- Community worker, Director of the Fédération Nationale des Centres Sociaux, France.
From one culture to another
When Alain Godon arrived with his family in St Nicolas — St Laurent in 1979, building on the estate was nearly complete. 2,440 homes had been constructed and half of these were collective housing. Several tower blocks of 15 to 17 stories and “slabs” 6 stories high were contained within the heart of the estate, located near to a shopping centre too large for the area, and these were home to a concentration of several hundreds of families.
At the foot of the buildings, and close to this large supermarket and its shops, is the Chanteclair community centre which opened its doors in 1977. In charge of activities and of the centre’s development, it was there that I met Alain Godon. In this neighbourhood with its young population, there were many children. Workshops were open for them on Wednesdays and on Saturday afternoons. As an adolescent, Alain showed great interest in the activities we organised. His love of painting led me to suggest that he join those who were also trying their hand. Consequently, he would come each week and quite spontaneously give the children advice on their pottery or drawing. This is the end result of meeting, of listening and of suggesting that he takes on some responsibility. So it was that, alongside the adults of a club for artistic development, he shared his talent with the youngest children. In no time at all the children would come to the centre and ask if Alain “is there” — demonstrating how he was able to establish special bonds with them. This period was to lay the foundations of what was to become the Centre’s action flagship: Children’s Workshops (up to 150 “kids” in half a day).
During this period, 1979 – 1983, the families from the New Homes were working class (manufacture of nylon thread, metallurgy units, etc.) or middle class (employees in the tertiary sector, highly developed in Arras). There was of course unemployment but not at a structural level. Large groups of adolescents would congregate around the stairwells, at the bottom of the tower blocks and in the shopping mall. They would occupy their own time, making up new games and new rites of passage from one peer group to the next. They may have been a nuisance to a few people, but it was a far cry from vandalised doorways… Insecurity and impoverishment within the community would happen later.
N evertheless, it was quite a different world from that of Achicourt, on the other side of the town of Arras, that Alain was to get to know whilst still living in St Nicolas. Friends and pals came from different social backgrounds. The surroundings, which consisted of large concrete buildings built on grassy areas next to the tarmac of parking lots and highways, were different to those of the Godon family’s origins. Achicourt’s brick houses, reconstructed after the First World War, and its narrow lanes leading to the allotments of the last market gardeners were substituted by the brightly coloured buildings of St Nicolas and its open spaces exposed to the four winds. The tranquillity and seclusion which belongs to a “reputable” family in a small community would carry no weight in this new environment. Over a period of several years, Alain was to spend his time alternating between visits to both of these towns, switching thus from one world to another.
C learly it was in this period that Alain Godon began to develop a love of brightly coloured settings, a sense of cultural mix within his surroundings, as well as a sense of the detail that so energises public spaces. This constant to-ing and fro-ing between one culture and another, from one social environment to another, far from destabilising him, enriched him and endowed him with the social ease that treats people with the same respect, the same attention, irrespective of their status, their fame or… their purchasing power!
When in 2007 I met Alain again, after he had contacted me, at an exhibition in Le Touquet, we chatted to each other as if it had only been a few weeks since last meeting. Looking back at his adolescent years at the Chanteclair Centre, what stood out for him was the importance of mutual trust, the encouragement to take responsibility and the freedom of expression at a time when the adult-to-be is consolidating his building blocks of self-fulfilment in the years to come.
Rekindling those moments we spent together in the eighties, he seemed as if he was pleased to re-discover his roots which today have bestowed him with a confidence and a serenity.
Community worker, Director of the Fédération Nationale des Centres Sociaux, France