Gentilly, a suburb of Paris

When you look at a map of Paris, there is a dimple at the southern edge. Gentilly occupies that indentation, it is a suburb of Paris, where I lived for some years.

Gentilly has a interesting history, with written records going back to AD746. Even prior to that, it was a Roman village known as Gentillicum. Until the 1600s it was a Royal Domain, which supplied food and other consumables to the royal court, and it was where the various early kings of France came for their Easter holidays. From about AD746 and for the next 500 years, the stone for Notre Dame de Paris cathedral and other churches in Paris was quarried from Gentilly. Consequently, today there are large areas of doubtful ground stability.

From about 1700 until 1950, Gentilly was a heavily industrialised area, metal manufacturers and tanners mainly. The pollution, especially from the tanneries, turned it into a very disagreeable wasteland and slum. La Bièvre, the river which flows through Gentilly and up through Paris to the Seine, is shown in C16th engravings as a country stream, surrounded by forests and with people fishing in it. The tanneries changed all that. It became so polluted that for health reasons, it was put underground in the early 1900s, where it remains today. There has been talk recently about opening it up again, provided the pollution has been washed away over the past 100 years.

The living conditions during Gentilly's industrialised era were very squalid and there was much disease and poor health. It was a slum area where only poor people and labourers lived. In the 1920s, the Communists won control of the local Mairie (Town Council), and have remained in control ever since. Three years ago, the Mairie had 18 Communists, 5 Socialists and 3 Indépendants.

Communism doesn't seem to have the same hysterical stigma attached to it here as it did in Australia, which is where I come from, back when there was a Communist Party. Starting in the early 1930s, the communist mairie of Gentilly embarked on a grand social housing plan, clearing out all the old slums and unhealthy areas. The first project was a set of 12 huge apartment blocks, each one identical, built on the edge of an old quarry. There are pictures of happy, smiling young communist party members lining the ridges of the quarry in front of the apartment blocks when they were finished. The plans were comprehensive, and included schools, sports grounds and shops. Most of it was achieved, although on a reduced scale due to the depression in the 1930s and WW2.

This area is now called Gabriel Péri, named after one of the movers and shakers in the communist party of the 20s and 30s who worked to have it improved. He was shot by the Nazis in WW2 for his involvement in La Résistance. It seems to be a little-known fact (at least, I was not aware of it) that most of the resistance fighters in Paris were communist and socialist party members, rather than just patriots. Of course, they were hated by the Nazis and considered to be far more dangerous than your ordinary Frenchman. Péri was asked, after he was captured and it was obvious that he would be executed, how he would like to be remembered. Friends suggested that an area or a street be named after him. He said he only wanted a Paris Métro station named after him, nothing else, so that young lovers could say: "À ce soir, chérie, à Gabriel Péri" (until tonight dear, at Gabriel Péri), and have a place to meet. He was a bit of a poet.

The view out of my office window in Gentilly was of buildings constructed in the 1960s, in a continuation of the program started by the Communists in the 20s. It is a high-density development, but the area is well-maintained. All buildings are repainted every 10 years, the streets and public places are cleaned every week and damaged parts are quickly repaired. The construction work seems to me to be of a very high quality, and the windows and doors and fittings are strong and well made.

The Gabriel Péri buildings are proving to be a bit of a problem these days. When they were built, it was considered unnecessary to have a bathroom in every apartment, so there were only shared bathrooms on each floor. This was, after all, an extravagent luxury compared to having the family troop off to the Gentilly Bains Douches (Public showers) for the weekly wash! Now that the Gabriel Péri is being renovated, it is rather expensive and difficult to include bathrooms in each apartment. I think they have chosen to completely destroy the insides and construct a lesser number of apartments, to more modern standards.

Although the banlieu (suburban areas)adjacent to Paris are nearly all Communist, the more powerful Paris Mairies are not. In the 70s and 80s, they built huge freeways to improve the traffic flow through and around the city. They chopped through the adjacent banlieu without regard to the local planning or design. The Gabriel Péri buildings were separated from their commercial zone by a chasm containing the A6B, a 10-lane highway going to Lyon. Gentilly was cut off from the Gentilly Cemetry by the Périphérique (ring road), and the "posh" part of Gentilly, called Chaperon Verte (Green Hood), had the A6A, another 10-laner, built next to it.

Lots more can be said about Gentilly and its ancient church, its multicultural population. Some of this information is on the Ville de Gentilly website (in French).