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 Roué is drawn to this neighbourhood, 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 city’s 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 addicts who come here day after day “compare La Colline to hell,” said Roué, 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.”
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 life unbearable, and local business owners say their revenues have plunged because customers have been scared away.
While this poor neighbourhood 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 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 has made this neighbourhood barely liveable.”
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 AUD$25. 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 each other with construction cables, or drug users fight over a galette 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 “Midnight in Paris” film. “We couldn’t be further from that.”
Emmanuelle Oster, the new chief police officer for the 18th arrondissement, which includes La Colline, said she has made the fight against crack her priority since she took office in November. She said that all 500 officers under her leadership were mobilised against it, and that over 300 traffickers had been arrested in the first six months of 2019, more than in 2018 overall.
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, Oster said, when recent housing projects gentrified former squats, forcing users out in 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,” 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 organisation 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, one of the aid groups. “But they say we’re too far from them,” he added about the group’s offices, two miles south.
The broader neighbourhood in which La Colline sits, Porte de la Chapelle, has long marked one of the northern boundaries of Paris.
Eric Lejoindre, 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 neighbourhood to be solely defined by its crack problem. Businesses are still there, they point out, and long-time 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 neighbourhood became a rallying point for those seeking refuge in France. 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 2016.
City officials have vowed to open a “rest and health centre” by this autumn, as part of a three-year anti-crack plan. Backed by a budget of 9 million euros, or about AUD$15 million, the plan has funded organisations like Charonne and offered dozens of temporary housing options for users.
Drug users will also likely be able to smoke crack legally at the centre, which would be a first for crack consumption in France.
Officials argue the neighbourhood 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 it?”
Roué, the addict, doesn’t plan to use the centre.
“The only way to stop smoking crack is to leave Paris,” he said. “We should all stay away from La Colline.”