Nuns Blend Into Rough, Increasingly Muslim Housing Project On Outskirts Of Paris

On the southern outskirts of Paris, Grigny-2 is an often desolate, and dangerous, place. Three Catholic nuns have chosen to move into the vast housing project and spread the gospel by, first of all, being good neighbors.

Grigny lies just to the south of the French capital (tongeron91)
Grigny lies just to the south of the French capital (tongeron91)
Stéphanie Le Bars

GRIGNY - The apartment is large and almost empty, the paint on the walls is peeling and browned. On the kitchen table, medicine boxes and an ashtray reflect a life of unhappiness and solitude.

Solange is standing in the smoky air of the kitchen. She is a "friend" of Maïté, Bernadette and Marie-Armelle, three nuns of the Congregation of Notre Dame. The women live on the tenth floor of the same apartment building, located in the vast housing project of Grigny-2, in this town on the southeast outskirts of Paris.

"After 20 years of living here, these are the first neighbors I've ever spoken with," says Solange.

The "sisters of the 10th floor" also regularly spend time with Awa, a native of Mali. The young woman lives with her four children on the ground floor of the same building, in an in a tidy yet degraded flat. Laughing, Marie-Armelle Girardon, the former superior general of the congregation, who has been part of the religious group for 52 years, hugs the youngest child and reminds Awa that she is still waiting for him in French class. Maïté takes the opportunity to give them the hours of the street library, which Awa's children visit on Wednesday afternoon.

Such is life in the community of Notre Dame, where the three women, aged 74, 73 and 46, are connected by their faith in the rough heart of the Parisian periphery, known as the banlieue. The Sisters of Grigny live their apostate quietly: by developing individual relationships, they strive to create a link where solitude and communitarianism rarely intersect. This is their way of "living the Gospel," without proselytizing or the modern trends of promoting a visible identity.

Their project began in 2007. Maïté, who was then engaged in social work in Grigny, wanted to extend her life and experience "real life with people." While most people who live here think of nothing else but leaving, Maité and her two sisters have chosen to settle here, to be closer to "today's needs."

Conversions, prison choirs, discreet crosses

Both alone and in collaboration with other organizations in the city, the sisters provide literacy activities, homework help, nursing home visits, and a street library. They have taken disadvantaged children on short "vacations' in a house of the congregation, but have also settled for impromptu "chats' with them at the entrance of the building.

The eldest, Bernadette Valles, a former nurse, also accompanies a group of African, Carribean, and Laotian adults who wish to convert to Catholicism. Sometimes all three sisters go sing for men "who are not at all Catholics' at Masses celebrated at the nearby prison of Fleury-Merogis. "The idea is to give a vivid picture of one's gift of grace without being cut off from reality," says Bernadette.

In the building, their interlocutors are barely aware of the women's religious status. The crucifix that they wear under their blouses or sweaters are particularly discreet. "I do not need to display crystal clear what I think. It's more important that I build a true relationship with others," Maite says.

By choice, they have affixed no distinctive sign on the door of their apartment. One must enter the home to see that it is simple and organized around a "chapel." This area of prayer unfolds in what could just be a lounge overlooking the forest and nearby lakes. The three women pray every day, either alone or together.

"Here, everyone prays," Marie-Armelle says, smiling, "but for Muslims, who are the most numerous in the neighborhood, the notion of a segregated religious life is a quirk of Christianity. They often do not understand why we women live alone, without husbands and without children."

Awa describes her Catholic neighbors as "nice."

For these women, who have lived in Africa and Brazil, the diversity of Grigny-2 is a "richness' that balances the harshness of the surroundings. Maite's car has been broken into four times. Recently, Marie-Armelle bought "a jacket with lots of pockets," and now she never goes out with her handbag. Despite this "deteriorating" climate, it is out of the question for the three women to give up their communal life together.

This type of life, which was popular after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s Catholic Church reform movement, is becoming increasingly rare. Maité, who entered the congregation nearly 16 years ago, was the last to say her vows. "To be, at 46, the youngest of the 150 sisters of France, it makes you think," she says."

Bernadette admits to "the difficulties that the Church faces in spreading the message of the Gospel."Maïté has a more blunt assessment of contemporary society as a whole: "It's unfortunate that there aren't more occasions to be able to talk openly about our values," she said.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - tongeron91

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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