From 2015 until the end of 2017 Les Grands Voisins occupied the area of the old hospital of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, in the heart of Paris. This project was all about sharing the values of hospitality and generosity, creating a spot for exchange and sociability. The project originated from the struggle against social exclusion and the idea was to experiment with new ways of living in the city. Les Grands Voisins offered a public open-air space of 15.000 m2, welcoming about 600 vulnerable people in shelters and providing a workplace for 200 associations and organisations. Start-ups, artisans and artists could rent a working space with access to the common area of the site where constructions, experiments and multiple-use facilities found their spot. The first phase of the project Les Grands Voisins. Factory of Commons ended on December 22, 2017. The coordination of Les Grands Voisins was done by three organisations: Yes We Camp, Aurore and L’Association Plateau Urbain.
The site, in fact dedicated to urban conversion by the French government, closed its doors to start preparatory constructing works at the beginning of 2018. The project developer Paris Batignolles has proposed Les Grands Voisins to extend the lifetime of their project by means of a temporary occupation of abandoned areas along the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. As a consequence, the divers cultural, economic and social activities of Les Grands Voisins are re-initiated on that location, with the objective to open up the neighbourhood even more, and bridge present and future daily uses.
Yes We Camp
“Since 2013, Yes We Camp has been active in exploring opportunities to build and provide innovative, temporary, shared facilities and spaces of a highly functional and inclusive nature. Each project is unique and draws on the professional skills of its network members and ensures sustainability by working in partnership with local stakeholders. Currently, around twenty people based in Paris and Marseilles contribute their skills in a shared desire and vision to make progress in a contemporary world.” (source: yeswecamp.org)
The Yes We Camp team is the creator and coordinator of the social and economic programme of Les Grand Voisins. They manage the bar, which is a central meeting point on the site, but they also facilitate the outside micro-market. In summer and spring 2000 people can turn up on the site, participating in concerts, parties, people university, gardening, preparing food, developing a camping area, making movies and theatre, supporting start-ups etcetera.
One of the projects selected by Yes We Camp is called ‘L’un est L’autre‘, coordinated by Ameline Bouir: “L’un est l’autre started in 2003. We have started with four couples of friends in the 19th district. We saw there were a lot of people in need of the essentials, particularly in need of food. In the beginning we had a 100 clients but the number of people in need increased. As it was difficult to continue the distribution outside (in the streets), we succeeded to occupy a local park at La Villette. We still provide meals at this place three times a week. And these meals are all prepared in our kitchens in Les Grands Voisins. As we have a good installation here, we can easily adapt our meals in function of the seasons and try to offer well-balanced food.
Since a few years we are supported and sponsored by the city council of Paris and the regional government. And now we are looking for other ways to get more money by organising events like a marché solidaire. We also collaborate with local agriculture projects and are collecting surplus food of supermarkets. The step we did from food on the streets to a place inside is very important because we offer a sort of dignity to the people.
In our group of 150 volunteers we try to have a good mixture of people, for instance we offer an alternative for prisoners. And some of our volunteers are residing here on the site. We have three professionals in our organisation: the distribution driver, the cook and me, the coordinator. The big advantage on being here on the site of Les Grands Voisins is that it can grow organically because of the presence of a lot of associations and the structure. It permits a lot of collaboration between the different organisations, it gives us inspiration to develop new methods.
By following this way with all this organisations, we create a kind of positive lobbying. Showing that economy can be based on other values than growth and benefice. Our purpose is not only distributing meals but we see it as a more global sustainable project, trying to give a better future to the people in need.”
A second project that is part of Yes We Camp is an art gallery. It was Maël Aïnine Cherif, artist and resident in one of the Aurore shelters, who started this gallery project. He wanted to create a common place where artists can create, expose and exchange. Every three weeks there’s a new collective exhibition. Once the theme is chosen, the artists of Les Grands Voisins can decide if they want to participate. The ones joining the project work together on all the aspects of the exhibition: set up, selection of the works, promo, organisation of the opening… We met one of the artists, photographer Laetitia Montaigy.
“The subject of my expo is homelessness. I took pictures of homeless people in the streets of Paris. This subject was not chosen by accident. I was homeless too for quite a while. A terrible and dangerous life, especially for women. Spending days of calling to shelters to ask whether there are any vacancies, days just waiting. During the night not daring to sleep because you have to be vigilant, there are dangers everywhere. That’s why you can see people sleeping during the day, that’s much safer. But big cities, because they are more concerned about tourists, don’t want us to sleep in parks or in public stations. That’s bad for their image! They manage to design benches that prevents people from lying down. When people come to the exhibition, they’re often shocked. “Wow, this is hard to look at,” they say. Strange, they see the same people everyday in the metro, in stations and in parks and just pass by… Why are they touched during an exhibition and not in everyday life? Les Grands Voisins is a good place for a lot of people. It’s a melting pot where your voice counts, even if you’re from here. Thanks to these people I can show the world a part of me that was hidden. It gives me some hope for the future.”
