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Fête en Brooklyn: Growing French Population Celebrates Bastille Day

Drawn by dual-language programs at local public schools and the neighborhood's "village feel," newcomers highlight the neighborhood's French flavor.

Two years ago, while on vacation from France, came across an old factory on Bergen Street.

“I fell in love with it,” says Zayan.

When he decided to leave his native France to open in the warehouse and rent the apartment next door, he had no clue that he was moving into a neighborhood with an already well-established French contingent.

He found out soon enough.

“I heard French being spoken on the streets,” he says. “I realized I am surrounded by French people.”

The neighborhood’s French flair will be on full display this Sunday, July 10, when a Bastille Day celebration takes place outside on Smith Street between Bergen and Pacific streets. The festivities, which include a petanque tournament, food and live music, begin at 11 a.m. and run until 10 p.m.

Degraw Street is also closed off between Smith and Hoyt streets for 's petanque tournament and Bastille Day celebration.

The 8th annual Bastille Day celebration, which commemorates France’s independence, puts a spotlight on the growing French population in the community. In the past decade, about 3,000 French families have moved into the Carroll Gardens, Gowanus and Park Slope neighborhoods, according to information gathered by Fabrice Jaumont, education attaché for the French Embassy. Approximately 75,000 French individuals live in New York State; and most of them call New York City home, says Jaumont.

This recent wave of immigration has bolstered a long-standing French presence in the borough, says Brian Merlis, an archivest whose images appear in The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus: Legacy, Industry, and Artistry by Leslie-Arlette Boyce.

“Huguenots immigrated to Brooklyn in the 1620s and 1630s,” says Merlis, referring to members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France who were driven from their homeland in the 17th Century by religious persecution. “They were some of the first land owners in the area. They occupied land from Brooklyn Heights to the Gowanus,” he says.

The latest newcomers from France were drawn to New York City by the economic boom in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Jaumont. Prior to the 1990s, it was typically business professionals who made the trek from France to New York City, but this time around, French people of lesser means, such as teachers and artists, were also in the mix, Jaumont says. And instead of moving to traditionally French enclaves on the Upper East Side and in Larchmont, where private French-language schools are expensive and near capacity, these French people opted for the cheaper rents of Brooklyn, according to Jaumont. The recent economic downturn pushed even more French families across the East River, he says.

It wasn’t long before French parents started lobbying for dual language programs at public schools in their new neighborhoods. At , parents initially pressed for a French-language after-school program, says principal Giselle McGee, who had prior experience with dual-language programs from her time working at a school in Chinatown.

Parents’ requests took shape in the fall of 2007, when the school established a dual-language kindergarten class made up of 24 pupils.

“I figured why not do it if we have the population to support it," McGee says. "It was so popular we had to have a lottery to determine who got placed in the class."

The school’s French dual language program is currently one of 12 throughout the New York City school system and has grown tremendously since its inception, says McGee. It now includes a second kindergarten and two classes for each grade from first through fourth. This fall the school will have a total of 250 students in dual-language classes. 

The program itself has become “an engine for more French migration to Carroll Gardens” from overseas and Manhattan, says Jaumont.

French culture is also cropping up outside of the classroom. French restaurants and bars have found their place in the neighborhood. There are a handful of French restaurants on Smith Street, plus on Atlantic Avenue, and on Court Street, and on Hicks and Union streets.

There’s even a French-language summer camp for children ages 4 through 9, run by Ria Aichor, a transplant from Paris.

“Parents want their kids to maintain their French over the summer,” says Aichor.

Carroll Gardens, says Jaumont, is "a recreation of a French village. You can walk outside and get your croissant and your café au lait.”

That village feel is a big part of the appeal, says Jean-Francois Fraysse, owner of Quercy on Court Street.

“I think when you pass the [Brooklyn] bridge, you have a sense that life’s more easy.”

That's a draw for Francophone and Anglophone residents alike, he says.

“I have some space outside. I have a garden. I see green when I look outside,” he says. “This is closer to the French way of life.”

Steven Morin July 08, 2011 at 01:25 PM
C'est Trés Bien! ~Finally! It's So Good to Know My French People Our Establishing & Settlling & Celebrating Their "Presense" & Representing Their Wonderful "Culture" In New York City !! I Am So Proud to Be FRENCH !! Viva La France en Brooklyn!!! ;D
George of the Jungle July 08, 2011 at 01:26 PM
Ha ha ha!!! Since when Bastille Day celebrates "independance of France"??? What a historical mistake! France wasn't a colony, the country had not to fight for its independance, it was already independant for a very very long time in 1789!!!
W.O. July 08, 2011 at 02:40 PM
@George ~ "Independence" does not necessarily always mean independence from colonization, but in this case independence from what they viewed as a tyrannical monarchy. Bastille Day spurred on the abolition of feudalism and the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which asserted the collective rights of all people, regardless of social or economic status.
Mike July 09, 2011 at 11:53 PM
@w.o., actually you are wrong independence for a nation is associated by its sovereignty toward others nations. If you look to historical documents that list independence days, you won't find France. (or you will find as many countries got "their" independence from France). You can't compare the American independence day or Bastille day, two different symbols. Instead of call Bastille day "independence day", the terms "National day" fit perfectly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Day It's a common mistake in some articles to confuse national and independence days. And by the way as you pointed it out, July the 14th was only the start of the democratic process, so even if you stick with your definition of independence, Bastille Day is not the right date for such "independence" as it was a fairly long process.
Danielle July 10, 2011 at 03:55 AM
I go every year and there's always a great energy and spirit. I almost forgot that the celebration was tomorrow. Thanks for the reminder!

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