Image by fredpanassac via FlickrNot far away from where I first lived is a little town that I scarcely visit these days. It is run down, has social problems and is on the way out, yet it should be one of jewels of tourist France and a cultural hub for its area.
Imagine if you were planning to visit France and someone proposed a town with part of its medieval walls and massive gatehouses intact....a wonderful church with a magisterial carved frontage....a medieval town centre with timber framed houses and little winding alleyways leading down to the river below, the whole thing dominated by a chateau perched on its rocky base. You would probably jump at the chance to visit it.
Well, when you did, you would be deeply disappointed. Yes, the town has all these attractions, but does nothing with them.......in fact, it seems perversely to want to negate their impact.
You arrive, and seek the tourist office. Twenty years ago, it was run by volunteers, in the centre of the old town and you would walk down the shopping area to get to it from the main car park on the old market place. You were already in the heart of things.
Then it was moved to the market place 'to be more accessible'. It was accessible where it was, in a half timbered building at an angle to the old church, so what was meant was 'accessible from the parking area'. Then council money came in and they got rid of the volunteers. Nice young things from goodness knows where took over the counters in the summer months, doing their 'stage' - training - no doubt for some diploma in tourism, and events started to be held. Night markets...story tellers and conjurers accompanying walks round the town. A fortune was spent on chateau images in metal implanted on the pavements.
What you could no longer do was consult leaflets either about the town and its attractions or about what was happening or available in the general area. To 'avoid waste', these were all kept in drawers of the filing cabinet to be produced if asked for...which begs the question
'How do you know to ask about something if you don't know it exists?'
Recently in an epic power struggle between factions of local government, the tourist office is to be moved to the outskirts of the town, where local government conveniently has spare office space due to the failure of yet another of its wild schemes. How the tourist is to find it is a puzzle. Where the tourist is to park having found it is yet another...there is only on-street parking, all taken up already by local government workers.
The main market used to spread from the market place, with the nineteenth century market building, down the main shopping street to the clothes market near the old tourist office, so, at least once a week, people would be drawn past the shops in that street and business was flourishing. Then, there was concern on the part of the council about the circulation of traffic. The market area was drawn back to the main marketplace, and commerce lower down in the town atrophied. Already, the town faced competition from two supermarkets installed in communes on its outskirts, so you would think, if only out of a sense of responsibility to its ratepayers, it would do something to keep commerce going in the centre.
Not at all. The town had set up two industrial estates, and its tax income from the enterprises installed there let it ignore the dying heart of the town. As commerce died out, rates went up. The only first class restaurant closed its doors. That was fifteen years ago and the hulk of the building is still there, its roof green with algae and the windows falling apart, the wreck of a sixteenth century wonder. No one will take it on. The shopping street became a desert of empty plate glass windows. A tattooist installed himself.....the only active commerce for some hundred metres and indicator of another phenomenon. The population change.
The centre used to house families, but mostly in rented property. The 'big' families of the town, heirs of notaires for the most part, owned the houses and saw that it was much more profitable to turn these properties into studio flats, as there were council grants for the conversion. The council led the way, turning a magnificent medieval hostelry into poky flats, ruining the interior and where the council led, others were quick to follow. The old centre became a ghost town of the unemployed and single, empty of commerces because they did their shopping at the supermarkets on the edge of town and decidedly unpleasant to frequent at night as the population changed yet again - younger people from the Paris area, bringing their habits of all sorts with them. Trash built up, dog turds littered the streets, and the council was unconcerned despite the calls of the original inhabitants of the area to have something done. The rates went up again.
A notaire - from the North of France - decided that the old centre could be turned round if a few people started to renovate the old buildings that were available for sale, and formed a group of like minded people with a bit of money to try to start on the area around the church. They faced nothing but obstacles as, not only was there the normal planning permission to be obtained for change to exteriors but because the area was one close to historical monuments, further permissions had to be obtained from the departmental architect of 'Batiments de France' - something like English Heritage.
These gentlemen, once appointed, are difficult to shift and run their departmental policies as they please. The one in place at the time of the notaire's initiative had an obsession with covering all walls in 'crepi' - rendering - in a colour described as 'ton pierre' - stone colour- but which would be more accurately be described as shit yellow. Now, this town was noted for not only its half timbered dwellings, but also for the buildings in local stone, built like the town walls, more than a metre thick, and it was this feature that the architect wanted to cover in - shit.
He had managed to have this done this to the medieval ramparts of a town down the road, with the result that the bastion overlooking the river now looks as though a giant had had an bowel movement while touring the area....and this is the sort of person entrusted with France's architectural heritage.
The notaire persisted and has a wonderful house, but most of his friends gave up, defeated by the beaurocracy and sheer resistance that they encountered. The town council sat on its' hands. It had the revenues from the industrial estate, after all. The town centre continued its' decline.
Two years ago, there was a suspicious death in one of these studio apartments and finally the police intervened in what had become an area of drug trading and sleaze. The council was forced to take action and sent in a councillor to hear complaints. He was blown backwards bow legged by the volume of said and the council set up an action group meant to improve conditions.
What has it produced? A plan to ban parking in the little square by the church. More litter bins...which have had to be protected by knee high concrete surrounds to prevent larrikins overturning them. As one long term resident was reported as saying
'If I'd put up a thing like that, I'd have been fined and made to take it down.'
How true that is. His story is echoed all round the old centre. People who want to make it come to life again, who want to restore it, who want to make it an area where tourists would like to come and spend their money are being prevented by a lack of initiative at all levels. Worse, obstructionism.
Why might that be? Go to the notaire, now retired and having to put security devices on the doors and windows of his lovely house.
'Simple. The big families still profit from these studio rentals. They don't want anything to change and they still control the place, whichever party they say they're from. The other thing they don't want is outsiders making a penny from anything in the town. The town is for them and their kind. It's not for us.'
So, take heart, immigrants to France. It is not only that France is for the French, and not for us, but that each town is for its 'owners', and not even for other French.