The third project in Yes We Camp is La Ressourcerie Créative. It is dedicated to re-use, giving a second life to discarded furniture. It is a space of social and solidarity based economy, a real place for exchange where you find good deals, participate in creative workshops, inform yourself about environmental initiatives and can get involved as a volunteer. We spoke to Sabine Arrondelle, coordinator and co-founder.
“We want to give a second life to objects and at the same time create decent jobs. People can bring the things they don’t use anymore: furniture, clothes, toys, … We clean, repaint, repair and put them in the shop where people can buy them cheaply. With this money, we pay our rent to Les Grands Voisins, pay our people and set up other projects. We had started a file to get European grant money, but it took such a long time and so much energy to go all the way that we decided to do it our own way. With our organisation we like to make a political statement against our society that is based on consuming and eternal growth. Everyone should be aware that buying something has consequences for the environment, human rights… A group of our clients are people in real need who cannot afford buying new stuff, but the greater part are people coming for the atmosphere and the social aspects. They refuse our throwaway society. It is good to be located in a bigger spot like Les Grands Voisins. The residents of Aurore also find their way to our shop. It becomes a meeting place and instead of isolating and staying in their room, they like to make themselves useful by helping. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of interference between the residents and the visitors of Les Grands Voisins. They’re two different worlds with different languages and preoccupations and it’s difficult to break down the barriers. Nevertheless, Les Grands Voisins is a very important project. We should create this kind of places all over Europe. It can be so important for the hopeless and the forgotten in our societies.”
The shelter centre of Aurore looks after temporarily homeless persons and helps them in their efforts to obtain their human and civil rights and to find an accommodation. The shelter is unconditional, it means that there is no selection procedure. The association Aurore struggles against social exclusion by assisting homeless people, giving them aid and a place to set up camp.
Pierre Gaillard has worked here since February 2017. He lives twenty days a month in the centre amongst the residents. “112 people live in the pavilion where I work. And there are five pavilions like that. Officially, we have 600 people on the site, but in reality there are a 1000 people sleeping here. We accept people without papers, former prisoners, homeless persons, deprived people. Don’t fall into a black-or-white analysis here, we’re the grey area: we can successfully mix the economic questions and social emergencies by opening up to the public. This works best for our residents when there are not too many visitors on the site either. When there are evening events like parties and concerts going on with around 1000 visitors, you will find no residents mixing in, mostly because one has to dress up and spend money to blend in, which is, of course, a problem. Also, many of our residents have some sort of mental health problem, which makes it also difficult for them.
Les Grands Voisins is a truly extraordinary space. Yes We Camp, Plateau Urbain, Aurore, the coordination team, 250 artists and craftsmen have their headquarters here and have agreed to share space and make minds and knowledge meet. Social workers can be found in the centres. The mix of all the diverse activities and organisations is a beautiful opportunity, but also a pitfall. When you discover the site, participate the activities and workshops, you don’t realise the presence of the residents carrying their personal problems.
At the end of 2017 it’s over here. The city of Paris will build an eco-social housing district with public facilities. That project is taking shape. It will exist over the period of 2018 until 2020 and have a slightly different structure than the one existing today. However, this project is the fruit of the efforts of Aurore, Yes We camp, Plateau Urbain and the thousands of people who came here. The 1000 residents will be relocated.”
After talking to Gaillard, we met Louise Nounkeu, a resident of the Aurore Association. “I come from Cameroon and have been living here for two years now. I am very happy to be here. You can really settle down here, because the streets were not very welcome. Outside it is a permanent struggle for food and a place to sleep. Here at Les Grands Voisins, you feel save and secure and you can participate in a lot of activities. I help with repairing clothes at La Ressourcerie, where I get paid with tickets (the unofficial Les Grands Voisins money). With these tickets I can buy food and other things. I like the good vibes here: we exchange a lot of ideas, knowledge, we can study in small groups and make plans for our future. Nevertheless, I keep on dreaming of finding a real job out there and to be able to lead an independent life without social help.”
L’Association Plateau Urbain
Plateau Urbain tries to create a link between owners of unoccupied buildings and organisations in the cultural or social sector. These organisations can temporary use the buildings and are paying a small rent.
They made an astonishing evolution. Before joining Les Grands Voisins they were a small association, but because of their affiliation with the project, they received a lot of publicity. Today, they are an important partner of the local government concerning temporary managing of vacant city spots. Plateau Urbain is all about the restructuring the city wilderness into a temporary oasis. If the new destination of the building is for social purposes, so much the better. Recently, they also created a cultural spot in an old concert hall for a period of three months.
Interview and photos by Victoria Deluxe