Purple Magazine
— Paris Issue #31

catherine malabou

paris goes east

text by CATHERINE MALABOU

I live on the Rue de l’Ermitage in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It meets the Rue des Pyrénées and the Rue Ménilmontant on either end, and is set, discreetly, at the heart of a triangle whose corner points are formed by three subway stations: Gambetta, Jourdain, and Ménilmontant. This neighborhood — to which the Rue de l’Ermitage belongs, the so-called Hauts de Belleville [Heights of Belleville] — has long been neglected by wealthy Parisians due to its bad reputation. At the turn of the 20th century, for 30 years, Belleville boasted only dilapidated houses, without heat or electricity, all slated to be destroyed. Children looked for jobs as soon as they had finished elementary school. Delinquency was ubiquitous. The Bonnot Gang led a reign of terror there for a time.

Today, though pockets of poverty remain — namely, in the streets bordering the Boulevard de Belleville — the neighborhood is undergoing a strange metamorphosis. While the Latin Quarter, once the center of intellectual life and nightlife alike, empties out at night, the east of Paris, which has experienced a revival over the past 15 years, turns on its lights.

Is this simply a matter of gentrification? In large part, no doubt. The 20th arrondissement remains, though probably not for long, one of the last relatively affordable neighborhoods in Paris. All stripes of the Parisian “bobo” [fashionable middle- to upper-class lefties] have therefore settled there. But the neighborhood’s undefinable charm stems from the memory of its working class and socialist past. Once a “consumer’s cooperative,” the theater La Bellevilloise, located on the Rue Boyer, speaks best to this history. At La Bellevilloise, groceries, hardware, and household items were “distributed,” as co-op members said, deliberately banning the term “sale” from their vocabulary. It was the era of cooperative business. Today, the annex to La Bellevilloise has become La Maroquinerie [literally, a leather goods shop], which is also a multipurpose space for concerts, shows, and exhibitions, equipped with a restaurant-bar and home to new Paris’s hip crowd. The perfume of communality still floats in the air.

The east of Paris also retains its bucolic side. Conjoined to Paris in 1860, Belleville is a market town; Ménilmontant, a village; and Charonne, a hamlet. Haussmann’s renewal projects, which would change the face of Paris, did not reach these peripheries. The rationale for building did not follow a preconceived urban plan, and buildings were erected more or less by following the route of existing streets and paths.

Working-class quarters with little rustic houses lined with vegetable patches and orchards stand alongside revenue houses, factories, and studios. You can still walk around there, by the grace of numerous unique passages with bucolic charm, some of which have stayed intact, like the Villa de l’Ermitage.

Once out of the subway at Ménilmontant, I like to take the Rue Étienne-Dolet, which is slightly out of the way, to get to the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix. Two tremendous magnolias grow near the square in front of the church, indifferent to the cold. I continue onto the Rue d’Eupatoria, which leads to a walkway that leaps over the old rails of the Petite Ceinture [Paris’s abandoned railway], then onto the Rue de la Mare and the Place Henri-Krazucki. The Rue de la Mare, des Rigoles, des Cascades… Ménilmontant is replete with the city’s water reservoirs. I end up at the Parc de Belleville, which overlooks all of Paris.

At night, it’s very enjoyable to walk all the way down the Rue de Ménilmontant to the Rue Oberkampf, its extension. I think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a lover of the village of Ménilmontant, who came here to collect plants and died of it, victim to an accident at the crossroad with the Rue de l’Ermitage. The bars and restaurants stay open late into the night. I have a drink at La Place Verte, and I dream.

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Paris Issue #31

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