Readings — From the December 2015 issue

Invisible City

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By Justin E. H. Smith, from a work in progress. Smith’s fourth book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton), will be published in June.

At the end of August, the oldest Roma camp in France, known as Le Samaritain, was evacuated under the threat of force. The three hundred people living there — a quarter of whom held regular jobs and some of whose children were enrolled in school — were given three weeks’ notice. Their expulsion took a few hours. The decision to evacuate, which ignored much community resistance, was representative of France’s cynical attitude toward the tens of thousands of Roma who began arriving in the country after the European Union absorbed Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007. Since 2012, France has ignored the censure of the E.U., the United Nations, and human-rights groups, and evicted no fewer than 40,000 Roma living inside its borders.

Le Samaritain was in the municipality of La Courneuve, just north of Paris. When I visited for the first time last winter, I encountered a white metal wall, about six feet high, that stretched off into the distance. Peering over it, I saw piles of rubbish and scattered, leafless trees. I worried that I had come to the wrong place until a boy appeared and pointed me to a small passage. On the other side, I found what I was looking for: an encampment, a slum, a shantytown, a bidonville. These are the terms the media uses. The residents there, and those of similar communities throughout Europe, refer to where they live simply as a platz: the German word for “place.”

This platz, which had been carved out of a junk depot seven years before, was laid out like a small city. It featured two main rues, parallel to each other and paved with scraps of linoleum and carpet. The thoroughfares were connected by several side streets. The place was a perfect grid, as right-angled as midtown Manhattan. Many of the houses had glass windows and doors that swung on hinges. Family names were often written on the doors. As in any neighborhood, some homes were better kept than others. I saw bicycle frames, bed frames, shopping carts, refrigerators. I saw strollers and defunct fax machines. Most of these objects seemed to hover between ornament and instrument, but whether aesthetic or useful, nearly everything had been recycled, repurposed, torn from its ordinary context.

To the outsider, this material dimension to the life of the platz could easily trigger an ambiguous judgment. What glorious ingenuity! And yet, what deprivations occasioned it? This ambiguity echoes the mixed feelings that many Roma described to me: they complained about Le Samaritain and said they did not wish to be there. But nothing could be worse than to be chased from the camp by government authorities who not only saw the repurposed objects as junk but failed to appreciate that such a place could be experienced as home.

There was unmistakable circularity in the officials’ reasoning. One resident told me that Le Samaritain had asked for a mailbox, but the city denied the request. If residents put out five bins of trash, the municipal trash collectors, as if grudgingly, would pick up two of them. And so the trash piles continued to grow, and so the perception of a nuisance, and so the threats of expulsion grew, too. When I called the mayor’s office to seek an explanation for the city’s actions, the receptionist put me through to a representative of what I was told was the “security” department, who claimed that all along both sides had understood that the Roma encampment was “of a provisional nature.”

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