While we're on the subject of neighborhoods you might not want to visit in the USA, here's a long and well-written post by Ms. French Mystique on TripAdvisor about places you might wish to avoid in (or more accurately around) Paris:
Now it seems like I am the only true life long Paris suburbanite here so I suppose it qualifies me to comment in further detail about living in the Paris suburbs. Which I do happily and by choice. However I must warn you that it is VERY LONG to read even though I will only say a fraction of what I could say about the suburbs. It will include some family history as my family is quite typical of an era that shaped Paris's recent urban/suburban history.
As someone from a working class family who grew up in a bourgeois suburb, all I can say is I am grateful my parents did not decide to move to one of the these northern "bad" suburbs. In the 1950's my mother lived in Saint-Germain-des-Prés while my father had moved from central France to the 9th arrondissement. At the time there was full employment in Paris but the housing situation was terrible following WWII. There was a big housing crisis due to the massive WWII destruction and the babyboom, there were slums in Paris and a lot of apartments did not have modern comfort or much hygiene. The 6th may have become the most expensive arrondissement in Paris now but it wasn't always this way. My mother was dirt poor when she lived there with a roommate. Needless to say she wasn't hanging out with Sartre and Beauvoir who despite their so-called social commitment wouldn't have touched people of her class with a ten-foot pole. She was attending an Ecole Ménagère, where you learn cleaning, sewing, ironing, in other words she was learning how to become a servant (she indeed worked as a servant in her late teens), not to become part of the ruling class. Both my parents moved to the working-class southern suburb of Ivry in the early 1960's and that is how they met as they were neighbors.
At that time, the 'cités hlm' (the vast high rise subsidized housing blocks of flats that give some neighborhoods a bad reputation) were built as an answer to the housing crisis. Both inside and outside Paris. But the largest ensembles were built in the previously semi-rural zones of northern Paris inSeine Saint-Denis and Val d'Oise. Others replaced vast shantytowns that existed outside Paris. When these huge apartment buildings were built people were overjoyed at the possibility of living there. They were coming from no home of their own or terrible housing and the prospect of having better lodging was appealing. Compared to what they would have had in Paris or just outside the périphérique, these new apartments offered everything they could dream of: they were large, bright, clean, had central heating and bathrooms. Something that the poorer classes in Paris did not have.
Now for most of you the bad housing projects of northern Paris (and to a lesser extent other suburbs) are just something you read about or hear about in the news. But for me I can't help wondering what my life would have been like if my parents had made the terrible mistake of moving to one of these brand new neighborhoods (built in the middle of nowhere in the middle of fields far away from any town center, cultural life or services) and I had been born and raised there. They instead moved to Ivry, an old run down industrial town and when they got together they decided they wanted to move to a better neighborhood. They looked into the bourgeois town of Nogent but ended up buying a small condo in Saint-Maur which took them over 30 years to pay off. I grew up in a 60 sq.meter condo with no balcony and where my parents didn't have a bedroom and had to sleep in the sofa bed in the living-room but at least I grew up in a safe, geographically beautiful and culturally stimulating environment.
Now another reason these bad suburbs ring a little too close to home is my job. As a middle-school teacher I am in one of the professional categories that are the most exposed to urban/youth violence. Public school teachers in France are public servants employed by the state, as such we don't choose where we work. We are sent where we are needed. School districts throughout France are divided into 'académies' and mine is the académie of Créteil which includes 3 départements: Val-de-Marne (zip code 94), Seine-et-Marne (77) and the infamous Seine Saint-Denis (93), the most "dangerous" part of France. While the other two départements have their share of bad areas, they are still the minority, whereas they are particularly prevalent in the 93. So when you are a young teacher, your biggest fear is to be sent there. When at age 23 I received my appointment letter and the first thing I saw in the letter was the dreaded 93 figure, I immediately had a big lump in my throat, I could feel my face flush, my heart thumping and my eyes water. In France when you tell people you have taught middle-school in Seine Saint-Denis they look at you as if you were just back from fighting inIraq or Afghanistan. And the reputation of Seine Saint-Denis being a war zone is not unjustified. Ask the many teachers who have been victims of physical abuse.
