Public debate

Juliette Donadieu

There’s something magical when art intervenes in an urban project

Oakland/Saint-Denis is an international cooperation project between two cities that are far apart geographically, yet close due to their social, economic or cultural characteristics. Over a year of exchanges, marked by two trips either side of the Atlantic, various American and French cultural players looked at the way artists and places of creation can take part in constructing territories. Juliette Donadieu, cultural attachée in San Francisco, explains this inspiring journey to us.

Updated on 27/04/2022

5 min

Juliette Donadieu
© DR

How did the Oakland/Saint-Denis project come about?

Originally, there was an sense of it when I arrived in San Francisco, in 2017. In meeting those involved in culture, I realised that the city is changing, that property pressure has gradually forced artists to move away from the centre. That lead me to crossing the bridge that goes to Oakland where artists and creative places are concentrated. It’s a situation that reminded me a lot of what’s happening in Seine-Saint-Denis, where I lived for ten or so years. A part form that, there’s a willingness for cultural diplomacy to change what it does by advancing to new territories. Oakland/Saint-Denis illustrates the idea of a sidestep symbolically. By crossing the bridge that goes to Oakland or the périphérique ring road to go to Seine-Saint-Denis, we’re forced to look at things differently and touch the essence of a cooperation project: create connections between the various people involved who are facing the same challenges.

How did it happen?

A cooperation takes time. Between the end of 2018 and Spring 2019, we lead a series of exploratory missions that enabled us to confirm our intuition and the interest of this approach. Various players like the Didier Coirint –director or culture of the town of Saint-Denis, Laure Gayet – the urban planner of the Légendes urbaines agency, or Shannon Jackson – professor at Berkeley University, made the journey. The artists François Bon and Vincent Courtois also did artists’ residencies in Oakland. Following this preparatory work we put together two cross-disciplinary teams who made two one-week exploratory trips, in each city, in Autumn 2019. These exchanges resulted in the production of a short documentary by the California Humanities foundation that can be seen on the website A collective publication will be released on 13 October 2020, and a series of conferences in the United States and in France will give the debate a greater scale in 2020 and 2021.

What connects these two cities?

First, the relationship with the centre, San Francisco on one side and Paris on the other. There are similarities in the way they look at them or turn their back. These cities are also similar in the occasionally negative image they have or that the media gives them. Finally Oakland and Saint-Denis have their attractive features in common: multiculturalism and the relationship with history. The stories are different of course, but both cities are important places for their Nation. Saint-Denis remains connected to its basilica and the royal necropolis. Oakland saw the birth of the Black Panthers civil rights movement. All that gives rise to a feeling of pride – what the Americans refer to as a sense of belonging – which is very strong in both cases.

Gentrification is one of the challenges these territories are confronted with. Is the nature of this phenomenon the same in France and the United States?

If both cities are affected by this dynamic, it’s not in the same way. Oakland is much further among in the gentrification movement than Saint-Denis. At the moment, vulnerable populations are pushed out of Oakland city centre, which is happening substantially to artists too, who have seen the rent of abandoned sites increase a lot over the past few years. Oakland does not herald what’s going to happen in Seine-Saint-Denis. By the way it’s quite interesting to see how the territories join up. Facing gentrification, the Americans hope that the public authorities will be increasingly involved. On the other hand France learns to work with the private sector faced with the gradual reduction of the State’s involvement. In each case, they have a lot to learn from each other.

This approach is fascinating because it enables to cultures to meet, but also the confrontation of different practices and professions.

The other axis of the project is the constructing the city. How are Oakland and Saint-Denis “made” exactly?

The idea of combat is highly present, whether with the Black Live Matters movement today in Oakland, or with the social demands in 2015 in Seine-Saint-Denis. But, through this project, we wanted to understand how the territories react to great front page movements. Saint-Denis, for example, is at the heart of the Grand Paris development programme, whether the Grand Paris Express transport project or that of the 2024 Olympic Games. For the American delegation, seeing how the people who live there and those involved culturally are integrated in these dynamics is interesting. This resonates with the tremors created in Oakland, with the installation Silicon Valley and the legalisation of cannabis. By comparing different points of view, we get a better idea of the way in which cities seize these movements to harness their strength.

What comes out of such encounters?

This approach is fascinating because it enables to cultures to meet, but also the confrontation of different practices and professions. Such a superposition questions our vocabulary. The word “suburb” does not mean the same thing in French as in English. The concept of “community”, that’s highly present in the Anglo-Saxon world, is nothing to do with the “community” spoken of in France and these translation differences help us understand where we come from. The international posture also enables actors from the same territory to talk to each other. This is the case for example for the Oakland Spur urban agency, which does not usually work on artistic questions and which was able to talk with artists or the city’s cultural director.

What have the participants learnt and what extensions can a project such as this have?

The first lesson concerns the means to keep artists and the culture spaces in our cities. We have compared the different models that exist in terms of cooperative, financial backing, public/private partnership and we make them available to others involved in culture. The participants have also shown that artists can be included throughout the urban process. A project like Random, undertaken in the scope of building demolishment at La Courneuve, shows that there’s something magic in including an artist in an urban project. It’s also the case in Oakland where projects like Burning Man activate the public space and allow those living there to claim their environment. All these experiences now make up a toolbox for urban actors. That’s the strength of a cooperative project: the Oakland/Saint-Denis cooperation project is a project of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, in partnership with California Humanities, the French American Cultural Society, the Institut français and with the involvement of the Légendes Urbaines agency. They go further than us, create connections and plant other collaborations.

The Institut français and the project

The Institut français is a partner of the Oakland / Saint-Denis project.

L'institut français, LAB