by Mira Kamdar | The New York Review of Books
For two thousand years, the city of Paris has been defined by the implacable logic of center and periphery, of included and excluded. Civilization, with its high culture and imposing monuments, was nurtured within a series of concentric walls dating back to Gallo-Roman times that culminated in the 1970s with the construction of an encompassing concrete highway known as the Périphérique. Nearly a half-century later, the Périphérique remains a powerful physical and psychological barrier between Paris proper—still referred to by the French as “Paris intra muros”—and the suburbs, or banlieues, beyond.
Before I moved to the banlieue of Pantin, a town of about 55,000 people on the northeastern edge of Paris, I was unaware of how much this logic shaped my perception of the city and its environs. I remember clearly the first time I emerged beyond the Périphérique. I had traveled just a few stops on the Metro from my Paris apartment, yet I felt like Alice blinking on the other side of the looking glass. My mental Paris compass, deprived of its usual cardinal points, was spinning.
As a transplanted New Yorker, though, I soon found the kind of energy in Pantin that I’d loved during the years I lived in the East Village in the 1990s, before expensive condominiums and Starbucks began pushing out the old railroad walkups, the bodegas, and the Polish diners. As I got to know Pantin better—with its diverse population, ethnic food shops, and street banter in Bangladeshi, Arabic, and Chinese—I began to feel more at home there than I ever did in Paris. Within the coddled confines of the City of Light, I was an American ex-pat. In Pantin, I’m just another immigrant, if a privileged one, in the administrative department of Seine-Saint-Denis where about a third of residents are immigrants [ . . . ]