New Paris: The Villages

I go astray and lose myself in this immense city, even I no longer recognize the new quarters. Now we have Chaillot, Passy and Auteuil quite linked to the capital; a bit more of this, and Sèvres will touch it as well; and in a hundred years’ time it will extend to Versailles on the one hand, Saint-Denis on the other, and from the Picpus side to Vincennes will all be a maze of confusion.

– Sébastien Mercier

On 15 July 1840, twenty-five years after Waterloo, Britain, Prussia and Russia signed a treaty of alliance in London. They committed themselves to supporting the Ottoman Empire against the ambitions of the Egyptian khedive, Muhammad Ali, who was supported by France. There was talk of war. Thiers, as prime minister, was inclined to a show of strength, and the fortification plans for Paris that had been under discussion for over ten years rose suddenly to the top of the agenda. Champions of a continuous wall came to agreement with those who preferred detached fortresses: a continuous rampart would be constructed, reinforced by seventeen separate fortresses outside of the wall. The spokesmen of the liberal opposition, François Arago and Lamartine, denounced this operation as one that could be turned against the people of Paris, evoking the recent examples of the Russians in Warsaw and the Bourbons in Barcelona. Even Chateaubriand emerged from his silence to write a Lettre sur les fortifications’: ‘Internally, the peace of the barracks; outside these ravelins the silence of the desert . . . What a result of our Revolution!’ Not to worry, the ‘monstrous gnome’, as Marx would call him, replied from the tribune of the Chamber of Deputies: ‘What! To fancy that any works of fortification could ever endanger liberty! And first of all you calumniate any possible government in supposing that it could some day attempt to maintain itself by bombarding the capital . . . but that government would be a hundred times more impossible after its victory than before.’1 The army, the department of bridges and roads, and private contractors mobilized twenty-five thousand workers on this construction more than thirty kilometres long, and by 1843 the new Paris fortifications were completed.2

The route of the new wall corresponded to what are now known as the ‘boulevards of the marshals’, their names actually being taken from those of the military road that ran on the inner side of the fortifications. It was dictated by strategic considerations, in other words by the contours of the land. To the north of the city, on the Saint-Denis plain, the wall ran in a straight line from the Porte de La Villette to the Porte de Clichy, beyond the line of the heights between Charonne and Montmartre. It then turned to run parallel to the bend of the Seine, to take in Monceau, Passy and Auteuil. Crossing the river at the Point du Jour, it circled Vaugirard and Grenelle, then cut across the communes of Issy, Montrouge, Gentilly and Ivry in a wide curve.3 Back on the other bank it ran due north, from the Porte de Charenton to the Porte des Lilas and across the communes of Bercy and Saint-Mandé. Finally, it swung between the final heights of Belleville and the Pré-Saint-Gervais. This was its most hilly section, and today the most picturesque part of the ‘boulevards of the marshals’, its hairpin bends overlooking the broad plain of the northern suburbs.

Among the villages surrounding Paris, some were thus entirely included within the wall, and others cut in two with one section remaining outside the fortifications.4 The communes that were totally or partially included were thus within the fortifications but outside Paris itself, its official limit remaining the wall of the Farmers-General. The octroi was now levied at the new gates, the wall of the Farmers-General was demolished, the number of arrondissements increased from twelve to twenty, with boundaries that remain today.

The ‘villages’ that Paris swallowed at this time were no longer hamlets reached by long roads across fields, as when Rousseau went to botanize at Gentilly on the banks of the Bièvre or by Ménilmontant.5 At the time of their annexation, the banlieue – this was when the word entered general usage – was already populated, urbanized, and partly even industrialized, to the point that Haussmann and Louis-Napoleon were concerned at the concentration of factories and workers to the north and east of Paris.

