Les Banlieues - Lost in Transition

March 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The French translation of suburb is banlieue.  But in connotation, the words are near opposites.  In the US, the word suburbia suggests green lawns, peace and prosperity, happy children at play,a retreat separated from the problems and stress of cities.  Ironic titles like “Suburgatory” and “Disturbia” work because they suggest that behind this ideal picture, not all is well.  That irony would be impossible in France.  The French term banlieue calls up an entirely different image, one something like our “inner city” only bleaker – a place of crime, violence, gangs, unemployment, riots, and people with darker skins.
In the Hausmann-Napoleon III makeover of Paris in the 1870s, les misérables were pushed to the outskirts of the city and beyond.  Nearly a century later, that was where the post-War government built the high rise HLMs (roughly, “the projects”), primarily for the influx of laborers from North Africa.  

(Click on a picture for a larger view.)
A half-century, the fruits of that misguided urban planning appear in “Banlieue 93,” Arnau Bach’s photo exhibition.  The 93 is the postal/département designation of an area at the eastern edge of Paris. Charles DeGaulle airport lies at the outer edge of the 93 in Roissy. Closer to Paris are places like Bobigny, where Bach took most of his photos.

The entire collection of thirty-six photos with captions is at the photojournalism site Pictures of the Year, where it was awarded first prize.

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