It is 10am at the entrance of the Basilique de Saint-Denis metro station in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, the largest city in the impoverished Seine Saint-Denis region. Standing there is Michel Moisan, a retiree wearing blue glasses. He’s waiting to meet Marylou, an American he will take on a guided tour of Saint-Denis. All that Moisan knows at this point, is that Marylou is somewhere between “65 and 75 years old” and that she’s wearing a striped dress. Moisan is a “greeter”, a volunteer who takes visitors on a personalised tour of his or her own neighbourhood.
The “greeter” phenomenon was started in New York in the early 1990s by Lynn Brooks. Frustrated by her hometown’s reputation as a dangerous city, she decided to share the New York she knew and loved by inviting tourists to visit her favourite places, far from the sites and landmarks found in guide books. The Big Apple Greeters was officially launched in 1992.
More than 25 years later, Brooks’ project has grown into a global network. The not-for-profit tourism has taken particular hold in France, where there are 1,600 volunteers in more than 85 cities and regions. Although the Paris Greeters began as early as 2006, Saint-Denis didn’t join the network until 2010.
While Moisan waits for Marylou to arrive – she is late because she took the wrong metro – he confides that he is a little nervous: when she filled out her form on the Greeters website, Marylou said she wanted a tour of Paris. She made no mention of Saint-Denis. It was the tour manager who selected Moisan based on his age, interests, language skills and availability. He’s worried that the tour will fall short of the picture-postcard image that many visitors have of Paris.
“If she’s an American who doesn’t watch Fox news, it will be okay,” he says, half in jest.
A city known ‘for the wrong reasons’
Saint-Denis, and the surrounding Seine-Saint Denis region, is not a popular tourist destination. Even the city’s main landmark, the Basilica of Saint-Denis – the burial ground of French kings – welcomes a mere 130,000 visitors annually. The number pales in comparison with the 13 million who go each year to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, just five kilometres away.
This is largely due to the city’s poor image. Since the 2005 riots, Saint-Denis has come to symbolise France’s troubled suburbs. While its notoriety drives away some visitors, it also attracts others for “the wrong reasons”, Moisan says. A few years ago, he met a couple of American university students who said they wanted to see “where everything burned” during the riots.
The November 13, 2015 Paris attacks – which left 130 dead – only further diminished the reputation of Saint-Denis. The city’s football stadium, the Stade de France, was targeted by suicide bombers, and the surviving suspects were eventually killed in an anti-terror raid on an apartment also located in Saint-Denis.
“I feel like I’m doing my city a service by making it better known,” Michel says, before greeting Marylou with a warm handshake. The silver-haired American explains that she is a former social worker; she lives on the East Coast, in the tiny state of Delaware. She arrived in Paris the day before, and came directly from the apartment she rented on Airbnb in the very chic 7th arrondissement (district).
The tour begins in front of the basilica, where the one-on-one between Moisan and Marylou contrasts sharply with the group of 40 people craning to hear their paid guide. Before long, Moisan leads Marylou away from the herds of tourists to a nearby building that is surprising because of its angular façade. From the 1960s until the 1980s, architects freely experimented with new ideas for social housing in the heart of Saint-Denis.
“I think architects should be forced to live in the buildings they construct,” Moisan says, standing in front of the angular building. He explains there is more inviting housing nearby. Marylou laughs. “That’s because they were designed by a woman,” she says.
Moisan then takes Marylou to the former headquarters of the newspaper L’Humanité, which once served as the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in France. The building was design by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Moisan points out how the structure’s modern look contrasts with the Basilica of Saint-Denis, just a short distance away.
Next he shows her one of the maisons d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur – a secondary school established under Napoleon for girls whose male ascendants were distinguished with the country’s top award, the Legion of Honour. From there, they continue to the Ursulines convent, where, hidden behind an unremarkable green door lies a series of stone buildings overlooking gardens. An unexpected bit of countryside in the centre of the city.
‘A small drop is the sea of Parisian tourism’
Throughout the tour, Moisan shares his personal ties to the area – pointing out his daughter’s school, his friend’s home, his favourite bakery – as he would with a friend.
Although he is eager to share the beauty of the city where he lived for 25 years, Moisan doesn’t shy away from the challenges it faces, including rampant poverty and community divisions. He explains that although he left Saint-Denis for the neighbouring suburb of Asnières four years ago, he still visits several times a week because a large part of his social life is still rooted there.
“I didn’t leave Saint-Denis, it’s Saint-Denis that pushed me to leave,” he says.
The tour ends at a bustling market, between a rack of two-euro skirts and a halal butcher stand.
“I always say that you can come here naked and leave with everything you need to dress yourself and make a meal,” Moisan jokes.
Marylou bids farewell to her greeter, raving about the experience. “I feel less like a tourist than a traveller. It’s important for me to meet the locals and see how people really live. It reminded me of some neighbourhoods in eastern London,” she says.
The pair head off to their respective destinations. Marylou, who has since downloaded an app to help her better navigate the metro, is going to the Musée d’Orsay on the advice of her greeter. Moisan, meanwhile, is on his way home to Asnières. He is already scheduled to give a tour of Saint-Denis to a couple of Canadians next week.
Yet tourism in Saint-Denis remains, for the most part, off the beaten track. Moisan, who is the most active of the region’s five greeters, averaging around 30 tours per year, is acutely aware of this: “We’re just a small drop in the sea of Parisian tourism.”