Nostalgia for the happy time when the countryside began at the city gates and filtered in through all interstices, the sense of a lost paradise and the deploring of nature destroyed – all these themes that emerged in the late eighteenth century spread greatly when Paris was expanded. You can find them in Privat d’Anglemont:

The Romaineville woods with their donkey rides, the park of Saint-Fargeau so popular with the grisettes, the Saint-Gervais meadows that delight the petty bourgeois, have all been turned into streets, squares and crossroads; houses have sprung up in the place of green swards, hundred-year-old trees and flowering lilac. The Île d’Amour, that enchanted spot where so many ephemeral ties were made, has in a singular irony become a mairie; you get married there for real, no laughing matter. The Sauvage, that dance hall that defined a whole era in the memory of Parisians, has become a good, worthy and honest bourgeois house.6

La Bédollière, writing the history of the twenty new arrondissements of Paris, urged his readers to go and contemplate the last vestiges of the countryside while there was still time. At Ménilmontant, between Père-Lachaise and the new fortifications,

On the graceful slopes facing the sun and richly cultivated by our rural Parisians of the 20th arrondissement, you find the Ratrait, an earthly paradise, an oasis where the workers of the neighbouring faubourgs used to regularly come and spend their Sundays and Mondays, a place of country delights of which soon only the memory will remain.7

In the 1880s, Huysmans wept over the disappearance of the Bièvre:

Fundamentally, the beauty of a landscape consists in its melancholy. So the Bièvre, with its attitude of desperation and the thoughtful look of one who has suffered, charms me more than anything else and I deplore as the utmost crime the destruction of its gullies and its trees. This suffering countryside, this threadbare stream, these ragged plains were all that were left to us and now they’re going to cut them to pieces. They’re going to . . . fill in the marshes, level the roads, tear up the dandelions and briars, the whole flora of rubbish dumps and wasteland . . . Have they never ever looked at this strange river, that outlet for all kinds of filth, that bilge-water the colour of slate and molten lead, seething here and there with greenish eddies and spangled with cloudy spittle, which gurgles into a sluice-gate and disappears, sobbing, into a hole in the wall?8

The most recent stratum of Paris, that of the villages, was not built up in the same way as the earlier ones, for which the faubourgs served as mentors for a radial and centrifugal urbanization. Here there were communes that predated the annexation by many centuries. They formed a corona of satellites, some of which, such as Montmartre or Belleville, still maintain a somewhat distant relationship with the city. The Paris of villages was archaic by its rural origin, and modern by its industrial future, an ambiguity that still gives it in places a particular charm, even if the old factories are now few and far between, and if, to preserve their material traces and memory, a strange discipline had to be created, that of ‘industrial archaeology’.

Of its ‘modern’ side, there persists in the ring of villages one element that has marked the landscape, drawn borders and defined quarters – that of the railway. The big Paris train stations were built in the years from 1835 to 1850 within the wall of the Farmers-General, some of them right up against it (Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon), others closer in (Gare de l’Est, Gare Saint-Lazare). In order to leave Paris, the railway had in any case to cross the stratum of villages. Despite electrification, these metal crossings still survive as fragments of the nineteenth century in the city of today, whether you discover them from suspended balconies such as Rue d’Alsace above the platforms of the Gare de l’Est or the Square des Batignolles with its cantilever over the rails of Saint-Lazare, from high points such as the esplanade of the Bibliothèque de France, from where you look down on the immense steel plain of the Gare d’Austerlitz, or find yourself on an island surrounded by rails on all sides, such as the triangle of the Évangile between the tracks of the Gare de l’Est, the Gare du Nord, and the old Calberson warehouses, a kind of world’s end linked to the mainland by the bridge of Rue Riquet – and it is only right that this long metal gangway thrown over the rails was named after the engineer who built the Canal du Midi in the eighteenth century.

Between La Chapelle and Barbès-Rochechouart, the overhead Métro that shakes and sparks on its metal bridges offers a double vista of the rails below and the glass roofs of the stations. As Paul Fargue wrote: ‘The noise of the Dauphine-Nation line, like the sound of a Zeppelin, accompanies the traveller right to those quarters surrounded by factory chimneys, the lakes of metal into which Rue d’Aubervilliers hurls itself like a river of paint. The wails of lost trains are the foundation of the landscape.’9 And what about those landscapes that are offered gratis to the passenger arriving in Paris by train? For those coming from Yerres or Choisy-le-Roi, you have the Entrepôts Frigorifiques, the Grands Moulins de Paris and, in the distance, just before the engine shed of the Gare d’Austerlitz, the dome of the Salpêtrière; for those coming from Villeparisis or Aulnaysous-Bois, it is the canals, the heights of Buttes-Chaumont and the slopes of Montmartre. And the train always insinuates a certain disorder into the city, with piles of debris behind metal barriers, little abandoned triangles around signal boxes, where plants still grow that Huysmans saw on the banks of the Bièvre: ‘dandelions and briars, the whole flora of rubbish dumps and wasteland’.

