DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture


In France it seems that there's no question whether skating is hip hop.  B-boy competitions mix with BMX contests, Nas rhymes while Saint Denis youth grind.  Paris' skatepark at Bercy is just another iteration of this intertwining culture. 

Here the energy of young skaters is matched by raw Paris graffiti blanketing every available surface.  A skater's explosive aerial tricks compete for your attention with a graff writer's eye-popping aerosol colors.

Lying at the edge of Bercy's tranquil park and in the shadow of its Palais Omnisports, the skatepark is easy to overlook.  But once there, you become completely enmeshed in the grittiness of street culture.  It's impossible to focus your senses anywhere else.

Graffeur Jen, whom I met at Les Frigos, first told me about the skatepark, telling me it's another major place for writers to get up.  On the cold, dank afternoon I visited, I ran into PESCA who was in the middle of going over someone else's tag on the main wall.  Apparently, on these walls, there's no police intervention or fear of repercussion from rival writers. 

Bercy Skatepark in the early days, before it was graffitified
It's only when you go over someone on the illegal walls that you may run into problems.  It's like honor among vandals, rules that govern illegal activity.  At the park, it's all fair game.

Behind him, 8 or more skaters and skateboarders casually hit the ramps, taking smoke breaks in between tricks, chatting it up with their friends or their dog.  It felt more like a chill session than a training one.  They were young, mostly high school age, and the park was their hang out spot.

Ironically, Bercy is the site of the oldest known human occupation in Paris, dating back to 4000 BC.  In recent decades Paris has revitalized the area, transforming it into a commercial center and the home of the Ministry of Economy, Finance, and Industry. 

Yet nestled at its corner is this haven from any of that, a detached shelter for the city's expressive youth.  But perhaps that's the point, to draw the skaters and graff writers here and away from the public, keeping them off the city's beloved architecture.  Rather than police them, enable them.

It's history is unclear to me, but I do know the park has been around since at least 2006.  It was also temporarily closed in 2007 as they constructed a roof for it, providing a vital place for youth even during the crappiest of weather (much like this week's when I visited).

So there I sat with PESCA at the top of a skate ramp.  He told me how Paris writers stick to bubble and block letters mostly, some 3D, but rarely wild style.  I asked if he's ever been to New York, and he expressed that he wants to but like other writers here, he spends too much money smoking. 

During the conversation, one of the inline skaters sped up the ramp.  When he reached the summit, he launched into the air like a rocket and somersaulted over our heads.  Unphased, PESCA carried on as if nothing happened while I was still sweating for my life.  Here, the graff writers are used to the skaters.  To them it's all the same.

PESCA and TULE get up
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I embarked on my first journey to the outskirts of Paris to find Paris skate culture.  I arrived at station Saint-Denis Universite after a painfully long trek on Metro line 13 all the way to the end of the line.  Foolishly I forgot to bring a map and I wandered the streets surrounding the station for some time until finally I heard the traces of booming bass echoing through the trees of this quaint suburb.  On top of the bass was the unmistakable vocal hype of a live announcer, commenting on the action at hand.  I followed the amplified noise until it led me to a clearing of concrete, where packs of young boys sailed across rails and sped up ramps in the urban equivalent of a jungle gym.  This was Skate Roots Contest 3.

Not only was this my first skateboard event in Paris, this was also my first skateboard event in life.  My only previous exposure to skate culture has been through the ESPN broadcasts of the X-games and countless hours wasted on Tony Hawk Pro Skater on PlayStation 2.  Needless to say, this X-perience was X-tremely different (apologies for the pun, I couldn't help myself).  Instead of an alternative rock, white counterculture that I've come to associate with skating, I found a distinctly diverse crowd, clearly immigrant heavy and working class, kick/pushing along to the sound and style of Hip Hop.  Every single track pouring through the speakers was (American) rap.  A local French rap group even kicked off the event with a performance.   
And while these young boys, ranging anywhere from 7 to 27, ollied and grinded in the afternoon sun, their immigrant parents--dressed in saris, hijabs, and dashikis--and adoring female fans looked on in admiration.  Not to say this was a fan-frenzied ESPN-style event.  It was quite the opposite.  It was a community gathering for local kids where families strolling through the park could stop and enjoy.  It was an environment wear a boy no higher than my waste could happily skate along with boarders twice his size and age as they competed for the 100 euro prize.  But it did seem that the cash prize was less an incentive than was the love to skate with one's peers, one's community.  All that was missing was a barbecue.  They did have baguette sandwiches however.
Adjacent to the skate park stood gleaming white apartment buildings, which are most probably, judging by their size, location and inhabitants, subsidized housing projects.  Their towering presence underscored the significance of this small skateboarding event.  This is because in 2005, these immigrant suburbs along with countless others throughout France were set ablaze with youth revolt, provoked by persistent institutional racism, joblessness, and police harassment. [Insightful NY Times article about all this]

Saint Denis, the name of this Paris suburb, was known for being one of the largest industrial areas in Europe until the economic crisis of the 70's and 80's forced upon it devastating deindustrialization, akin to the blight that afflicted many American cities like Detroit and LA around the same time.  It was during this period that cheap affordable housing gave way to an influx of immigrants.  
Today, Saint Denis is home to the Stade de France as well as several service industries, but the lack of jobs is still a major problem as unemployment has risen to 21%.  However, since the unrest of 2005, it seems that there has been an effort to move towards reconciliation and development.
In 2006, the mayor along with leftist political leaders led a campaign to obtain voting rights for non-EU foreigners in local elections.  Though the measure was ultimately deemed illegal, it demonstrates a willingness to integrate the immigrant community.
In 2007, the Saint Denis Skate Plaza opened.  Just 10 minutes from their downtown, this 1,500 square-meter skate park is one of the largest in Ile-de-France.  It was supported by a budget of €465,000 from the city government and created in much consultation with local skaters and residents.  Public support for youth culture certainly goes far in quelling social unrest.
This small skateboard contest then was a testament to ongoing efforts improve conditions in this troubled suburb.  It was the third contest in the 3 years since the park opened, hosted by Skate Roots Association of Saint Denis, a local skateboarding organization that also hosted the official opening of the skate park.  Indeed, I could see the collaboration between local community and city government when a late middle-aged man dressed in full gray suit walked through the event midafternoon, shaking hands with organizers and looking pleased by the competitors.  It's probable that he is one of the city officials responsible for the skate park.
As the day wore on and the sun set, the skateboarders continued, unphased by both the drop in temperature and their accumulation of cuts and bruises from missed tricks.  They were focused completely on their craft, their street culture.  Hour after hour, while onlookers left, they continued at peace with their concrete home.  Scrawled on one of the ramps in Sharpie was a tag that read "Ghetto Requiem."  
I found this little flyer while perusing a skate shop in the 7th arrondissement earlier this week.  It looks to be a small event, but I'm excited to see who shows up.  Maybe there'll even be some Parkour!  I'm also looking forward to checking out this "Skate Plaza" in a neighborhood I have yet to visit, very much away form the center of town (it's the end of the metro line).   And apparently there's a quite a few open Skate Plazas in Paris.  Hopefully this will be the first of many that I visit.


    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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