Garden of Virtues

In the final post in this month's series looking at artist and community responses to extractivism, Sylvie Decaux brings us a green-fingered resistance story from the heart of Paris. In the summer of 2021, activist groups occupied the 'jardins ouvriers' – or working people’s allotments – in the poor suburb of Aubervilliers, in an attempt to defend them from rampant urban planning and privatisation. 
is Associate Professor of English, Communications and Publishing Studies at the University of Paris. As a committed environmentalist, she is involved in the 'Collective for the Gonesse Triangle and Transition Towns' movement. Her hobbies are creative writing and cycling. She lives in Paris with her partner and has two grown-up children.

 In mourning for the plundered land, I arrive dressed in black – ready to keen. When I get there, I find a joyful carnival. There is a huge red dragon, with a long tongue to harvest nectar and two bulbous eyes like a bee’s. There are Puck-like elves wearing animal masks and crowns of leaves. A batucada (samba) band with its rhythms is in full swing. There is a giant toad, in danger of becoming an endangered species, in reference to George Orwell’s ‘Thoughts of the Common Toad’. The crowd is huge and colourfully dressed, waving banners full of humour and wordplay.

I arrive in the middle of a passionate speech by a lady gardener with long grey hair. She is recounting the story behind the Garden of Virtues. These gardens – jardins ouvriers, or working people’s allotments – in the poor suburb of Aubervilliers, are being plundered by Grand Paris Aménagement, the administration in charge of urban planning and development in the Paris region. It is the sad but old story of privatising public space, concreting over the few remaining green places in the interest of real estate speculation. 

It is a kind of mega machine we are witnessing now. There were isolated struggles before, but we hadn’t seen the complete picture, we hadn’t seen it coming, and now it is breaking out all over the place. The great accelerator behind this is the 2024 Olympic Games. ‘But we won’t let it happen, we will fight!’ – the lady gardener with long grey hair is saying, galvanising the crowd.

It is the sad but old story of privatising public space, concreting over the few remaining green places in the interest of real estate speculation. 

A convergence of struggles is taking place: the Gonesse Triangle, the Plateau de Saclay and the Parc Georges Valbon are all being threatened by plans of new developments. And then there are the smaller battles, like the slip road in St-Ouen, the Bergerie des Mal Assis (‘Sheep Pen of the Badly Seated’) in Bagnolet, the wood in Pré St Gervais and the agricultural school in Grignon. All in the name of the megalopolis. Building it bigger, higher, wider, with more glass, more concrete, more hubris.

The Trojan horse is a super metro, called the Grand Paris Express. It will circle Paris, with 68 stations and their mushrooming gentrified neighbourhoods, for the profit of a few and the detriment of many. What people are beginning to understand as construction progresses is that this metro is, in many cases, not very useful in terms of people’s transport needs, connecting places that don’t connect, and is also devouring good farmland (excavating 43 million tonnes of soil which forever polluted, will be dumped elsewhere – many of our parks, like the Parc Georges Valbon in the neighbouring town of La Courneuve, are in fact old dumps). People are beginning to feel instinctively that in a time of pandemics and global warming, we need food sovereignty, land that will trap water and cool temperatures, trees and fields and gardens to create poetry and offer places to lie in the sun or in the rain, to remember we are terrestrial beings.

Meanwhile, in front of the gardens, a woman in a red dress and an old man with white beard are addressing the media, a forest of microphones – we’re not against the proposed swimming pool, they are saying – half the children here can’t swim – it’s the solarium, the hammam, the sauna, with an entrance price at €16. It won’t be for the people here. It will be for the bobos (‘champagne socialists’) they’ll take the metro, go to the aquatic centre and spend the evening at Zingaro. Is that the world we want? An eco-district, soaring real estate prices, gentrification, where the  inhabitants will be left with one meagre square metre of greenery per person; is that what we want? The term ‘eco-district’ is a lie. In reality, it’s just real estate speculation and property development, dressed up by putting the word ‘eco’ in front.