In the more remote regions, the metal fences of goods-yards preserve spaces from another age. The Gare de Bercy, formerly the Gare de Rungis, the ends of Rues Bobillot, de Tolbiac, de Vaugirard, des Batignolles, d’Aubervilliers and de la Chapelle – all these urban hiatuses where pensioned-off locomotives pull stray wagons towards a flock of trains, or obscure instructions may be read on faded signs, you can pass without noticing, without seeing that they represent the stubborn survival of an age when the railway was one of the great bastions of the imagination. Far still from any kind of productivism, the Ceinture railway round Paris, built within the fortifications soon after the annexation of the villages, was for a long time both a great means of transport and a source of entertainment. During the 1870 siege, the Goncourt brothers took a tour round Paris and noted in their Journal: ‘An amusing spectacle, this vision rapid as steam, revealing, on emerging from the darkness of a tunnel, lines of white tents, lowered roads where guns are moving, the banks of a river with little crenellated parapets that have just been installed, canteens with their tables and glasses open to the sky, with improvised waitresses who have sewn braid on the hem of their work jackets and skirts . . .’. Fargue, with friends at Auteuil, would take the train to return home: ‘We could make music all night after we missed the old boiler of the Ceinture train.’10 And Dabit, when his parents took him as a child to an aunt at Belleville on a Sunday:

I gaily entered the station on Boulevard Ornano. A puffing engine arrived, pulling old carriages that struck me as splendid, even the thirdclass ones that we got into. The locomotive covered the landscape with smoke, and Mama told me to sit down: ‘You’ll get black as a coalman.’ Soon I asked her: ‘Are we getting near?’ She replied: ‘Don’t be silly, you know we have to go through the Buttes-Chaumont tunnel first.’ . . . Suddenly, after the Belleville-Villette station, the train entered a cutting with a whistle, as if saying goodbye to the daylight. When we emerged from underground it was time to get up, we were reaching the Ménilmontant station.11

The remnants of the Petite Ceinture still punctuate village Paris – tracks in cuttings across the hills of Belleville and Ménilmontant, the metal struts of the bridges of Avenue Jean-Jaurès, Rue d’Avron or Rue de Vaugirard. Its stations have the look of the places it used to serve – pink and flowery Muette, down-at-heel Charonne with its café La Flèche d’Or, suspended over the tracks and frequented by the youth of the quarter. La Bédollière would be quite astonished, having written that, ‘if Charonne is poor in buildings, it possesses one establishment that is a guarantee of future prosperity for this part of the capital: I mean the Ceinture railway. This important line, which makes a link between Bordeaux and Lille, Marseille and Cherbourg, has a station at Charonne that has already attracted a number of industries.’12

