In 2011, when medical services began to move out of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, a hospital located in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, the Paris City Council entrusted its 16 vacant buildings to Aurore, a long-established association (founded in 1871) dedicated to providing emergency accommodation to the financially and socially excluded. Aurore was to open six accommodation centers in the following months, providing temporary homes while the City Council prepared the building works starting in December in 2017 to transform the site into one of Paris’s numerous eco-districts.
With such a large space and a project of this scale, Aurore was joined by other organisations and slowly started to build what became Les Grands Voisins (the big neighbours). To adapt and maintain the space according to their needs, they were joined by Plateau Urbain, an association founded in 2014 that supports Aurore in the definition of the economic model. Some of the buildings were adapted so they could be rented as offices by small companies at half the price it would usually cost in this area of Paris. This not only provides a revenue to pay maintenance costs, it also enriches the community, allowing companies to collaborate with workers and residents. Today, a total of 2,000 people live and work in the site’s 180 residences. Start-ups, artists, craftsmen, and associations work and engage in a variety of causes: social inclusion, arts, culture, education, health, well-being and the environment. They develop their activities and form unique partnerships while they actively contribute to the collective neighbourhood project.
Aside from providing accommodation, Aurore focuses on reintegrating its members into society through employment. This is done with the “Conciergerie Solidaire”, a facility created in December 2015 to enable people in situations of social vulnerability to progressively regain occupational activities. Such jobs and tasks all take place within the site, often in collaboration with different local organisations. They include gardening and maintenance of green areas, waste management, housekeeping, preparing and serving meals, but also beekeeping with Miel de Quartier, growing baby greens with Ici Terre or even helping at Jardin Chocolaté: the site’s own chocolate shop. A local currency in the form of “time tickets” that can be obtained at the Troc Shop facilitates the exchange of goods and services among residents, who can purchase a meal by providing their services for an hour, for example.
This extraordinary hybrid venue combines a social purpose with social enjoyment in a stimulatingly creative way. Yes, We Camp joined the team to help open the project up to the public. Born in Marseille in 2013, when the southern French city was the European city of culture, Yes We Camp aimed to provide cheap accommodation to visitors during that period, and later expanded its activities to Paris. At Les Grands Voisins, they are in charge of open areas and of propelling the project into something that can be enjoyed and explored by Parisians and tourists, as well as local community members. Their services include a camp site that sleeps 80 (in tents, bungalows or hammocks); La Lingerie, the site’s bar and canteen and central meeting point for residents and visitors that hosts a broad range of events and activities every month. It is open to the public since October 2015 and welcomes between 300 and 1500 visitors every day.
In fact, Les Grands Voisins is just like a small village in the middle of the city, complete with its own second-hand shop, “plant concept store”, art gallery, its recently opened terrace bar, and even a pétanque ground. As if all of this weren’t enough to bring the community together, a “solidarity and zero waste” market takes place once a month, organised by Les Grands Voisins in collaboration with Amelior, an association that organises local and environmentally friendly markets. In addition to selling second-hand items collected through the sorting of urban waste, market organizers ensure that everything is reused. Sorting bins are available in the morning, and an area with “free stuff” is set up at the end of the day when stands are packing up so that participants can make the most of the unsold items. Remaining objects are sent to recycling and reuse facilities, thus guaranteeing a truly circular economy.
Despite its openness to the public, the well-being of its inhabitants remains the main concern of Les Grands Voisins, and balance between providing an attractive hangout for visitors and a peaceful home for residents is crucial. The bar and public services are therefore closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and from 11 pm in the evenings.
Time is almost up for Les Grands Voisins now, and Aurore has already started moving some of its accommodation centers to other venues in the city. Though it will be sad to see this small successful community project come to an end, it has set an excellent example of social inclusion on a local scale for other community projects around the world. The atmosphere created at Les Grands Voisins has no doubt been beneficial for its inhabitants and for 14th arrondissement itself, which does not usually enjoy this much liveliness or attention from young Parisians. Luckily, we still have something to look forward to after the City Council begin their building works: filmmaker Bastien Simon has been making a reportage of daily life at Les Grands Voisins, and his documentary of the same name will be released in 2018.
82 avenue Denfert-Rochereau, 75014 Paris
Photos by Julia Webster
Les Grands Voisins logo by Manon Coninx