Heal the city: an abandoned wasteland became a short-lived village

Three associations have turned an abandoned hospital into a small village where start-ups, artists’ workshops and schools allow its residents and external visitors to connect.

NOV 2016 A year on, what is the feeling in Paris?
Created by: Greymakers(@greymakers) Texts by: Sophie Lauth Photography by: Elena Manente Lisa George

Paris, 14th arrondissement. The imposing walls of the old Saint Vincent de Paul hospital protect a 3.2 hectare plot. Inside, a treasure: the Grands Voisins. Since October 2015 this has been the name given to the temporary occupation of the place, before it is all transformed into an eco-neighbourhood.
Once you get past the barrier, Ramon, a volunteer at "La Ressourcerie" (a collective offering second hand objects) hailed me with: « Is this your first time here? Make sure you wander everywhere, take your time and walk around several times to really get a feel for it. Talk to people. »

At the end of 2011, the hospital was partly closed and was gradually reused as a residential facility until it was fully closed. At that point three associations, Yes We Camp, Aurore and Plateau Urbain, took the chance of transforming it into a « huge urban and social laboratory ».
Under the porch of a building, refugees and students sing and dance. « Here, everything is mixed. There is a shelter for migrants, a school of midwifery and a web school, children's games, workshops, a "home", a camp site, businesses ... This is a real city within a city », Rose, another volunteer, told me. 450 people work in the 130 structures at Grands Voisins. Startups, artists and artisans are developing their activities and forging partnerships. The diversity of skills creates synergies between those who work there, the 600 people who live on the site and external visitors.

Film sets and activists

Next to a fire, an artist is pouring bronze statues; a little further on a film development and set design studio design has opened its doors. Next to that is the building of Atelier 21 where I met Cédric Carles. « We are energetic activists in a public space, with collaborative social projects », began this forty year-old designer who has made energy education his mission. « We immediately understood that there were things to be done here, projects could be developed which created interactions with the ecosystem of the place. »
At the moment people are talking about him because of Regenbox: a recharger for disposable batteries! When he saw an advertisement from the 1980s singing the praises of a charger for disposable batteries, he decided to focus on this forgotten technology. « Rayovac could have closed after a supplier withdrew but there are lots of discussions on this subject on the Internet and we managed to recover some old second hand equipment ». After lots of trials, the Atelier 21 team has managed to (re)create a prototype, capable of « recharging some single use batteries up to 20 times! ».

We have to occupy the wastelands, even temporarily. It's our duty as citizens!

The association doesn't just renovate batteries. « To contribute to the place and leave their mark », Atelier 21 members have spruced up the small house they occupy, from the collapsed ceiling to the dilapidated walls, including the electricity. Their lease is renewable every three months and the rent is moderate. « It's a rare place in Paris, we feel like we are in a bubble. There are no cars, the quality of life is exceptional. »

Solar Techno and a Kurdish party

Cedric has a passionate history with Paris. Arriving from Switzerland 15 years ago because of a romance, he made friends, built up several projects and never left. « Paris has this bubbling energy, a bit rock'n'roll and a bit jazz, with some funk and techno as well. The Parisian biodiversity is super exciting. ».

With his association, he also organises the Solar Disco: techno afternoons with speakers powered by solar panels. When the sun goes down, or it's too gray, you can pedal bicycles to power the sound system. For example, there was one on a Sunday at Grands Voisins. « There were nuns, poor people, the trendy middle class, local inhabitants, old people, babies in prams. To see such diversity is unique in Paris ».

Tonight an event for the Kurdish population has been organised. On the programme: a concert, a debate and artistic performances. Night falls. I head for "La Lingerie", a cafe, village hall, co working space and more. You can relax in a room full of cushions, enjoy the piano or try meals made with local products.

Inside, the atmosphere is varied. There are journalists preparing a special issue, two students playing cards with a refugee and Parisians who pop by after work, just to enjoy the atmosphere. A group of knitting grandmothers offer me a lesson in return for a glass of wine. I sit with them.
If the old hospital no longer heals the body, today it heals the souls of Parisians bruised by the recent violence. What does it use for dressings? The ties that develop inside its walls. Cedric says, quite rightly: « We need to work, sweat, dance and drink together. That's what makes us like one another and learn to live together, when there are physical frictions, real interactions ».

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