All these welcoming spaces are threatened today. There is talk of covering them over and having the land this generates developed by semipublic companies. Such an operation has already been carried out above the TGV tracks at the Gare Montparnasse, constructing an ‘Atlantic garden’ whose principal merit is to be almost undiscoverable. The operation ‘Seine–Rivegauche’ considered covering the tracks leading out of the Gare d’Austerlitz. This process has already been begun a little further out: between the Entrepôts Frigorifiques and Le Corbusier’s Cité de Refuge a ‘paved garden’ is currently being built above the rails. After so many horrors, one might think this very term would be proscribed, that for once the ‘duty of memory’ would be put to some use. But nothing of the kind; multicoloured posters surrounding the construction site proclaim that, under the direction of Christian de Portzamparc, the regime’s official architect, the firm of Bruno Fortier has been commissioned to build a ‘paved garden’ that will crush everything that remains of the poor Rue du Chevaleret, its residences for African workers, its dilapidated flowering courtyards, its Doisneau-type charm. This is far from being the first assault on this sector in the name of town planning. The magazine Potlach, 3 August 1954: ‘Rue Sauvage is being destroyed . . . in the 13th arrondissement, despite its offering the most striking nighttime perspective of the capital, between the tracks of the Gare d’Austerlitz and a region of derelict land on the edge of the Seine.’13 Just nearby, the cast-iron columns, steel beams and struts of the magnificent Rue Watt have recently been drowned in concrete. The principal arteries of the new quarter programmatically bear the names of Jean Anouilh, François Mauriac and Raymond Aron. Not Jean Genet, nor Samuel Beckett, nor Nathalie Sarraute, nor yet Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze. I recall the final catastrophic projects of Haussmann, which only the defeat of Sedan prevented: ‘Rue de Rennes is to be extended in a straight line as far as the Seine, and, with the help of a new bridge, will link up with the old Rue des Poulies, which will be extended right into the Halles. The centre of Paris will thus not only be linked with the banlieue, but also with a whole group of departments, of which the nearer ones contribute to its provisioning.’14 I also recall the great projects of Pompidou, the Vercingétorix radial designed to spill out at Denfert-Rochereau all the traffic from the south of Paris, the Left Bank expressway, the Canal Saint-Martin covered over and converted into a motorway. These follies were only avoided by illness and death. What disasters do we need in order to keep the Paris railways open to the sky?


Among the communes annexed in 1860, some, such as Auteuil and La Chapelle, have kept their name and their character. Other districts were simply absorbed and melted into the capital without keeping the traces of their village origins – in particular the intramural portions of those communes cut in two by the ‘fortifs’. Not many people know that the Bibliothèque de France was built on a fragment of the old commune of Ivry, that the Parc Montsouris quarter belonged to Gentilly, or that the Ranelagh gardens and Rue Spontini were seized from the commune of Neuilly. Perhaps only the region between the Lion de Denfert and the Porte d’Orléans retained for many years the memory of its origins: ‘I have settled now in Petit-Montrouge, in the 14th arrondissement’, wrote Henri Calet,15 a turn of phrase that would not have surprised my schoolfriends at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand who lived on Avenue d’Orléans in the 1950s.

But for one of the annexed villages to have kept a distinct identity, it is not enough that it was absorbed complete, as the examples of Vaugirard and Grenelle show a contrario, their past now being rather drowned in the monotony of the 15th arrondissement. Another condition was necessary, this being geographical. Either it was bordered and insulated by steep slopes, like Montmartre, Belleville–Ménilmontant–Charonne or the Butte-aux-Cailles – and it was not by chance that these were the main points of final resistance during the Bloody Week of May 1871. Or it was united and organized by an artificial element, such as the Ourcq canal for La Villette, or the railways for the Batignolles. Or finally, it was in an extreme position in relation to the city, as was the long and narrow peninsula formed by the villages of Passy and Auteuil between the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne.

Vaugirard and Grenelle

On the Left Bank, for these reasons, the quarters formed from the stratum of villages – more or less the 13th, the southern part of the 14th, and the 15th arrondissements – are not superimposed on the original communes, whose memory has been blurred. This region is a mixture of old quarters from the former banlieue (Javel, Plaisance, the Butte-aux-Cailles), recent nuclei formed around a pole of attraction (the quarter of Parc Montsouris), and phantoms like that of the Bièvre, today underground but in an earlier time terrible: ‘The night of Wednesday, 1 April 1579, the river of Saint-Marceau, in the wake of the rain of the previous days, rose to a height of fourteen or fifteen feet, demolishing a number of mills, walls and houses, drowning many people surprised in their houses and beds, destroying a large quantity of cattle and causing tremendous damage.’16

