A Paris Squat: Taking over a Space that’s Abandoned or Neglected
By Joanna Gonzalez
Figures that while living in one of the most expensive cities in Europe, Paris, I would squat.
You see the thing is everyone does it, it’s like a fad, and although I totally had the intention of paying 800-1,000 Euros a month, looked apartments up online and even checked them out in person, for some reason renting a place just wasn’t in the cards for me…
Attempting To Rent an Apartment in Paris
If you’re foreign it’s nearly impossible, they almost always cater toward their own. If you’re a not student, it’s even more out of the question. There is a lot of paperwork, leases to sign, and deals to seal.
They do expect a co-signer, even if you can fully sustain yourself. It’s not as easy as let’s say, New York–and no, you can’t just find a place on Craigslist.
Note: If you don’t speak a lick of French they’ll probably just hang up on you the minute you call to set up an open-house appointment (as you might know most landlords, no matter what country you’re in, don’t like emails and expect phone calls).
Just remember, most French don’t have the time or patience for someone who can’t speak their language unless of course their trying to pursue you.
Sites to Consider Apartment Hunting In Paris
* Seloger.fr (French site)
* Leboncoin.fr (French site)
*Parisattitude.com (Designed for English speakers, but with a higher price range)
The best advice I can give you is to look into an apartment BEFORE you get to Paris or any foreign city. That was obviously not the case for me since I did not plan to fall in love with Paris, but if you’re in love enough, trust me, anything will just about work.
On my side of the spectrum, I actually lost a prospective apartment by a split second from a landlord who preferred to be quickly paid upfront by someone else, the worst part was he had already said it was mine.
What’s even more ironic is that I ended up luxuriously squatting in the biggest artistic squat in all of Paris (at the time) literally right around the block from where I lost that exact apartment.
For those of you that don’t know, a squat is a space—with or without roofing–that is taken over by the first person who finds it abandoned and/or neglected. The only other time I had ever been to this particular part of Paris was to check out that apartment and I was freakishly summoned back to Pré-Saint-Gervais (19th district) to none other than, SQUAT.
The laws vary between country and city; in Paris, after seven days of overture if no one else claims it the person who found it keeps it, unless the original owner (private or public) decides to take matters into their own hands by bringing the case to court, usually resulting in shutdowns, expulsions, etc.
On the flip side, since trial procedures take weeks, months, and at times even years to follow through, that gives any squatter enough time to inhabit, change, reform, protest, and convert entire establishments into cultural centers for the community (some have won and succeeded).
The life span of a squat is unknown, could be anywhere from 24 hours to 24 years, depending on the proprietors’ concern, but in other words, Paris makes it easy to squat.
My 1st Squat – “Chez Kilo”
Before I stepped foot in THE Artistic Squat (Le B.L.O.C.), which became my true home while in Paris, I got my feet wet at a different one nearby two months prior, but only ended up there after a long night of partying out near Bastille*; we wanted to continue the night in a Parisian post party way, if you know what I mean…If you don’t, it involves grouping complete strangers together who aren’t ready to end the night back at someone’s house with a bottle and perhaps more.
*Bastille: (great bar-hopping spot); Rue De La Roquette – 12th District, metro lines 1, 5, or 8 *
It wasn’t my first time “ending up” like this, but my first time ending up at a squat. The whole way there had sole secrecy to it. The guy leading us didn’t say a word but picked up different people along the way who weren’t with us from our original starting point.
We conversed with strangers and merrily laughed on until the end of line 3 to metro stop Gallieni, got off and realized we were no longer in Paris’ pretty center but walked on anyway.
I’ll admit I was scared, we all were, but with such a huge group of us, nothing could go wrong. Upon arriving the head guy called someone on the phone, through a window, and behind another barrier; the door we thought we were going to walk in through was apparently not it– just for show.
We made our way up dark wide stairs covered with colored-construction paper and tapestries, into a big open room filled with couches and an entire Dj-set.
Through a beaded corridor was another extra private room, with even more couches, mats, and pillows. Evidently, the entire apartment building was theirs–whoever’s it was.
It gave me an oddly empty feeling, and the people there before us looked strung out yet happy to see new faces. Some of them lived there while others just “passed by.”
It was an underground, fun-house, party-paradise haven, and not many knew about it; we got sucked right in, dug deep in conversation, drooled a bit over ourselves, danced while some drummed, and drank until the next day.
Some gave out on the floor and others continued. At a certain point, we decided to leave because we felt it was over, but when I come to think of it it’s never over, even right now as we speak, I guarantee there is a party still going on, always…
When did they stop? How, if they lived there? The thought pervaded my mind, and even though we initially had nowhere else to go, could have easily stayed and squatted there, we left almost petrified.
My 2nd Squat – “Montreuil”
At end of line 9 on the metro going toward “Marie de Montreuil” (same general direction of Gallieni) you will find another neighborhood housing squats; we discovered this one in the same fashion as aforementioned (after party), the only difference was we never left.
The first squat (Chez Kilo) was more hardcore, punk, and trashy in a great partying way, but certainly not sheltering one.
This squat was family-owned, passed down through generations, calm, welcoming and loving in a flower child, hippy-dippy way. We were in a big warehouse, some rooms were divided, and the girl who took us under her wing taught us the basic rules of squatting, sharing, and subtly rebelling against society (not anarchically).
A huge bookcase and a hammock decorated the common room; endless coffee on the table, intellectual conversation, music, a communal jar of marijuana, etc. All they wanted to do was to comfort and cook for us, and we instinctively felt the same in return.
