Bordeaux is a fussy city, it’s sometimes said, overinvested in the wine trade, with a high opinion of itself; but that’s not my impression. Three years ago we began renting an apartment in the neighbourhood of St Michel. The building is solid but a bit neglected and the flat itself, at forty square metres, a squeeze for two, sometimes three. Still, there are advantages. Rental accommodation is affordable in this old port area on the left bank of the Garonne; people think of it as de facto social housing. Then there’s a sizeable Maghrebi and Turkish presence, which improves life in the cramped kitchen and makes a change from the racial uniformity of the hinterland, where we’d been ensconced for too long. A sketch a few years back on a Bordeaux website about St Michel described it as ‘the most colourful neighbourhood’ in the city. I wasn’t sure how to take that, but after a few years in the place I’m inclined to see colour everywhere.
Another advantage is a magnificent view onto a church, about 35 metres from our building. The style of this large edifice is late Gothic, so-called ‘flamboyant’, and verging on florid, its pinnacles gnarled by the decorative enthusiasm of the period. It was more than a hundred years in the making and completed in the 16th century. We look out across a small, paved square at the angle of the eastern and northern façades. Both were being restored when we moved in; the work took about a year. The streaked, sooty surface of the limestone – so-called starfish limestone, from the marine fossils in the deposit – was buffed to a pale, Saharan yellow by brown-skinned men, of North African and sub-Saharan origin, working on matt grey scaffolding delivered by fair-skinned men in white lorries with a green company logo on the side of the cab.
Nowadays you’d be lucky to find many takers for Sunday Mass: the church is a museum piece, painstakingly restored by people whose religious tradition flourishes on the other side of the Mediterranean, in the mosque and the madrasa. (I’ve seen this before, the other way about, in Bradford during the 1990s, when the Barelvi community commissioned the Madni Jamia mosque in Thornbury, where I spent a couple of weeks when construction was in full swing. The contractors were descendants in a long line of Yorkshire masons and working with Yorkshire stone. Here, on Sunday, you count in dozens; in Thornbury, on Friday, it’s closer to thousands.) The restored stone of St Michel is amenable to all kinds of light: clear mornings, volatile afternoons before an Atlantic downpour, elegiac municipal mood-lighting, designed to flatter the old duchess after dark. On the northern façade the new look is holding up all right, while the western façade has yet to be tackled.
On that side, the one we don’t see from our apartment, lies a much larger square, many times the size of ours. Its central feature is a bell tower 115 metres high, one of the tallest in France. The structure was weakened by repeated lightning strikes and in the 18th century the top fell off during a hurricane. It was restored just before the Franco-Prussian War. Lately down-and-outs have found shelter at its base. The campo is a flea-market for most days of the week, with some good retro-techno stalls laid out on the pavement: if you need a charger for a superannuated cellphone, or replacement burners for a gas oven, this is the mall for you. On Saturday and Monday it’s a busy market for vegetables and clothes. Many of the traders are North African.
I talk about the place as if nothing had changed, but a year or more ago the mayor’s office announced that the ‘public spaces’ of St Michel, including the large square, would be undergoing renovation. The news was greeted with caution: de facto social housing was being cleaned up by landlords in any case and the scruffier buildings of which ours is one were becoming the exception rather than the rule. A tidal rush of public money, with a valuable tender afloat, was about to enter through the breach opened by the private sector. The loan word ‘gentrification’ began to appear on local blogs (with an asterisk and an explanation at the end of the post); it’s as familiar now as a Lipton Yellow Label teabag. What would happen to the traders and the down-and-outs, spoilsports wondered, in these new, clinical spaces, developed with ‘sustainable materials’? What if the square, with its market space and terraces for local restaurants and teahouses (L’Orient, Les Saveurs de l’Atlas, Le Marhaba), became a vast stretch of renewably sourced wooden decking with a couple of juice bars, an art gallery and a solar-powered toilet?
The impending spruce-up is not just about gentrification having led the way in a low-income neighbourhood at the edge of a river. There’s also a ‘historical’ ingredient. A good part of Bordeaux, including shabby St Michel, became a Unesco world heritage site in 2007. We arrived here the following year, when the neighbourhood was a bit like an ageing ship that had put in for repairs. Having been mildly idle, the crew were now beginning to stir. Somewhere at the back of their minds was a distant island and a map with an X at its centre. Then, as the Unesco effect kicked in and galvanised the mayor’s office, it dawned on them that the treasure was probably making its way to the ship.