'Goodbye Gagarin': Paris suburb razes Communist housing estate

Alexandra DEL PERAL
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The Yuri Gagarin housing estate in Ivry-sur-Seine, just outside Paris, was inaugurated by the Russian cosmonaut himself in 1963

For decades a hulking housing estate on the edge of Paris was a red-brick symbol of Communist Russia's promise to workers of the world, but on Saturday residents and local officials will gather to say goodbye to a building that has been left behind in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.

Inaugurated in 1963 in the presence of Russian space pioneer Yuri Gagarin -- just two years after he became the first person in space -- the "Cite Gagarine" underscored the Communist Party's appeal in much of postwar France.

"The bathroom, the spacious kitchen, the elevator -- it was all new for us. We'd never known such comforts!" said Jacqueline Spiro, who with her parents was among the first generation of residents.

The T-shaped, 13-storey building in the suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine may indeed have looked like something from outer space amid the rows of cramped working-class houses in the so-called "red belt" of suburbs surrounding Paris since the 1920s.

It became a model for the social urbanism projects pursued by the French Communist party, which enjoyed huge support for decades after World War II for its role in the Resistance.

"The Cite Gagarine was the international showcase for the French Communist Party," said Emmanuel Bellanger, a historian with France's CNRS research institute.

"With it, the party showed the world what is could do at the local level, so that it could eventually do it on the national level," Bellanger said.

Russian authorities seized on the project, sending the national hero Gagarin himself to reward "Ivry the Red" for putting Soviet ideals into practice.

"This was not an easy decision to make, but it was done in concert with its residents," Romain Marchand, the deputy mayor of Ivry-sur-Seine and French Communist Party member, told AFP.

- 'Turn the page' -

"Everyone knew each other, and would spend time at one another's homes. It was like a big family," said Francoise, who gave only her first name and who had lived on the estate some 10 years.

"It's the end of an era," she said.

Today, however, graffiti and broken or boarded-up windows are what catch the eye as workers start tearing down the building -- there won't be any spectacular demolition explosions.

The estate's fortunes began fading in the 1970s as factories shut down in what would prove a deep industrial decline in the Paris region.

As poverty rates increased so did cases of juvenile delinquency and crime, and the Cite Gagarine area became of France's infamous "sensitive urban zones" requiring more targeted state help to combat joblessness.

"There was a real problem in terms of attractiveness, people didn't want to come live here, and turnover rates were high," Marchand acknowledged, saying he wanted to "turn the page."

After the 16-month demolition is finished, workers will break ground on a so-called "green district" of energy-efficient buildings and parks.

But locals worry the middle class families being sought as part of a "Greater Paris" plan to merge the capital with its suburbs will be the final blow to the social cohesion embodied by the Cite Gagarine.

"With this Greater Paris, we're wondering if we'll have the means to live here," said Elizabeth, a local resident who also gave only her first name.

Critics note that the new project won't be wholly owned by Ivry's public housing authority, "but that won't stop us from keeping 30 percent of the new 'green district' as social housing," Marchand said.

He said he was well aware of the "real estate forces" bearing down on Ivry, which are likely to be a top issue in municipal elections next year.

"Gentrification has long been considered an electoral threat for the French Communist party," said David Gouard, a political scientist at the University of Toulouse, in southern France, who focuses on the French suburbs.

Communists garnered 55 percent in Ivry's last municipals in 2014, and "for the time being, the political currents are still in the party's favour," he said.