This was it, we found it we thought. It was free of charge, even though we had to share beds and just about everything. “What’s mine is yours”–not. We lasted a month. Despite how perfect it felt it wasn’t, and couldn’t have lasted forever. But luckily on some holy random occasion word got out there was a new space opening, and like all squats tend to, did so with a big-bang, mega underground party…
My 3rd Squat – “Le B.L.O.C.” (Building.Liberal.Occupied.Citizen.)
The thought of living here never crossed our minds, especially not while partying there. A week after the party our former home squatters urged us to try it out. It was empty, massive, endless, and we could practically choose whichever room on whichever floor we wanted (aka have our own rooms).
Before us (squatters), the complex used to Bloc Meeting be a health sanitation and services office that belonged to the city of Paris, publicly owned and vacant for some years now. Afterward, with 7 floors above and 4 underground (11 total), at least 30-40 rooms on each floor, an entire parking garage and multiple secret entrances, it inevitably became a jungle house.
Politics within Le B.L.O.C.
In order to actually live there, one had to prove some sort of artistic quality or serve a purpose; mine was simply that I spoke English. I arrived at the very beginning, before rules, regulations, divisions, cliques, and categories. In fact, I made the cut to live there “just cause’, ” as some special squatters high on the Parisian-Squat hierarchy scale did:
On one side, squatters who literally pried the place open had their own visions, while on the other, true artists who saw the space’s potential struggled to turn it into an artist association and cultural center to creatively serve the community. And in the middle, supporting both sides, were the real squatters who just needed a place to rest their heads at night.
To say the least, 200 of us, artist, a squatter or whatever, definitely revamped the neighborhood by serving all the businesses nearby.
The Real B.L.O.C.
Was a free for all–madness, mayhem. Just picture 200 huge, narcissistic egos in an entire office building, illegally. Rules and regulations were never implemented. Everyone wanted to play Caesar while the real “bosses” just turned their heads.
For us, it was home, for others a rave haven, and for other others an actual working space. It was a split, multi-dysfunctional family filled with freaks of all kinds, from all parts of the world, squeezing through the cracks like rats, scrumming for food, and scramming from one side to the other when situations swelled.
It was a warped hole, and I lost all recollection of time, space, days. What felt like a month was actually two weeks. We rarely stepped foot out of the premises, never wanted or needed to.
Everything you could possibly need was within a moment reach, for free: food, water, toilet, light, heat, Internet, (showers were slowly on their way, but weren’t dire since public ones were nearby), beer, fun, party, friends, sex (a lot to choose from), music (always live), gallery openings, dance halls, 7 kitchens, concerts, animals–you name it.
Whatever wasn’t already there would eventually be created and then destroyed only to be created again, like something out Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, multiplied by 10.
It was too good to be true. Was there a catch? Nothing, none at all. We truly found a home and were so wholly attached to it, every 200 or so of us (could never tell you the exact number since it fluctuated with each second that went by), that it sucked the life and light right out of us.
We never slept, therefore rarely dreamt. We all turned into blood-sucking vampires, waiting for the next biggest thing–we were the next biggest thing, and why go anywhere else when half of Paris was coming to us.
As they say, “all good things must come to an end,” and a good 4 months felt like I was there for 2 whole years, probably because “time” was never, ever a factor, or even a thought. The power prevailing through the place was so high it plummets straight to the ground, and although they didn’t win the legal battle (closing after a year), Le B.L.O.C. still resonates as the biggest artistic squat to have ever dawned the streets of Paris.
Smaller similar squats have won cases, triumphing for decades ever since…
Present Prestigious Squats
Proudly aware and acceptable of an entire underground scene, perhaps one of the biggest in the world, Paris has completely transformed the idea of “squat.” Now, so integrated with the rest of Parisian culture one can be found on practically any corner, but ONLY if you look hard enough and read between the lines.
These days the one problem I see with squats is the vicious cyclical conversion process that, in retrospect, once approved, owned and regulated by authorities, ends in loss of its unique “squat-rantic” charm (something Le B.L.O.C. never faced since it had to “die” in order to save its authentic aura).
5‘Doo Style’, an artist tagging the basement levels at Le Bloc. 9 Rivoli (oldest present squat located in the heart of Paris and now major tourist attraction), La Miroiterie (concert venue located off Ménilmontant), and La Petite Rockette (secondhand/Salvation Army shop selling ANYTHING for real cheap) are just a few infamous artistic and cultural associations officially recognized by the government that all started off as illegal squats.
No matter where I find myself in the world today the essence of “squatting” follows me, and probably will for the rest of my life. I am incessantly drawn to them, the people and ideologies, simply cause’ I was there, lived, saw and am now tainted with it.
It’s like opening a certain door to your brain that you can’t close; the scary part is there is no door to shut, nor was there ever one begin with (same goes for squats). Sometimes I itch, tempted, knowing there are another real, exciting, accepted world behinds the scenes out there that keeps growing just as fast as the rest.
For now, I manage to live in the “normal world”–away from squats, but the reality of it is it’s all reality, squat or not.
Interested? Squatting? Experimenting?
1.) Paris.Intersquat.Org – Site for events, concerts, etc. for Parisian squats
2.) Planet.squat.net – Site for squat news around the world
3.) “La Vie de Château” – Web Documentary (Virtual Anatomy of a Squat)
Another note: Between the months of April – June all operating squats of Paris coordinate annual festivities to celebrate their victories (check out Paris.intersquat.org).
For those of you non-squatters, check out William Shakespeare & Co., a small English ONLY bookstore in the heart of Paris that secretly offers travelers free shelter in exchange for working at their store.
Joanna Gonzalez is a freelance writer living in Paris.