For those unfamiliar with it, the 15th arrondissement amounts to an interminable walk down Route de Sèvres (now Rue Lecourbe) or Route d’Issy (Rue de Vaugirard), reminding us that Vaugirard was a street-village that stretched from the wall of the Farmers-General to the slopes of Issy and its windmills. Many do not know where the border between Vaugirard and Grenelle is situated – though this ignorance is not without its historic reasons, since Grenelle was part of the Vaugirard commune until 1830. The southern part, which is still Vaugirard, was in the late eighteenth century a region for holidays, where Parisians of a certain class had their country houses in fine parks, surrounded by vineyards and market gardens. Grenelle, on the contrary, was a large agricultural plain bordered by the Seine. This is where Parmentier undertook his first experiments in growing potatoes. On a map of 1813 there is no house to be seen, and only two roads cross the wide expanse of fields, the ancestors of Rue de Lourmel and Rue de la Croix-Nivert. In 1830, Théophile Gautier could still write to Arsène Houssaye: ‘This morning I swum across the Seine to see my princess, who was waiting for me on the other bank, gathering cornflowers among the wheat of Grenelle.’17

Grenelle and Vaugirard developed in opposite directions. Vaugirard – today as formerly the region between Rue de la Croix-Nivert and the wall of the Farmers-General (Boulevards de Grenelle, Garibaldi and Pasteur) – became steadily more bourgeois. A guide of 1890 notes that the Saint-Lambert quarter, the old village of Vaugirard, was daily losing its original aspect, and taking on a Parisian look without any particular character. The same source indicates that two of the quarters in the 15th arrondissement, Grenelle and Javel, were covered with factories and chemical plants.18The chemical industry had long been present on the banks of the Seine: at the end of the ancien régime, industrialists supported by the Comte d’Artois had obtained authorization to establish a vitriol factory close to the Javelle mill. This was where the technique for manufacturing sodium thiosulphate was perfected, the famous eau de Javel. In 1792, Chaptal had an immense gunpowder plant built on the deserted plain, viewed as ‘one of the bulwarks of the Republic’. Soon after 9 Thermidor, the plant exploded. The Jacobins were accused, and this was one of the arguments for closing their club and demolishing its premises. In 1796, it was the regiments stationed on the Grenelle plain that the remnant of the Montagnards tried to raise against the Directory. The plotters met at the inn of Le Soleil d’Or, in a house that still stands.19 The attempt failed, and ten of its leaders were shot against the wall of the Farmers-General, where the Dupleix Métro station is now.

There was a lot of shooting on the Grenelle plain and against this wall. Under the Directory and the Consulate this was particularly the fate of émigrés, such as Armand de Chateaubriand, a cousin of François-René, who explains in his Memoirs: ‘The day of the execution, I wanted to accompany my comrade to his last battlefield; I could not find a carriage, and hastened to the Grenelle plain on foot. I arrived in a sweat, a second too late. Armand was shot against the city wall of Paris. His head was broken, and a butcher’s dog was licking his blood and his brains.’ Under the Empire, it was the turn of General Malet, and later Louis XVIII had La Bédoyère shot in the same place, after he had rallied to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. His young widow had to pay the soldiers of the firing squad the sum of 36 francs – 3 francs per man. After the white terror, modern Grenelle was founded by an unusual developer, Léonard Violet, who in the 1820s bought and parcelled out a large quadrilateral bordered by what are now Rue de la Croix-Nivert, Rue Javel, Boulevard de Grenelle, the Quai de Grenelle and the Quai de Javel. He built a riverboat station and a wooden bridge that crossed the Île des Cygnes to link the new quarter to the Right Bank. It was at this time that the checkerboard pattern there was established, with street names – Rue du Commerce, Rue des Enterpreneurs – that reflect the optimism of the era. On the square that now bears his name, Violet built a mansion that still survives within the precinct of the fire station, but the new Grenelle was deliberately industrial and working-class. The bourgeois of Vaugirard, disturbed by these neighbours, asked to secede, and their request was granted by prefect Chabrol in 1830, a few days before the Trois Glorieuses.