 

The Gardens were created in 1935 on what was called the Plain of Virtues, which until 1876 had been a huge market garden for feeding Paris. The gardens are what remain – 70,000 square metres of allotments where the inhabitants of the towers in the neighbouring council estates, often from other countries, cultivate cabbage, onions, tomatoes and fruit. The area is a poverty stricken wasteland, reflecting the complex history of the industrialisation and de-industrialisation of the 20th century. 

The gardens of Aubervilliersan oasis in an urban environment (photo: Sylvie Decaux)

The brochure put together by the collective defending the gardens contains testimonies from the gardeners whose plots are under threat:

You see there, under my garden, there will be the platforms of the metro. 

I come here every weekend with my head full of problems. I hang them up on the fig tree when I arrive. And when I leave, they are no longer there.

I share everything with my neighbours. I make jars with the tomatoes I’ve collected.

What enriches the gardens is that the gardeners have different origins. When they come back from visiting their country, they bring back seeds.

It is an education of the senses. If you need water or a tool, people are mostly kind.

You are planting? I’ll give you seedlings. 

 

We enter the jardins ouvriers. It is a warm spring day. The trees are in blossom, green everywhere, there is beauty. Small blue flowers, some cabbages. All of the fruit trees are in bloom. I find a place to sit down. Gilles, young with curly hair and brown eyes, sits by me. We have seen each other before and we search for the connection, a demonstration against the university reform. He is finishing a PhD in geography about the effects of real estate speculation on a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. After the financial crisis in 2008, the people who had made a fortune with GMOs and soya plantations no longer trusted the financial markets, so they invested in luxury real estate. The same thing has happened in India. He has a colleague who is researching what is taking place in cities there. And also in London, where I saw with my own eyes the transformation of the cityscape.

Then Marlène sits next to me. She’s just had a hip operation and walks with a crutch. She finds a comfortable place. Before the pandemic, she used to run laughter yoga workshops. We remark that most of the people in the march leading to the gardens are white. Most of the people in the towers that we waved to as we were marching by are not. What would happen if all the people in the towers came down and joined the march?

There are divisions amongst the gardeners. Some are happy to comply with the city hall’s order to leave, others are resigned. They have other worries. Just so long as they can get access to another patch to cultivate. They have experience of struggles that have failed. They are worried about creating problems for themselves, they are more at risk. Their lives are more precarious. We speculate amongst ourselves, wondering what will happen.

Later I remember in the march how the women danced joyfully. And the sun dappled through the trees.

 

In Aubervilliers, what is at stake is an enclave of greenery – 2.5 hectares – less than four kilometres north of Paris. Four thousand square metres are to be plundered for an Olympic swimming pool and an aquatic centre complete with solarium and hammam. Eighteen plots used by eighteen families will be lost. Right next to this new aquatic centre an eco-district is to be built at the foot of the Fort of Aubervilliers. The fort was built in the 1840s by the sinister Adolphe Thiers and his cronies, who thirty years later would crush the Paris Commune, firing on the people of Paris, killing 20,000 in just one week, la semaine sanglante. The fort was part of the fortifications, known as the fortif, just outside of which was la zone, a shantytown ripe with les Apaches, the bad boys of the 1900s, or so the newspapers and popular fiction depicted them, fiction I read in my teens, unaware of the history and ideology it carried.

During the First World War, the army installed the Ateliers de Fabrication des Obus Toxiques there, the factory of toxic shells, where mustard gas was tested on animals. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s experiments on radioactivity were made, and even more recently, in the 1950s. There may still be radioactivity there, we don’t know, it’s kept quiet if there is. At some point it housed a gendarmerie barracks, and a scrapyard, a huge cemetery for cars. It became a place for punk concerts and street art.

