men lounge together along the shady square set back from the market while their wives shop. Their dress ranges from green beaded tunic to suit to khakis and polos – anything goes and yet no one seems to feel out of place.
That feeling is different for those from suburbs when they visit the city, according to Saint-Denis resident Damola Okoli who was born in the suburbs from Nigerian parents.
“There is a big difference between Paris and banlieues like Saint-Denis,” the 23 year-old, dressed in faded jeans and a brown jacket, said. “We are seen as different and do not feel the same as people in the city.”
Okoli is taking a short break from helping a family member at a market booth selling leather wallets and belts, located beyween a booth selling bright, patterned material and a salesman spouting salespitches for his knock-off designer watches.
He speaks a little broken English that he picked up from two of his friends who attend university and the occasional tourists who venture out to the market. His friends are lucky, he says, because not everyone in the banlieues gets the chance for a higher education.
“I could get a job and so I needed to take it,” he said. “To help my family. No university for me.”
Okoli said he likes living in Saint-Denis because he feels like his family can be themselves and are surrounded by others of the same Muslim faith. “We understand each other,” he said, “but I want more people to understand us.”
The French government does not take statistics on race or ethnicity, but according to Okoli most of the residents of Saint-Denis are immigrants from or descendents of northern African countries. “We are French,” he said. “Once we are here, we are not African or Nigerian but French. We just want them [the majority French people] to see us that way.”
Many news stories over the past decade have centered on the integration issue in France, including the 21-day banlieue riots in 2005, but Okoli said there is not much difference despite all the controversy. “Will change happen?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically. “I don’t know.”