In recent years there has been a renaissance of food sharing and the art of homemaking. In big cities, preparing homemade food every day is more challenging. Thus, many places provide and try to fake the atmosphere of a cosy simplicity, normally associated with the home. The connection between food and home can easily be explained: Dr. Eva Neely, a lecturer at Massey University, says food can give people something to hold on to, something to talk about. It can reveal human qualities, putting everyone on an equal footing. Linking with people from different backgrounds, with a wide variety of skills, can lead to stronger, resilient communities. A great example of this is the Les Grands Voisins (The Big Neighbours) community project.
In my first year of living in Paris, Les Grands Voisins were actually my real neighbours: I lived two streets away. The project included a shared kitchen for local residents, where they could be guided in their cooking by chefs. Many volunteers and young people took part in this project: all had different origins, backgrounds, studies, and interests. Getting their hands dirty while gardening, doing construction work, and cooking together with migrants or some of the more disadvantaged residents of the same place fostered a mutual know-how.
Food is a valuable asset for attracting young people to participate in neighbourly activities, where they can show off their skills, and get praise and encouragement from the older generation. It also helps to connect diverse people, bridge generations, and eventually, even pop the bubble of the “millennials” cliché, which has been an insistent feature in the mainstream media. Once you cross the barrier into Les Grands Voisins and see the diversity created in situ, it’s almost like you are observing some kind of social experiment: a truly distinctive place in Paris. You are also looking at the end of an era: this December the project will be closing, and moving out of the old Hospital where it was settled. It’s possible that when you read this article, Les Grands Voisins won’t exist anymore.
The Big Neighbours
Les Grands Voisins, situated northeast of Paris’ 14th arrondissement, is not just a colourful place to take photos of, but is a place brimming with ideas, opinions, worries and beliefs. Occupying a 3.4 hectare lot left vacant by a former hospital, Les Grands Voisins is one of the biggest temporary occupation sites in Europe: it looks a bit like a city within a city, built from colourful lego-like blocks, some of which are covered with scribbled, witty, almost surreal statements. It provides a home for people in social housing, workspaces for artists, and places to shop and work for customers, volunteers and agricultural producers running their very own customized supply chain. The intention was to create an organic, self-sufficient system, partly run by residents. This ‘mixed-use ecosystem’ model has additionally become an alternative tourist destination in Paris, attracting on average 2000 visitors a day last summer.
The success of the project can be explained by the clever deal a team of young people struck up with the Paris City Council. The council is in the process of acquiring the site to turn it into a vast eco-housing neighbourhood, but in the meantime Les Voisins were allowed to occupy the site without paying rent. Instead they were renting out workplaces to international artists, businesses, and charities at low or symbolic prices, and generating revenue from the comptoirs (the bars, the cafes and the restaurant), while creating informal temporary social employment for the residents. In a nutshell Les Voisins maintained the area, while in the meantime multiple solidarity projects were run.
There is no escape from poverty without an active economy and there is no doubt that poverty can strip people of their confidence, dignity and hope.
As described on their website and by their project manager, three main organisations are collaborating to manage the Big Neighbours and all of its related activities. Chronologically the first one on site was Aurore, a charity association offering emergency shelters and administrative consultancy for refugees and unaccompanied minors.
Aurore has been able to offer assistance to over 400 people, including migrants, the homeless, and poor, or all the three together. The second organisation working within the project was Plateau Urbain (Urban Platform), a small agency that negotiates with building owners in order to incentivise the temporary use of vacant spaces. In Les Grands Voisins, they manage the space and curate the temporary tenants.
The third member of the coordination team is YES WE CAMP! an architecture collective from Marseille. The site is also hosting over 150 tenants, including start-ups, designers’ and artists’ studios and shops, architects, and charities, making it a truly diverse ecosystem. Most weekends they organise various workshops and sport activities, and flea markets. YES WE CAMP! also managed the FOOD project.
Pay for soup, Build a fort, Set that on fire
To attain a sustained integration into the formal labour market, most migrants have to participate in language learning, cultural exchange programs and skills training, and face a reciprocal amount of effort to keep them motivated. Otherwise they will further isolate themselves, shuttering all small opportunities for employment or integration. Among the people living in Aurore’s building, a substantial majority are in this situation: a group with no papers, lacking any professional skills to meet the labour market demands in a competitive city such as Paris, and without institutional education, or one which could be validated as such. Many are sick, and in need of daily assistance. Dependent adults.
But the resources of local organisations and government aid are usually directed towards providing and covering basic needs. They tend not to target long-term support, such as vocational training, or helping these people to build professional networks and invest in themselves. The Food project tried to empower the less privileged – especially the women – by arming them with ladles. At les Comptoirs, dishes were prepared and served by residents.
Young people from YES WE CAMP! came up with the idea of a culinary journey in 2015, and it officially started hiring residents in 2016. The person currently in charge of the Project is Victoria Feste. I met her twice: once when she was eating homemade bread just made by one of the residents, and I took a spontaneous picture of them, and once a few weeks ago in her improvised office at the old hospital, when she told me what it felt like to be part of all this. I also met Jacqueline, another resident, and went cooking with her and her nephew Nadia in the backyard kitchen.Over a plate of her specialty, pâte de bananes, she told me the story of her journey all the way from Cameroon to Paris, and how she subsequently created her own association for food waste recovery and became interested in supply chain sustainability.
In the kitchen, the residents were accompanied by the chefs of Yes We Camp (La Lingerie). They cooked and sold food at the bars and cafés of the occupied hospital and were encouraged to share know-how and previous experience – all while learning how to work in a professional kitchen together. They had to organise a work plan, compose a menu, prepare a plate, and comply with hygiene standards.
The Lingerie was the first shared restaurant built on site – with a bar and operating kitchen, worked alternately by Yes We Camp team and the people in training. The Comptoirs were constructed later and took things further, by creating a complete unison between a team of professional kitchen workers and non-professionals. The food was sold at symbolic prices (in Paris terms), affordable prices, and the revenue then distributed among everyone who took part in preparing it. Some residents lived on that.
The value of initiatives such as Les Grands Voisins is becoming more and more recognised. Moreover, the fact that it was set up in collaboration with the local government and citizens has accelerated its recognition. As it happened, the cooperation of Paris City Hall has helped to attract and gain the trust of sponsors and partners such as Food de rue, small producers and inclusive restaurant associations, who now work to help implement Les Voisins’ mission.
Contrary to expectations, the project proved not simply a peripheral movement run by outsiders and outlaws, but it temporary institutionalized in a non-formal way with a well-structured internal organisation. European cities, on the brink of a migration and identity crises, are notably becoming more open towards ideas that can act as alternatives to vocational training programs , and help tackle the challenges that come with multicultural societies with different speeds and styles.
The training and support of female migrants has also gained a lot of focus, backed up by the fact that integration happens faster when women have access to the labour market and can build networks in their new realities. When given the chance, some of the Aurore’s building’s residents are now working as freelance catering groups at various events.
Victoria Feste, the last of the YES WE CAMP Mohicans, tries to help by finding partners and associations to hire them to provide catering services at public occasions, conferences, and events, and expand their network. She has an exhaustive list of companies, and calls them from her office every day, one by one, until something happens.