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The Historic Revenge of Workers’ Neighborhoods in Berger...

The Historic Revenge of Workers’ Neighborhoods in Bergerac, Aquitaine, France

Since mid-December 2013, Saint James street has donned some new finery, worthy of the diversity of its architectural heritage. It shows with the new gateway to the historic downtown area, at the exit of the street and the Saint Jacques Church. Good taste is not necessarily unheard of as far as urban development is concerned.

The historic downtown of Bergerac, France

Since mid-December 2013, Saint James street has donned some new finery, worthy of the diversity of its architectural heritage. It shows with the new gateway to the historic downtown area, at the exit of the street and the Saint Jacques Church. Good taste is not necessarily unheard of as far as urban development is concerned. With its new pedestrian-friendly configuration, Saint James Street has grown in its grandeur and its quality as a public space due to recent developments. The street offers a seemingly natural transition between the Place Pélissière plaza and the adjacent street lined with fountains, whose renovation is today unanimously praised. The unveiling of the new Saint James street also held symbolic significance – of a social nature.

At one point destined for demolition, the old Bergerac was stigmatized by the socially privileged part of the city, which was thoroughly bourgeois and self-assured. The “lowly neighborhoods” were the refuge of the working classes, those who kicked off Bergerac’s industrialization through the sweat of their brows. These neighborhoods are still close to the hearts of Bergerac’s inhabitants as a nostalgic reminder of a past era where the neighborhoods’ solidarity won out over individualism. Today, with its mixture of social classes, the old Bergerac has established itself as a laboratory for urban coexistence. We should recognize the efforts made by social enterprises for having saved the neighborhood’s most culturally important buildings. Old Bergerac has become the setting for the majority of large protests in the city, like a modern agora that transcends social differences and gathers everyone through their shared love for the city. Unveiling the new Saint James Street is a wonderful revenge for the past residents of these “lowly” neighborhoods, and I wanted to share it.

A scenic view of old Bergerac, France

Saint James Street’s development is a new contribution to the urban renewal project in Bergerac’s historic heart. After the adoption of public sanitation measures at the end of the 70s, the street has remained in good condition. Making this part of the city pedestrian-friendly was the first effort towards cleaning up the neighborhoods. Long looked over by public policies, the old Bergerac was completely abandoned from 1995 to 2008. There were no renovations scheduled, and there was a lack of initiative to make it possible to pass heritage buildings over to public hands. For more than thirteen years the historic downtown was abandoned, demonstrating the unjust abandonment of these neighborhoods.

The unveiling of the new Saint James Street was full of symbols, such as a new found ambition, and the turning over of a new leaf in 2008. We’re rediscovering the pride of living in Bergerac. It is the revenge of the residents who inhabited what were called “lowly neighborhoods.” We dedicate this renewal to the countless generations who lived in the working class Bergerac made up of alleyways in the old part of the city. We dedicate the unveiling to those who lived with the social stigma of their neighborhood. It is wonderful to find ourselves united by this heritage. At one time, this part of Bergerac was a cornerstone of the city’s heritage. It transcends social origins. It is a promise of social inclusion and the right for everyone to live well, it is a protected space, and not to mention honored. Behind the revenge of these neighborhoods in Bergerac there is an entire city coming together.

How can developing or renovating historically important neighborhoods and buildings have an impact on the rest of a city?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Original article, originally published in French, here.

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Marcus Khoury is a recent graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, where he obtained a B.A. in French & Francophone Studies. Aside from his native Michigan, Marcus has lived in several states, in addition to France and Chile. Owing...

  • Rosabella

    And yet there is the enormous elephant in the china shop: gentrification, especially radical and quick gentrification. What happens when a neighborhood becomes too appealing? What all too often ends up happening is displacement: the original inhabitants, the working classes, the so-called “lowly neighbours” are priced out, and leave. That is when you discover that neighbourhoods are more than just buildings and streets, but they are also the intricate and large social networks and businesses that link them. Is this happening in this area?

  • Jillian

    I think this is a great story and an exciting opportunity for Bergerac. Revitalizing historic neighborhoods is a valuable tool for cities to draw pride from their unique history and heritage — in all its nuance. Historic neighborhoods are vital to creating quality of place (note: not quality of life), and from an economic development perspective, that is critical to talent attraction. As the global labor market becomes more competitive, skilled workers have more leverage than ever before. People must not forget that cities are competing for talent on a daily basis. Aesthetics and character are so important in this effort.

    But on the other side, what Rosabella raises is indeed important to address. While gentrification is surely a risk (or some would say, a natural byproduct) of revitalization and preservation, there are means of protecting existing residents or allowing for them to protect themselves should they so desire. Each instance of gentrification is different, with different historic contexts, and with different winners and losers. But from what I have seen, the most organized communities have the greatest success in preserving character and community.

    Depending on levels of community/municipal authority, if an area is attractive enough to business and investors then groups can exercise some leverage and organize to: preserve housing for certain income groups or classes; mandate provision of additional housing for certain groups in the case of new investment being brought into the area; utilize taxation; create heritage districts to preserve the built environment. In a gentrifying area of East Austin, Texas we have seen proposals for cash infusions and low-cost loans to long-time residents facing steep rises in property taxes. But overall the discussion is very heated, and that is a good thing! People are standing up for their right to the community they built.

    Improving a community can help local residents start or expand their existing businesses because it is easier for them to access loans from banks. Improvements can make the area safer for residents. There are many ways gentrification can actually help an existing community, but there is responsibility on all sides. Residents have as much a right as new-comers and investors in what happens, but they must speak and organize effectively. Sadly this may seem like a “blame the victim” argument, but in the context of gentrification, there is not always a clear victim or perpetrator. It’s a complex issue that requires creative thinking.

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