To the north of Paris, in an area mostly known for high rises, the town of Stains is surprisingly green, with its allotment gardens and fields.
When I visit, gardeners gathered around a decorated table in front of an allotment cabin are sharing the proceeds of a modest collection.
Despite the pandemic, which has led to the cancellation of a local parade, everyone is discussing one topic: the renovation of the historic allotments, a project Stains started in 2019.
Most allotments border the cemetery. Tall sunflowers, bulging tomatoes and giant courgettes are trying to catch every ray of sun.
From spring to autumn, the gardens and cemetery give the area a serene character. Besides vegetables, they boast fruit trees and grapevines – Stains used to be renowned for its winegrowing.
All gardens are to be standardised
Nearly all vegetation, including old trees, will be razed. The area under renovation looks bleak. Cabins and cisterns stand on bare soil.
“There used to be a pear orchard,” said one gardener, pointing at an empty spot. “And where they’re building a ‘village’ there once stood a cherry grove.”
Les Jardins Familiaux de Stains association manages 649 of the 693 allotment gardens. Founded in 1932, it is the largest in Seine-Saint-Denis.
At the start of the 20th century, the department had 40 allotment gardens. Within 30 years, there were 5,000. Today, 40 communes have 71 sites containing 2,812 gardens. Of all these, Stains has the largest dedicated area.
There is a long waiting list. “Having a garden next to Paris is no mean feat,” said one gardener, who asked not to be named. He has a 500m2 garden he inherited from his father – but the renovation project will allow only plots of 150m2.
“On a hot day like this, the 19 hectares of gardens, their dusty alleys lying in the shadow of tall, dense hedges, are a great place to escape from the suffocating capital,” he said.
The cabin where the gardeners are gathered is named after Lucien Girault, who with the help of his wife Marie-Louise, was president of the association from 1960 to 2000. A president’s job includes preventing gardens growing wild and cabins being inhabited.
Almost every garden sports a decorated cabin. Every year, Stains’ allotment gardeners participate in the department’s most beautiful garden contest.
“The other gardeners have criticised me for years,” the gardener said. They accused him of neglect, of not spending sufficient time there. He does not live nearby and had to take care of his sick mother. Now retired, he can go to his garden only after a nurse has visited.
In rue d’Amiens, a large field lies behind a rusty gate and a brick wall. These are abandoned gardens: high weeds have taken over. Two men are trying to open the gate, blocked by construction debris. “Young people do not want an allotment garden,” they say.
In nearby rue des Fourches, a gardener is weeding potatoes.
The gardens in these streets are run by association Jardins Ouvriers des Joncherolles.
'They will turn it into a luxury campsite'
Gardeners rent their plots for a near-symbolic price and some fear the renovation will make gardens more expensive. They suspect the city wants to make more money from its land. “They will turn it into a luxury campsite,” one said.
Behind the iron fence stands a bulldozer. The project team had to remove 1,000 tonnes of waste, including septic tanks and asbestos.
When the pandemic interrupted renovation, plants and decorations were stolen.
Over the last two decades, Stains’ allotment gardens have been deteriorating. Some gardeners were living in their cabins, others were subletting theirs. “They really overdid it,” the gardener said.
“They poured a thick layer of concrete and built a 300m2 cabin for a 200m2 garden.”
In nearby rue du Mouton, the smell of grilled meat spreads out over the gardens. The alleys are paved with litter. Roma, from Eastern Europe, live here in shanty conditions.
Last year, a corpse was found after fire destroyed several cabins. The Les Enfants du Canal charity recently opened new housing for 30 families.
The renovation will replace dusty alleys with gravel paths. There will be new “villages”, each with a communal area.
The aim is to “render the gardens more visible” and “open these green spaces to all inhabitants”.
Perhaps this is a reason for the gardeners’ reluctance?
So far, Stains has resisted property speculation, but in every direction, building cranes appear on the horizon. At the back of the allotments, beside the new light railway station, a block of flats rises.
Even the 33-hectare Tartres site, the largest agricultural and green area of la petite couronne, is being developed.
Black water towers which have dominated the landscape since 1880 are disappearing one after another.
A third of the farm fields, which once served Les Halles, and allotments which spread over Stains, Pierrefitte and Saint-Denis will soon host schools and apartments.
'New greenery will be manicured, confined by concrete'
If you want to discover a bucolic landscape in the Paris area, admire gardeners’ work, lose your way in flourishing wastelands or find yourself in a cornfield at the foot of a high rise, hurry before it is too late.