As one artist put it: It’s typical of the place. If companies don’t know what to do with their waste, they dump it at the Fort d’Aubervilliers!

Destroy gardens = destroy humans (photo: Sylvie Decaux)

Several days later I go back to the Garden of Virtues in Aubervilliers. This time, while some people are planning the next phase of their defence, I join a small group of women. Our task is to make an inventory of all the trees that would be destroyed if the plunderers have their way. Two greengage trees, four apple trees, eight fig trees, eight laurels (I had no idea they could grow so tall!), five lilacs, four cherry trees, four plum trees, one apricot tree (we are not sure about that one), one mirabelle plum tree, one very large and ancient walnut tree, vines, rosemary, one palm tree.

We make signs that say ‘I am a cherry tree, and I am a living being’, or ‘I am a plum tree, let me live.’ We want to give the trees a voice. It is soothing to work together, to apply plant-based paints on wooden planks or pieces of cardboard, to thread a piece of yarn and to hang a sign. To make up slogans. People come and go, watch us work, join us or don’t. Spring is in its full glory.

On my way home from the gardens, I go through the neighbouring cemetery, the Cimetière Parisien de Pantin. It is huge, with massive old trees after which the paths are named: allée des hêtres (beech), allée des mûriers blancs (white mulberry), allée des marroniers d’Inde (horse chestnuts), allée des sycomores (sycamores), allée des frênes monophylles (one-leaved ash). A huge part of it is for Jewish graves. I go past a plot of Chinese graves, with swirling columns, golden ideograms engraved in black polished granite and at the foot of the tombs, crouched dragons, or maybe they are dogs. And a small part dedicated to the victims of the Second World War, concrete markers, sometimes inscribed with inconnu. There was an Allied bombing on 21st April 1944 not very far away. The cemetery covers 107 hectares. There are 30 species of tree and one million people buried there. An oasis in the busy city. Empty of people apart from the dead. I didn’t even know it existed.

We are living in a time when two worldviews are clashing. One is messy, with old tools lying around (…) The other is safe, clean, noxious and deadly 

The next day a wall is built in the Garden of Virtues using straw bales and mud, terre paille, a type of construction much favoured by permaculturalists because it is reversible. It is the people’s fort, built with many hands. Like a child’s sandcastle, when it is no longer needed it will come down easily, the straw will be used to mulch the fruit trees and the vegetable patches. It is a life force against the concrete the developers are trying to pour over.

When I look at the Fort d’Aubervilliers website and the artists’ impression of what is to be built, what becomes clear is that we are living in a time when two worldviews are clashing. One is messy, with old tools lying around, cabbages and beans, with little comfort, except that provided by the earth and the plants and the rain or sun, with self-expression in the form of sheds with their paintings, and songs and shared words – roots, and the warmth of community. The other is safe, clean, noxious and deadly: bland, state-controlled, sterile, predictable, based on fossil fuels and destruction of life. We’ve all seen it before. The old population will be displaced, and the earth excavated, torn asunder: the rich black fertile soil of the Ile-de-France, the reason why Paris was originally built here. In the 19th century, this place in the north of the city was called the Plain of Virtues. It was part of the old plaine Saint Denis that fed the capital.

This knowledge is new to me. It is not what I was taught and it is not part of the stories I was told about the city. The Garden of Virtues is not just a landmark or a pretty place to spend an afternoon, it is part of the story of this place – this land, this continent, this world – and should not be cast aside so carelessly.

 

UPDATE: Over the summer of 2021, activists occupied the gardens to defend them from redevelopment, building a ZAD – ‘zone à défendre’. They were expelled by the police on 2nd September and part of the gardens were bulldozed. A march to save farmland and gardens from urbanisation all over the Ile-de-France was organised on 9th and 10th 0ctober – drawing thousands of activists and citizens. Since then the case has been before the courts in the hope of halting construction work. On 6th December, a ruling authorised the building of the swimming pool.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

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