Pubdate: Sun, 18 Aug 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Elian Peltier


The bare, dusty ground is littered with rusty blades and crack pipes.
The area reeks of urine and garbage.

At least three times a day, Charly Roue is drawn to this neighborhood,
one of the most sordid in Paris, always following the same ritual.

After panhandling tens of euros at cafes not far from some of the most
popular tourist spots, he heads to the northern edge of the city,
where he can buy crack cocaine at La Colline, or the Hill, France's
largest open-air market for crack.

Many of the drug users who come here day after day "compare La Colline
to hell," said Mr. Roue, 27, who has been using drugs on and off since
he was 14. "The locals who live nearby and suffer from the chaos we
bring must call it hell too."

They do.

Over the past few years, La Colline, about five acres of desolate land
squeezed between three highways at the gates of the city, has become
the symbol of a drug crisis plaguing northern Paris as gentrification
has pushed some of the capital's most desperate populations to its
farthest margins.

Local residents say the presence of drug users has made their lives
unbearable, and local business owners say their revenues have plunged
because customers have been scared away.

While this poor neighborhood has long had its challenges, residents
say the crack market has made an already difficult situation
significantly worse.

"We had our share of burned cars, weed trafficking and prostitution,"
said Rafia Bibi, a 59-year-old Tunisian woman who has lived in the
area for the past 15 years, and who can see La Colline from her
17th-floor apartment. "But the violence and misery among migrants and
drug addicts have made this neighborhood barely livable."

At La Colline, crack is available and on open display 24/7. Hundreds
come every day to buy a smokable rock, known as a "galette" in French,
for 15 euros, or about $17. Dozens of addicts live there in makeshift
tents, mingling with the homeless migrants who also populate the area.

Every Tuesday, the police clear out the entire area and raze the
makeshift slum. But it inevitably grows back a few hours later.

Drug users engage in prostitution in public toilets as children go to
school in the morning, while fights occur daily, as traffickers
sometimes beat one another with construction cables, or drug users
fight over galettes with pocket blades.

"You can forget about the Paris of Woody Allen," said a police officer
who has patrolled La Colline every day for the past couple of years,
referring to the director's film "Midnight in Paris."  "We couldn't be
further from that."

Emmanuelle Oster, the new chief police officer for the 18th
arrondissement, which includes La Colline, said she had made the fight
against crack her priority since she took office in November. She said
that all 500 officers under her leadership were mobilized against it,
and that over 300 traffickers had been arrested in the first six
months of 2019, more than in 2018 over all.

An estimated 5,000 to 8,500 users smoke crack in the Paris area, a
number that has been fairly steady over the years, though its use had
long been a hidden problem. But it burst into public view, Ms. Oster
said, when recent housing projects gentrified former squats, forcing
users into the open and turning "an invisible phenomenon into an
apocalyptic situation."

"That just can't exist in a city like Paris in the 21st century," Ms.
Oster added.

The aid groups that come to La Colline to offer what help they can
blame the heavy police presence for exacerbating tensions. But they
don't dispute that the concentration of users and addicts compacted
into La Colline makes for an explosive situation.

On a recent afternoon, under the scorching heat that has plagued
France this summer, a few social workers with Charonne, an aid
organization that gets city funding, distributed over 150 smoking
pipes, dozens of condoms, hygienic towels and glasses of water. For
many of those who wander there, the social workers' presence is the
only form of relief they can hope for.

The aid workers say many female addicts in La Colline have been
coerced into prostitution, and at least half a dozen drug users have
died there since the beginning of the year.

"We urge them to come see us in our offices so they can find some
rest," said Yves Bouillet, a social worker at Charonne. "But they say
we're too far from them," he added about the group's offices, two
miles south.

The broader neighborhood in which La Colline sits, Porte de la
Chapelle, has long marked one of the northern boundaries of Paris.

Eric Lejoindre, the mayor of the 18th arrondissement, which includes
Porte de la Chapelle, said the authorities were "trying to unify the
city with its outskirts."

"Yet with everything we're seeing at the moment, many think the Porte
de la Chapelle doesn't belong to Paris," he acknowledged.

Many local residents say they have adapted to the new normal, ignoring
drug users and staying away from the insecurity they can bring. And
they don't want the neighborhood to be solely defined by its crack
problem. Businesses are still there, they point out, and longtime
residents still meet old friends at cafes, undeterred by the illicit
trade around them.

At the peak of Europe's migration crisis in 2015, the neighborhood
became a rallying point for those seeking refuge in France. The
authorities built a temporary shelter there, but it was undersized and
left hundreds more in the street. Many stayed after the shelter was
dismantled in 2018.

Some have fallen into the trap of La Colline.

"Crack is everywhere here, it's impossible to escape from it," said
Nivmud Singh, a 34-year-old homeless man who arrived from India in

City officials have vowed to open a "rest and health center" by this
fall, as part of a three-year anti-crack plan. Backed by a budget of
=809 million, or about $10 million, the plan has funded organizations
like Charonne and offered dozens of temporary housing options for users.

Drug users will also probably be able to smoke crack legally at the
center, which would be a first for crack consumption in France.

Officials argue the neighborhood is going to change for the better and
grow safer, with a future campus of Sorbonne University and new
infrastructure being built for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Yet local residents remain angry that their representatives haven't
acted faster.

"After all we've been through, city officials want to let the drug
addicts stay by setting up a drug room here," said Toufik Aouchiche, a
waiter at the family-owned Celtic cafe, whose terrace is often
assailed by drug users. "But have they asked us what we think about

Mr. Roue, the addict, doesn't plan to use the center.

"The only way to stop smoking crack is to leave Paris," he said. "We
should all stay away from La Colline."
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MAP posted-by: Matt