An Attempt to Reinvent Seine-Saint-Denis

By: Miriam Friedman

The different styles of Saint-Denis: a  revealing outfit beside a long modest dress, and a student standing in the mirror in between. Photograph by Miriam Friedman

Stepping off the penultimate subway stop on Metro line 13 means entering a different world from the traditional picturesque Paris. This is Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, colloquially referred to as “the 93.” This is a place that tourists do not usually frequent, a place where the smell of garbage permeates through the air instead of that of buttered croissants. It is a place unlike the central area near the Eiffel tower, one where people dress in tattered t-shirts and sneakers instead of dresses and heels.

Seine-Saint-Denis has long been a unique suburb. But although people of various nationalities and religions have been living in the area for years, it has only recently begun to take pride in its diversity. The juxtaposition of shops that cater to different religious sects, and the emergence of exhibits that promote inclusion are a testament to the new self-worth of the district. Saint-Denis is attempting to recreate its image in a way that preserves its history, while embracing its modern heterogeneous culture.

To a first-time visitor, the outside Saint-Denis seems like a place wrought with contradiction. Clothing stores across the neighborhood sell a mixture of modest and conservative garments; merchants display short red party dresses and long black skirts beside each other for an equal fare of three Euros. While some people in the market dress in mini-skirts and short sleeve shirts, others cover their bodies with burkas.

But the inside of the suburb’s central Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Denis, is homogenous. Though its welcome book is filled with long messages written in both neat calligraphy and carelessly messy script, all the notes have one thing in common: they are all written in French.

Amandine Deochampo, a worker in the Basilica. Photograph by Miriam Friedman

In recent years, the Basilica has seen a decline in international tourism. One of the church guards, Amandine Deochampo, 26, insists that this is because of “terrorism.” Many of the terror plots have been hatched in this area. She says that with the rise in violent attacks, tourists are more reluctant to go to “non-essential” sites with reputations for being unsafe. Suddenly the 1,700-year history of the Basilica is forgotten, replaced by excursions to local cafes in the center of Paris. This is something the Church is trying to change.

The “Mater” exhibit in the basement of the basilica stands at the height of this ideal. According to the 26-year-old museum manager Eliot Boulate, it was put on display “to promote the diversity within Saint Denis.” The mothers are faces of different women who live in the district. In the description on a panel in front of these portraits, the artist, Ariles de Tizi, explains this is a payment to “women and martyrs of exile,” a tribute to the fringe members of society; it is a welcome to the previously excluded personalities.

Since Boulate began working at the museum eighteen months ago, the Mater exhibit is the second one that has come to tell this tale of inclusivity. Last year, the church had a collection of religious robes made of fabrics from countries across the globe. The piece was well received, which prompted the board of the basilica to sponsor more long term projects of this kind. There are plans for another two similar exhibitions to come to the church caverns in the next year.

Today, the Basilica has informational brochures in six languages, and many signs throughout the building are translated into the most common four (French, English, Spanish, German). Aside from these translations, the cathedral is also creating incentives for more people to visit. It offers free guided tours to people with low incomes, and discounted tours to international students during the summertime. It also has more security than it did in the past. The staff hopes that this will elevate the dirtied status of the city, and encourage more people to visit.

These efforts show a Saint-Denis that is struggling to reinvent itself. But despite these attempts, the suburb is still wrought with high unemployment, drug crimes, and terrorism. Though it is cultivating a new identity, it still has a long road ahead.

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