Les Courtillières – a troubled district reinvents itself

A portrait of residents who want to break with clichés and talk about solidarity and mutual support rather than violence. We caught up with some of them between the community centre and the mosque.

The suburb of Les Courtillières in Pantin (Departement 93), built in the 1950s, is a good example for the current modernisation of large housing complexes in the Parisian suburbs. Like 500 other neighbourhoods in France that are considered social problem areas, it has profited from the various urban rehabilitation programmes carried out since the 2000s. The famous “Serpentin” social housing complex was renovated and decorated with mosaics. Some residents were assigned new apartments to make room for new arrivals. Thus, little by little, the residential estate is getting a new look. Quieter, but also less vibrant, as some would say.

In July 2015, the suburb attracted attention when two women were stabbed and killed by their neighbour. “To be honest, while that’s very unfortunate, I don’t think it casts a bad light on the work of the city council who are trying to improve life in this neighbourhood, it doesn’t even mean an increase in local violence,” a resident said after the incident.

  • Kévin N’Gangu, 26, youth leader at the municipal youth club, in front of the “Serpentin” © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Kévin N’Gangu, 26, youth leader at the municipal youth club, in front of the “Serpentin”

    “Les Courtillières is like its own city within Pantin. It’s far away from everything, the shopping centres, the city hall, the train station. But it’s a small village, everybody knows everybody, so there are no problems between people ... even if the mood isn’t what it used to be. At the same time, we offer activities for young people at the community centre that we ourselves didn’t necessarily have when we were younger. And it’s not just games. We create a dialogue, we communicate values.”
  • Bernadette Marlin, 56, participant in community centre activities © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Bernadette Marlin, 56, participant in community centre activities

    “Theoretically, the renovations have improved this suburb, because it really wasn’t nice. But there used to be a tobacconist, a dry-cleaner’s, newspapers. You could say “I’m going to buy flowers.” The park was fantastic as well. We neighbours used to get along really well, even if there was too much gossip. Now many people have moved away. I’ve lost friends. Luckily there’s the community centre, my second home. Recently, at the reading group, a book made me cry.”
  • Kévin Levéziel, 19, postal worker in training, in front of the community centre © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Kévin Levéziel, 19, postal worker in training, in front of the community centre

    “We’re a family here, we integrate even people we don’t know straight away. But we’ve got a terrible reputation. People see the 93rd as a dangerous place, and us as criminals. But they say that without knowing us. Their loss. Something I don’t like at the moment are the construction works. Nobody understands what they’re doing, nobody wants to know what we think. There are no more shops, nothing. People are passing each other without looking up. I’ll move to Paris as soon as I can.”
  • Nathalie Huleux, 32, in the old “market square” © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Nathalie Huleux, 32, in the old “market square”

    “I have always lived here. The mood has changed enormously. It’s become much quieter and nicer here since the renovations. My friends and I used to meet in the square, but that stopped when they renovated everything, nobody meets up anymore. There’s also a lack of playgrounds and small shops. Nonetheless, life in the suburb remains important, we strongly support each other. For example, if I need an egg, I ask my neighbour.”
  • Sébastien Durand, tram driver © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Sébastien Durand, tram driver

    “I moved here with my family in 2015 because the rents were cheaper. We initially had an unfavourable view of this suburb, a perception from twenty years ago that survives to this day. As a matter of fact, things have changed a lot, it’s become quieter and more modern. We’re not far from the Fort d’Aubervilliers station, which will be a stop on the Grand Paris Express [Editor’s note: an underground circle train connecting the cities on the outskirts of Paris]. That will bring more people here. But my impression is that people like to keep to themselves, to their communities. Except the children. The children do intermingle.”
  • Stéphanie Hannach, production assistant © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Stéphanie Hannach, production assistant

    “I spent my entire childhood in a building that was torn down last year. It was rough for us when they destroyed it. Now I live behind it, in the “Serpentin”. I’m very fond of this suburb, it’s my home. I’d like to see more playgrounds for the children, more green spaces and most of all more activities for young people. There’s not much to do here for young folk, you see many who are bored.”
  • Fousseynou Danfakha, 22, in front of the Les Courtillières mosque © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Fousseynou Danfakha, 22, in front of the Les Courtillières mosque

    “It’s not the most beautiful suburb, especially compared to Paris. But for me, it’s good the way it is. There are no problems whatsoever between the various groups. My neighbours have a different religion and we get along really well. Our mosque has already been falsely accused of teaching the wrong values. In fact, it’s the opposite, the imam is very vigilant. He does everything to prevent radicalisation. Incidentally, radical groups are in the minority and don’t stand for the entire community.”
  • Ahmed Zeghache, pensioner © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Ahmed Zeghache, pensioner

    “We’re Frenchmen, but Frenchmen who came from somewhere else. I like the young people here better than the old ones because the youngsters don’t care where they come from. The suburb has evolved a lot since we’ve had the mosque, it’s bringing people closer together. The November 13 attacks have hit us hard here. My son was at Stade de France and my daughter, a journalist, at the Bataclan. We were all affected.”
  • Sada Ciré © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Sada Ciré

    “I’ve lived here for 23 years. This used to be a rowdy and violent area. The mosque has calmed it down. We are lucky to have an imam who was born here and knows how to talk to young people. We also support each other strongly. If there is a problem with an adolescent, we talk about it amongst ourselves, with his parents and with him. It’s a task for the entire community. The problem is that there are no jobs for young people. If they don’t work, they need to keep themselves busy in some way. So they hang out in the stairwells, kicking up a row.”
  • Zina Barrani (29), Toussaint Boos (30), students, and Samuel Ramirez, who sells paintings, on the balcony of their shared flat © Constance Bernard & Marine Leduc
    Zina Barrani (29), Toussaint Boos (30), students, and Samuel Ramirez, who sells paintings, on the balcony of their shared flat

    “We believe in this suburb, it’s green, quiet and peaceful. Of course people have misgivings, but when friends come by and see the size of the apartments, they are astonished. In Paris, they get fifteen square metres for the same price. People are still hesitant at the moment, but this suburb will inevitably be gentrified. The only problem are a few residents who throw garbage from the windows. But otherwise it’s a safe and tolerant neighbourhood. You see girls in burqas as well as girls in miniskirts.”