Why Caravelle escaped riots
It was calm while other poor French suburbs burned
The key: Facelift made the complex more liveable
Nov. 12, 2005. 01:00 AM
VILLENEUVE-LA-GARENNE, France—As France's impoverished suburbs burned, residents of the notorious Caravelle public housing complex were braced for the worst.
During its troubled history, Caravelle's youth never missed a chance to riot in the northern outskirts of Paris.
This time, an amazing thing is happening: as youths in other segregated suburbs sustain a two-week frenzy of violence, those in Caravelle remain peaceful.
The worst any of them could muster was a small fire in a garbage can.
"We expected much more, but nothing happened," said Caravelle resident Rashid Bellouti, a 33-year-old bus driver.
"They didn't burn any cars — it was really surprising. Maybe they've changed their whole way of thinking. The place is certainly not as wild as it used to be," he added yesterday.
Bellouti credits the dramatic shift in attitude to a major change in Caravelle's physical appearance — a transformation touted as central to solving troubles plaguing France's isolated public housing compounds.
Racism against French citizens of immigrant backgrounds, along with unemployment and dropout rates significantly higher than the national average, had much to do with the anger that triggered the worst French riots in decades.
But the layout of many of France's public housing complexes, particularly the 1 million rent-capped apartments in impoverished suburban zones, is recognized as a contributing source of alienation and crime.
A month before riots exploded and spread to 300 French towns, Caravelle's residents — most from African and Arab backgrounds — celebrated the end of a 10-year, 100 million euro "remodelling" project.
"The problem is that it was completely closed in on itself and completely cut off from the city around it. We opened it up," said architect Roland Castro, a leading urban planner.
Built in 1968, the 1,620 apartments were concentrated in a unified, 400-metre-long row. This nearly half-kilometre of concrete loomed over the more affluent part of town like a Great Wall of China. Attached to it were L-shaped apartment rows.
Only residents ventured inside its courtyards, turf that for years was controlled by gangs, some involved in drug dealing.
Police largely considered it a no-go area. Eight years ago, an officer was seriously hurt when someone threw a chunk of concrete at him from the 11th floor.
By removing stairways, Castro cut three openings into the 400-metre wall of apartments and paved roads through them to connect the complex with the affluent side of town.
He lined the roads with trees and lights, added a row of stores facing the affluent side, built a cultural centre, a half-sized soccer field, a basketball court and playgrounds, and gave all the apartments a complete facelift.
When riots first broke out Oct. 27 in a segregated public housing complex just to the east, Caravelle's young residents found themselves without the urge to trash their transformed home.
"When they saw that all of this had been done for them, everyone calmed down and politeness and courtesy returned to La Caravelle," said Castro, 65.
Said Bellouti, who has lived in Caravelle for five years: "People are much less afraid. The place is more open. Before, the long building made it hard even for the police to access the site."
Bellouti, whose parents emigrated from Algeria before he was born, said lights keep youths playing on the courts and out of trouble until 1 a.m.
These kinds of sports facilities are not found in the neighbourhood of Bouna Traore, whose death sparked the riots that saw more than 6,000 cars burned and almost 2,000 people detained across France. Traore, 15, had gone to play soccer at a field in a middle-class neighbourhood. He and his friend died on their way home, electrocuted inside an electrical substation after hiding from police.
Castro said all three public housing complexes he has "remodelled" have so far avoided the violence that engulfed other suburbs.
The government recognizes the design of public housing has contributed to making life miserable for its residents. Similar thinking is behind the plan to redevelop Toronto's Regent Park, a public housing complex also cut off from the rest of the city because there are no through streets.