Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Losing the Rag

The neighbourhood I live in is dull, though likeable enough; the main advantage of living here is that it is close to most parts of Paris that I ever have need to travel to. It is in walking distance (and even shorter cycling distance) of my work, where most of my friends live and where I spend most my time socialising. But other than that there is very little to recommend the area; apart from one or two cafés and cheap pizzerias the whole place closes down at 8pm. During the day it is choked with traffic and, consequently, incessantly hooting horns; the blockages are mainly caused by vans with Spanish, Dutch, Romanian and Polish numberplates loading stock from the dozens of clothing wholesalers that line the rues du Chemin Vert, Popincourt, Sedaine and the boulevards that cross them, Voltaire, and avenue Parmentier. As well as the traffic problems that are caused by this, the area has an anaemic air to it, deprived of even a superficial sense of community that might be felt further north on Oberkampf or further east near the Place d'Aligre.

The demographic adjustment of the area, which has seen a number of small businesses being forced out because of rising rents and the greater profitability of leasing premises to clothing wholesalers, has been causing concern for a number of years and the veteran Socialist mayor of the 11th arrondissement, Georges Sarre has launched a campaign to challenge the 'mono-activity' that the area had been subjected to. The International Herald Tribune has a story on it today that manages to be both questionably partial for a news report and perfidious in its attempt to ascribe the objections of the locals to a childish stubborness in failing to open their neighbourhood up to the 'reality of globalisation'. The following three paragraphs are an example of this:

The brewing battle in this small patch of Paris is a fishbowl version of France's reluctance to accept both the pain and the promise of an increasingly competitive international economy, which the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, says the country must face up to.

"Nobody can escape globalization," he said in a speech during his successful campaign. "The world is moving very fast, and we have not been able to move at the same rate."

France has a complicated relationship with the idea of a free market, let alone with its worldwide version. In a poll published in April 2006, only 36 percent of French people interviewed agreed that free enterprise was the best system for the world's future.

That was the lowest score in the 20-country survey conducted by GlobeScan, a Toronto-based research firm, and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes in Washington. China topped the list with 74 percent.

The story is syndicated from Bloomberg Media so one must surrender immediately the hope of normal acceptable journalistic standards being complied to there; the Herald Tribune's scandalously biased reportage in the run-up to and aftermath of the French presidential elections similarly makes one despair of the Parisians getting a fair hearing on this. Even the title of the story tries to make hay with the implication that racism or xenophobia might be responsible for Sarre's campaign, as the clothing wholesalers are mostly, though not exclusively, Chinese. Having lived here for over a year I have seen no evidence of hostility towards Chinese people in the area (two Chinese-owned shops lease space in my building).

The issue is not, of course though, an influx of small Chinese businessman but a homogeneous model of commercial activity that impedes the maintenance of a genuine local economy that would benefit from diverse merchants, as many other parts of Paris do. The fact that the rag shops attract a heavy volume of traffic into the area without providing a service for people that live nearby (being wholesalers there is no possibility of individuals buying there) is matter enough for concern. Sarre's argument that such a commercial activity would be better located in suburban business parks is a perfectly reasonably one. There have been no similar campaigns launched against Chinese businessmen running computer retail and repair stores in the 12th arrondissment, restaurants in the 11th or tabacs throughout Paris, because, unlike the Popincourt-Sedaine wholesale shops, those activities provide valuable services for local people (local people that come from all over the world, I might point out).

The familiar free-market objection to local people attempting to shape commercial activity is predictable but no less fatuous for that. I don't blame the Chinese businessmen for moving into property that they can afford that has a city-centre location close to other businesses that they know; most would do so in their position. But just as the free market must not be held irreproachable when the environment or public health is threatened, so it should not be allowed to turn a previously vibrant part of a major city into an urban backwater. People who proclaim the primacy of the market and its capacity to sort things out on its own - when the opposite is quite clearly the case in many countries - are in effect no different from those determinist historians of the far right and left that underpinned totalitarianism in the last century.

Besides, free marketeers are perfectly apt to adjust urban landscapes and habitations to suit themselves; Paris bears the scars of this, particularly during the Haussmanian rebuilding in the 19th century. So does, more recently, New York, since Rudy Giuliani's notorious clean-up, and it is now, ironically, presided over by the owner of the partisan media group whence the adjoined story originated. There are many New Yorkers, native and adopted, that believe that the soul has gone out the place since. I'll leave it to a full reproduction of the lyrics to 'New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down' from LCD Soundsystem's wonderful new album 'Sound of Silver' to put it better than I ever could. I will post on James Murphy's latest brilliant creation later; in the meantime read, enjoy and listen to the record whenever you get the chance.

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

Like a rat in a cage
Pulling minimum wage

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, you're safer
And you're wasting my time

Our records all show
You are filthy but fine

But they shuttered your stores
When you opened the doors
To the cops who were bored
Once they'd run out of crime

New York, you're perfect
Don't please don't change a thing

Your mild billionaire mayor's
Now convinced he's a king

So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect

In the neighborhood bars
I'd once dreamt I would drink

New York, I Love You
But you're freaking me out

There's a ton of the twist
But we're fresh out of shout

Like a death in the hall
That you hear through your wall

New York, I Love You
But you're freaking me out

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

New York, I Love You
But you're bringing me down

Like a death of the heart
Jesus, where do I start?

But you're still the one pool
Where I'd happily drown

And oh.. Take me off your mailing list
For kids that think it still exists
Yes, for those who think it still exists

Maybe I'm wrong
And maybe you're right
Maybe I'm wrong
And maybe you're right

Maybe you're right
Maybe I'm wrong
And just maybe you're right

And Oh..
Maybe mother told you true
And they're always be something there for you
And you'll never be alone

But maybe she's wrong
And maybe I'm right
And just maybe she's wrong

Maybe she's wrong
And maybe I'm right
And if so, is there?