Industrial History Brings New Life to Parisian Suburb


The newly-opened Ropac Gallery, housed in a refurbished early 20th-century boiler works, symbolizes the transformation under way in Pantin and other gritty, working class suburbs to the north and east of Paris.

Paris is a compact city and as it deals with increasing demands on space, many residents and businesses are looking to the surrounding suburbs, which are home to the bulk of the 12 million people in the French capital's agglomeration.

Pantin, just a 20-minute metro ride from the city center, is one of the places that arty and business types like the owner of the Ropac gallery have singled out and their arrival is slowly changing what was once a small agricultural town.

The construction of a canal and a railroad in the 1800s brought industry to Pantin, and factories producing anything from textiles to chemical products became part of the landscape.

World War II slowed progress, and deindustrialisation after the war caused further decline.

But in the late 1990s, Pantin started to develop an arts scene, and is now home to the National Dance Center, the first concert hall in France built specifically for jazz music, and a conservatory for dance, music, and theater.

As it changes, Pantin is integrating its industrial past with a sophisticated cultural future.

Thaddaeus Ropac, who owns art galleries in Paris and Austria, was looking for a space to show larger pieces and he found Pantin.

Inside the gates that lead to his exhibition space, the original brick of the five-building factory remains intact, though the impeccably trimmed grass and clean architectural lines feel modern.

The main building's opening show features huge paintings by the German artist Anselm Kiefer on the theme of creating something from nothing.

Since opening in October the space has had a steady stream of visitors, about 900 per week, according to gallery spokesman Marcus Rothe.

"There is a mixture, between rich collectors coming with their personal drivers, buying art... then there are people from the neighborhood, then Parisians who are really interested in the big Kiefer exhibition. A lot of people come just to see the new space," he said.

Pantin is ideally located for bringing that mix together. The canal and railroad that once facilitated industrialization today help make Paris an easy commute.

Enthusiastic locals are also trying to make a change. Department 93, the official designation for the region that includes Pantin, was the scene in 2005 of riots in its poorer districts.

Now the grassroots group Accueil Banlieues offers guided tours and budget accommodation, trying to lure tourists to see a different side of Paris.

-- "The Parisians are coming" --

The slow transformation of Pantin is part of wider changes taking place in the down-at-heel suburbs north and east of Paris, many of which are gentrifying as growing numbers of Parisians avail themselves of lower rents and property prices.

One landmark change came in September, when filmmaker Luc Besson opened his "Film City", a vast studio complex created in a disused power station to offer Hollywood-style facilities in the Saint-Denis suburb.

In Pantin, the Ropac Gallery has impressive company. The luxury fashion brand Hermes first arrived in 1992 with leather workshops that make, among other things, the famous Birkin handbag, and is soon to double the space it occupies.

Across the canal BNP Paribas bank moved into the renovated 1920s Grands Moulins flour mill, and fashion legend Chanel is planning to open its own building there next year.

Marianne Bomer, who lives in nearby Romainville, is another part of the influx, working at Les Moulins restaurant, which opened at the end of August.

Though she's only spent a short time in the town, she's seen others interested in joining the trend.

"Someone came in asking about the area who wanted to open a flower shop," Bomer said. "There's more space in the suburbs. You can breathe out here."

Apartment prices are starting to reflect the change, too. Over the past five years the average cost per square meter has risen 17 percent, compared to 13 percent for the overall region, according to the Paris Chamber of Notaries.

Local estate agent Benedictine Pouzenc says the increases are specific to the parts of town being renovated. But that doesn't mean the change isn't real.

"The Parisians are coming," she said.

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