Les Halles and the neoliberal city

Posted on July 12th, 2016 by

In 2004 the city of Paris announced the renovation of Les Halles, an area that until the 1970s served as the main food market of the city. Les Halles gathered farmers and shoppers in the city-center for centuries but in the 70s, the city moved the food market to the suburbs and in its place constructed an underground shopping mall – the biggest in the city – and a transportation hub (most metro lines and regional trains meet underground). Since the 1980s, Les Halles was the preferred destination of youths – many from the suburbs – who hanged out in its premises and the shopping halls. Suburbs, or banlieues, tend to be poorer and is where many social housing projects and immigrant communities are located. Fears of drug-dealing, violence, and other “unruly behaviors” have plagued the neighborhood ever since. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the neighborhood and the discourses of insecurity that were prevalent in 2004.

The canopy of Les Halles gives the impression of openness and inclusion

The canopy of Les Halles gives the impression of openness and inclusion

A decade later, the renovation of Les Halles is almost complete. With an investment of over €150 million, the new Les Halles looks like a 21st century destination for the consuming classes and tourists. A big canopy now signals the entrance to the mall. The gardens, still under construction, are meant to be open and inviting for all (i.e. middle-class consumers). The new design ensures that security officials can better monitor “illegitimate” activity in the premises. The old shopping mall had too many corners and blind-spots that made surveillance difficult. Global cities across the world are investing on these kind of spaces with the purpose of attracting more capital investments into their areas. The privatization of space – the mall is, after all, a private space – allow property owners to exclude anyone not deemed appropriate to their goal: accumulate more capital. Although the canopy engenders a feeling of openness and inclusion, it is now easier for mall management to surveil and monitor groups of young people hanging out in its premises.

Private security checks the bags of consumers before entering mall property

Private security checks the bags of consumers before entering mall property

If the same political willingness was geared toward investing in poorer neighborhoods, decent jobs, and social services our cities would be more just. A critical view of Les Halles prompts us to ask, cities for whom? For whom are urban spaces intended and designed for? Who has access to the city’s spaces and through what means? Accessing and enjoying urban space requires, more and more, access to money and a sophisticated cultural capital that automatically prevents poorer residents to enjoy what the city can offer. What if our engagement with the city was not mediated by our income and social class? What kind of city do we want and for whom? I invite you to reflect on those questions the next time you go out to the city.

 

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