SCHILTIGHEIM — We didn’t see the big grey sedan coming, before it had stopped in the middle of the parking lot in the downtown shopping center. There are a dozen little boys killing time between the parked cars, drinking soda and talking football.
Welcome to the Marais housing project in Schiltigheim, on the outskirts of Strasbourg in the eastern French region of Alsace. This troubled urban area is stuck between the canal that flows toward the German border and the tramway heading to the center of Strasbourg, a favorite tourist destination and home to the European Parliament.
Two men emerge from the vehicle — one extra-large with rings on his fingers, and his shorter companion in a tank top way too big for him. They shake some hands, and ask the boys how “the family” is doing.
Quickly, though, they move on to serious matters: they are here on business. But nothing for the vice squad, no drugs, no guns, just T-shirts and beach shorts. Soon enough, the bigger guy opens the trunk while the other hangs the clothes labeled Yves Saint Laurent, Diesel, Dolce & Gabbana and Rivaldi, among others. Other bags of clothes are waiting at the back of the car.
One of the sellers announces very low prices: 25 euros for a T-shirt, and 25 for shorts. In stores, the same products cost between 200 and 300 euros.
“Is it real or fake?” one of the boys asks.
“It’s only real stuff,” says the big guy. “Check out the fabric! You pay five euros more if you buy the same product from the gypsies at the market.”
We saw the same sellers a few hours earlier in the streets of Neuhof, another one of Strasbourg’s underprivileged areas. When we ask them why they moved, they say there were too many police around. But they won’t stay long here either. They pack up their merchandise even though they didn’t sell anything, and head to another neighborhood.
About 10 businesses like this one flourish in each poor neighborhood. Street peddlers, improvised hair stylists, unlicensed taxi drivers, scooter retailers, non-declared mechanics, home cooks — anything that is neither legal nor terribly harmful.
This little “resourcefulness” economy, which official statistics don’t account for, is the way many poor people who live in housing projects survive. “It is very difficult to measure this black economy,” says Didier Lapeyronnie, an author who dedicated an entire chapter of his book Ghetto Urbain (Urban Ghetto) to the subject. “The poorer the neighborhood, the more important this economy. Some neighborhoods can’t even live without it.” In the neighborhood where he stayed in Western France, women didn’t shop in regular stores. “It became the norm.”
In the heart of the Marais, these little businesses bring in between 200 and 400 euros a month. A significant amount for residents here. But no barometer is as precise as the pizzeria down the block. In fact, the owner keeps a big book in which he writes what every customer owes him and what they had to drink and eat for the past 30 days. But he will have to wait until the fifth of the month to be paid. That’s when unemployment benefits and the RSA (the state allowance for the poorest citizens) arrive. In here, credit is the basic economic rule.
The “undeclared” extras supplement the state benefits and the very low salaries of working people. It allows them to earn a monthly 1,000 euros — the French minimum wage — even if only 50% of it is made legally. But most of the people living on these side businesses don’t consider them illegal. They characterize this survival tehcnique as “halal,” as opposed to “haram” (forbidden), which usually has to do with drug trafficking.
When the words “small business” are uttered here, fingers tend to point at Zitoun, with his missing teeth and his oversized tracksuit. He is always nearby, offering short rides on his brand new scooter. Zitoun is 43 and has two nicknames around here: “the handyman” and “the bike thief.” It makes everybody laugh, including him, although he doesn’t really like the second moniker. “It’s been years since I’ve stolen bikes,” he says.
We admit that we have trouble believing him. When he opens the door to his apartment’s cellar, he points at his four bikes. The red one is missing a pedal, another one is missing gears, and two others also need repair. He swears that they are “abandoned” bikes that he will fix as soon as he finds the necessary pieces. In another cellar, two scooters are set against the wall, awaiting repair.
A bike for 15 or 20 euros
A few years ago, neighbors complained about his small business, which took up too much space in the buildings’ common areas. The police had come to check the numbers on the pieces and the engines.
“When the bike is fixed, I can sell it for 15 or 20 euros,” he says. “Sometimes for 50 when it’s in really good condition.” He’s sold 20 this year alone. One time he sold a whole batch of scooters for 400 euros to a neighbor going to Maghreb for the summer.
His other nickname, “the handyman,” says it all. Indeed, Zitoun renovates apartments, empties cellars, repairs cars and gardens. But he is certainly not the only one making money this way.
Other neighborhood characters
Aïssa, 28, also lives in the neighborhood. He has been a cook in a Mexican restaurant, a hairdresser, a street peddler, a painter and a dealer for a clandestine poker operation.
Leïla, 31, gave French and math lessons to neighbor children to help pay for her law studies.
Medhi, 28, offers mechanic services, charging 20 euros for an oil change. He can also fix computers, which he learned how to do during computer training after he was fired from General Motors in 2008.
Sami, a gentle 24-year-old giant, has worked as a mover and bouncer for nearby nightclubs. These are in addition to his “contrat d’insertion” (special contracts to work with young people who have dropped out of school early and need help finding jobs), which earns him 627 euros per month. But lately it has become difficult to find a security job without a special qualification certificate.
There’s also Majid, who became a cab driver with his Renault Clio for people in the neighborhood. For a small amount, he would go to Mc Donald’s and pick up someone’s order. For 10 euros, he would take people to the other side of the city. For 20 euros, he would drive in the middle of the night and pick up night clubbers without drivers licenses. He used to spend five euros on gas, and pocket the rest. He made up to 250 euros a month. “That way I could afford to buy food without cutting into my 410 euros state allowance,” he explains. But a car accident put an end to his small business. Since he didn’t have enough money to repair the car, the Renault Clio ended up in a junkyard.
An available hairdresser
Mouch has managed his business well. For a long time, he was the one and only “unofficial” hairdresser around, before moving on to another business. His salon was his building’s staircase, and for nine years he would cut hair for five euros while the official hairdresser charged 15 euros for the same haircut. There were 20, sometimes 30, people waiting in line on the stairs. “I cut every hair in the neighborhood. I practiced all sorts of hairstyles.”
Mouch was available virtually any time. “One day, a buddy called me at one in the morning to get a haircut before leaving for his party.” During holidays such as Ramadan, he is fully booked. He did so well that he even offered a loyalty card, with which you could get 15 haircuts for 50 euros.
Paradoxically, he and the others don’t really picture themselves doing stable jobs. They all tell stories about dropping out of school too early, having criminal records, or about useless professional training. These sorts of undeclared commercial enterprises are also a way for some with criminal records to avoid paying court fees that would normally be deducted from their regular salaries.
Other areas around Strasbourg also have good deals. The “Esplanade” neighborhood is famous for its home service hairdressers. For an emergency car fixing, you’d better go and see the “Blacks” of the Koenigshoffen hostel who set up open-air garages where cars are stored on cinder blocks, waiting for new wheels.
These services often rely on a barter system. No money is exchanged, and no written proof is there to seal the deal. These swaps are invisible to the people who live outside of these neighborhoods. “If I do some gardening for someone, he’ll return the favor by doing grocery shopping for me,” says Zitoun the handyman. “That way, I can also pay my debts. If I owe money to a guy, I can renovate his apartment and he’ll wipe my slate clean.”