Monday, February 22, 2010

Living in an Acronym

Well, I’m slowly getting back to normal (relatively speaking, of course) and having finally retrieved my laptop from the depths of one of the many cardboard boxes that are still cluttering up my new flat, I have decided to catch up on my writing…

Yes! I am now the proud locataire of a council flat just fifteen minutes’ walk away from my place of work. And about time too: it took three years of filling in forms, writing begging letters and getting to know people who knew people who knew people…three years of sobbing hysterically into answer machines, pleading impoverishment/indigestion/insanity and threatening to plant a bomb in the housing offices (nah – made that one up) before they finally relented and gave me one.

Council housing is called HLM which stands for Habitation à Loyer Modéré – housing at a moderate rent. The first HLM were built for workers who came to the towns during the second industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. At first, these workers were housed in shoddy ‘rabbit cages’ built by unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Crime and disease were rife and of such concern to the philanthropists of the day that steps were rapidly taken to improve the state of worker housing.

The first of these was the creation of the Société des Cités Ouvrières (Society for Worker Cities), founded in Paris in 1849 by a group of such philanthropists. With financial help from the government of Louis Napoléon, they built the Cité Napoléon with the aim of housing ten thousand workers and their families in clean, affordable blocks of flats in every district of Paris. It was never finished and still stands on the rue Rochechouart, as one of Paris’ lesser-known historical monuments. One of the reasons for its failure was that it was hardly much better than the ‘rabbit cages’ it was supposed to replace and would, according to moral reformers, encourage the spread of sexual immorality and – horror of horrors - ‘socialism’. It did, however, pave the way for later cités ouvrières built during the Second Empire.

Since then, social housing has undergone numerous changes. In the nineteen-fifties, there were more white-collar workers living in HLMs than there were manual labourers, the majority of whom were living in inferior, insalubrious private housing. During the sixties, huge tower blocks, known as barres, were built and for the next decade, the percentage of ouvrier tenants increased. From the eighties, the occupants got poorer and poorer and today, they make up the majority of tenants.

Living in an acronym does have its advantages. My HLM is in a ZUS (as opposed to a ZAC or a ZUP) – that is, a Zone Urbaine Sensible which is a euphemism for a trouble spot. This means that local government spends a lot of money trying to make the place look nice. My sweet little flat has been renovated and now boasts a wooden balcony, with a view of the Vercors mountains (I also have a view of the Chartreuse mountains from my kitchen and the Belledonne mountains from my bedroom). I have double glazing, under floor heating and a brand new bath tub. I was also given wallpaper (which I could choose from a limited range), paste, paint and plaster which launched me into a frenzy of DIY. I’m rather proud of my efforts, I must admit – apart from the bit of paper I stuck on upside-down and the mysterious gaps near the ceiling.

Even the cat has lent a helping paw. Unfortunately, she doesn’t understand that the stripping had to be done before I put the new wallpaper on.

I can’t show you a photo of my newly-decorated flat as someone has nicked my camera but if any of you are in the area, please let me know and I’ll invite you for tea and show you around. Oh and bring your toolbox – I’ve still got a few shelves to put up…