Why you should care

Because the world’s empty places could be put to good use.

The first clue is the ashtrays. Cigarettes are everywhere in France, but you’re not allowed to smoke in restaurants — except this restaurant, which is not exactly a restaurant. More of an idea.

There are ashtrays on every scavenged table at the Freegan Pony, dutifully emptied by the orange-hoodie-clad staff, who flit around lighting candles, straightening the mismatched couches and threadbare dining chairs, misting a concrete wall that’s become a moss garden. They are all volunteers, preparing the Pony’s evening meal from food no one else would buy for a crowd of people who may or may not pay for it at night’s end. In a few hours, the building — which is freezing, as it used to be a storage warehouse — will be smoky and bustling with knitwear-wrapped customers cuddling on couches and slurping down the last of their crème de kiwi as a sleek cat wanders around hoping for scratches.

This is just how Aladdin Charni envisioned it. He’s been a “freegan” — a portmanteau of “free” and “vegan” marking a movement made up of people who eat only free food — for seven years and a squatter in Paris for nine. “I didn’t need to dumpster dive,” he says. “For me, it was a political act.” But, he says, he met a lot of people who made the same choice out of necessity — old people living on too-small pensions, students, the poor. This place, the Freegan Pony, began two years ago as a tiny supper club in Charni’s flat in the Marais neighborhood, but the restaurant in its current iteration has been open nine months and is aimed at people who can’t afford to buy food. (Remember, it’s only sort of a restaurant.)

Charni isn’t a newbie. His first project to garner buzz was a pop-up nightclub called Poney Club — that’s French for “pony,” and the origin of half of the current restaurant’s name — that traveled to squats around the city, including the current hulking space at Paris’s northern border that houses the Freegan Pony. Next up was Pipi Caca (guess what that translates to), an art gallery installed in an abandoned underground public toilet. Hey, if Marcel Duchamp can put a urinal in the Tate Modern, young Parisian artists can hang their work in a men’s room.

All of Charni’s projects are connected, though they address different elements of his philosophy. The point: taking Paris back. Paris isn’t being gentrified, exactly: It was already gentrified. An estimated 9 to 20 percent of housing in the city is vacant, a problem especially endemic in the wealthier quarters, where foreigners or aristocrats may hold a lot of the stock in reserve. “In Paris, you have so many empty places,” says fellow activist Gilia Bataille, who’s worked with Charni on several initiatives. “But many little projects can’t fight against companies with means.” Rather than let those buildings sit empty, Charni and his crew are arguing that they could be used better if they were, you know, used.

Many people who squat in modern Paris do so out of necessity, says Joseph Heathcott, an associate professor of urban studies at the New School, either because they can’t afford apartments or are undocumented immigrants who want to fly under the radar. But, he says, “There are certainly people who gravitate around squatting as a way to practice the principle of the ‘right to the city’ and to dramatize issues of inequality.” French squatters haven’t become as much of a political force as those in the Netherlands, but the government gives them more leeway than in Germany or the U.K.

Open four days a week, the Freegan Pony “sells out” in about an hour, Charni says. The restaurant negotiated with Rungis, the largest wholesale food market in the world, which delivers a portion of its unbought produce at the end of the day for the chef du jour — chefs change daily, and many volunteer their services on a regular schedule. There are three courses — because this is France and they are freegans, not barbarians — and they are always vegetarian and carefully plated even in the mismatched donated bowls and plates. At the end of the meal, you tell the hostess your name, and she passes you a basket, in which you drop as much or as little money as you like. There’s no suggested charge. The profits, which the Pony team decided not to disclose, go to buying equipment and doing work on the building to make it safe to occupy.

Of course, “It’s obviously not legal,” Battaile says, “but we’ll see.” Real estate expert Jérôme Cacarié says that while artists are highly esteemed in Paris, true squats aren’t particularly tolerated. He cites Les Frigos, a former refrigeration warehouse that was occupied by artists in the 1980s but is now administered by the city of Paris. It’s still an art space, but the occupants pay rent. The Freegan Pony is officially a squat, and its occupants are awaiting a verdict, expected in April, on whether or not they can stay. If they stay, they’ll turn the rest of the warehouse into an art space, maybe projecting films or putting the work of local painters on the walls. And they’re trying to get the city to agree to let them pay an affordable (read: way-below-market) rent. Being a tenant would be new for Charni, but he’s not philosophically opposed: “The point is to find a place that is empty and fill it with life,” he says, “not to not pay rent.”

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