Now luckily I have never been one of them. When I called my parents to tell them where I had been appointed my father quickly reassured me as he knew it well. The town I was going to spend the next 9 years of my career, Gournay-sur-Marne, is actually not typical of the département and despite its zip code is one of the safest suburbs around Paris. That put an end to a prejudice lumping all the towns of Seine-Saint-Denis into one undiscriminate category. Actually 60% of Seine Saint-Denis's 40 communes enjoy a much lower violent crime rate than Paris. However the violent crime rate of Seine Saint-Denis as a département is very high, but the violence is highly concentrated into certain zones. As a teacher in Gournay I got to set foot in several towns of Seine Saint-Denis either for work (meetings, workshops, etc) or to visit co-workers who lived there so I have a decent idea of the variety of neighborhoods. I also have relatives living in Pierrefitte sur Seine that I visit occasionally. As much as I love my cousin I dread driving there: it is so depressing. Last time I went was a few weeks ago, traffic had been exceptionally smooth and I arrived really early for lunch. Since it was a beautiful sunny day I decided to walk in the neighborhood for half an hour. I was seeing it in the best conditions possible, gorgeous weather and all, yet all the while I was wondering how anyone could live there by choice. I have no desire whatsoever to live in Paris or in rural areas for instance but I can at least see what appeal it could hold for others, but there, I failed to find any appeal: a few blocks of charmless suburban houses surrounded by ugly high rise buildings, a train track cutting you from the rest of the town and the only shopping available was a mini-mart at the end of a parking lot at the foot of a cité. Not a single market street in sight, nothing that felt like a city with a town center, no bus stop or métro or RER station or service of any kind and above all, no beauty anywhere. Not my idea of a pleasant neighborhood and the complete opposite of where I live. This cousin is from Saint-Ouen and she grew up in a cité at first and then in a small condo near the town hall. Her father, my uncle, worked at the car factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, was an active unionist, so I can see how people with strong left wing political values can feel ideologically attached to working class neighborhoods and do not want to leave a sinking ship. But even they sometimes admit things haven't been changing for the better and I know they feel a little trapped now, as pleasant as their house may be. As someone who has lived and worked in the suburbs all my life and who knows people who live in very different neighborhoods from mine including the cités hlm there are dozens of other anecdotes I could tell you but it would be too long. In any case, my experience is well beyond just 'setting foot' there.
Now in this thread phread and I have expressed disagreement with kerouac's introductory sentence to his report in regards to the media. I don't blame the media for depicting some of the northern suburbs as dangerous. Some districts are indeed dangerous there. That being said, let's keep in mind that danger can mean different things to different people depending on where they are from and what type of crime is prevalent in their country. Here homicide is extremely rare compared to North America for instance. There are dangerous districts in Paris itself despite what is often reported on this forum (good luck enjoying your midnight stroll on Place Stalingrad) and elsewhere in the suburbs, including the safest départements where you can have very isolated but violent pockets of crime. For instance the Yvelines, west of Paris is extremely safe, posh and beautiful overall but it has some of France's worst cités (in Trappes and Mantes-la-Jolie). What I blame the media for since the 1990's is lumping anything outside the périphérique as being bad and unsafe when statistically you are much safer from violent crime outside the Paris city boundaries than inside. Or they depict suburban living as boring, as if the towns outside Paris were not real towns with jobs, market streets, cinemas, theatres and artistic or cultural events within walking distance. We have all that in most of the urban suburbs, thank you. And settlements going back to prehistory, town centers from the Middle Ages and historic monuments galore. The suburbs are real living cities, not bedroom communities depending on Paris for employment and culture. The only thing the suburbs don't have is night life. Which for some people is an advantage.
I live in the suburbs by choice because I have a passion for the riverside atmosphere and guinguette culture in the towns around me, because I am surrounded by natural beauty where I can enjoy lovely walks, because I can have a little backyard of my own to enjoy with my animals (remember I grew up in a tiny condo with no personal outdoor space) while having absolutely everything within walking distance and yes, because it is very safe.
Drawing conclusions on the safety of the suburbs from listening to incidents in the news is akin to declaring air travel extremely dangerous because the only times it makes the news is when a plane crashes. Almost 100% of the time it is safe to fly. It's the same thing in the suburbs. Drawing conclusions about what the suburbs look like from driving along a route nationale lined with strip malls or getting off the RER in a soul-less modern district is as if I was commenting on the beauty of Paris seen from the périphérique. Because when you drive on the périphérique on the Parisian side apart from the occasional glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or Sacré Coeur, all you see is Paris's high rise housing projects whereas on the other side (that would be the suburban side) all you see is office buildings. These views would hardly define what is on either side of the périphérique, would it?
Working in and visiting Seine-Saint-Denis on several occasions has put an end to some of the prejudice I had against the place as a whole and has also confirmed that there is serious ground for the ill reputation in some areas. The suburbs of Paris are way too varied for me to describe in detail (and I obviously don't know them all) but most of them are very pretty and interesting with a rich history (not just local history but major national events), some are charmless, some are ghettos, some are urban, some are quaint rural villages with no direct transportation link with Paris, some are grand royal suburbs or UNESCO heritage cities visited by international visitors. Overall most are great for residents to live in but would not be worth a trip for tourists unless they are interested in getting a bigger picture of Paris within its region. But the suburbs are for the most part what 9 million of us call home.
Full disclosure: I like to get off the beaten track, so I've wandered around in many of the bad neighborhoods in Paris and nothing happened to me. Did get stared at a lot, though.