Grenelle developed rapidly under the July monarchy. The Cail works, on the corner of the Quai and the Boulevard de Grenelle, with a dock on the Seine and a rail connection to the Ouest network, became one of the main French locomotive works. (When the company left Paris in 1909, the Vel d’Hiv’ took over this site,20 for the better – the Six Jours cycle race, Cerdan, Piaf, and Yvette Horner’s accordion – and eventually for the worse – Doriot’s rallies, the roundup of Jews in July 1942 organized by the French police on the orders of René Bousquet.) It was also at Grenelle, and more particularly on Rue des Entrepreneurs, that the French aeronautics industry was born. Trials were conducted on a field close to Issy, and in the 1930s André Lurçat even proposed to transform the Île des Cygnes, widening it like an aircraft-carrier runway to make an aerodrome that he called Aéroparis. Meanwhile, André Citroën had converted the shell factory he had established during the First World War on the Quai de Javel into one of the most inventive brands in automobile history.

This past of smoke and steel has left only memories. The name of André Citroën has been given to a garden – undoubtedly the best thing built in the arrondissement in the twentieth century, compensating to some extent for the disaster of the Front de Seine. Vaugirard-Grenelle has become one of the most petty-bourgeois and provincial quarters of Paris. Its heteroclite fabric is a mixture of a few village houses, a few Art Nouveau gems, a good many characterless apartment blocks of the 1880s, and several groups of tower blocks from the 1960s and ’70s. In this context of anonymity, Rue Santos-Dumont stands out all the more, with its individual houses with courtyards and gardens, likewise the little Village de l’Avenir at the end of Rue Castagnary – hurry there before they demolish it – the Lebaudy workers’ housing estate on Rue de la Saïda, the artists’ studios on Rue Pierre-Mille, the end of the Place du Commerce close by the old Grenelle mairie, the cedars of the Square Violet, and the apse of the Saint-Lambert church built on the site of a gigantic gasworks. Not forgetting the official celebrities of the quarter: the Objets Trouvés on Rue des Morillons, the Institut Pasteur, the artists’ residence La Ruche on the Passage Dantzig, and L’Oiseau Lunaire, quite lost at the end of the little Square Blomet, where Miró and Masson had their studios, and where Artaud, Bataille and Limbour crossed paths with the young Dubuffet.


The 15th arrondissement is separated from the 14th – or, to put it another way, Vaugirard is separated from Plaisance – by the tracks of the Gare Montparnasse, a fundamental element of the quarter until the construction of the new station in the late 1960s. Désirée and Céline, Huysmans’s Vatard sisters, lived on the corner of Rue Vandamme and Rue du Château:21

Their own room was situated at the back of the house overlooking the tracks of the Ouest rail line. A suspension bridge with a six-foot grillwork cut across the tracks at this particular spot. Beneath the bridge there was a passageway for vehicles, topped with a wooden tower ornamented with clocks . . . Bellowing and whistling piercingly, two locomotives manoeuvred on the tracks, searching their way . . . From time to time, a trumpet-like blast sounded, echoed, grew weak, and then once again blared. The gateman closed the barriers. An express train was approaching in the distance . . . The earth shook and in a white haze sprinkled with flashes of flame, a shower of dust and ashes, a gush of sparks, the long train shot into the railyard with a frightful din of clanking metal, shrieking boilers, and moving pistons. It filed past the window, its thundering gradually diminishing until only the three red lights of the caboose could be seen and only the jerky noise of freight cars jumping over rail switches could be heard.

Rue du Château and Rue de l’Ouest are the two original axes of the Plaisance development in the angle formed by Avenue du Maine and Rue Vercingétorix.22 This was a wretched development, patched together without any overall plan, and carried out by petty speculators who had the idea of calling it Plaisance to attract clients whom the unpaved streets, which lacked lighting, drainage, and water hydrants, might have put off in the 1840s.23 Though severely damaged by Ricardo Bofill (Place de Catalogne) and the ravages at the beginning of Rue de l’Ouest, Plaisance still remains a plebeian quarter whose charm owes a great deal to its isolation: it is hardly connected to Avenue du Maine, and on the other side the roads are almost impossible to cross. On the transversal streets – Rue de la Sablière, Rue de Plaisance, Rue Pernety – the buildings are those of the original development: narrow, low, homogeneous and poor beneath their plaster rendering. The houses, workshops, little gardens and hydrangeas of Rue des Thermopyles – named on account of its narrowness that evokes the gorge in Thessaly – are a threatened rarity (Rue Léonidas, a few steps to the east, was disfigured in the 1970s). This is a quarter where individuals seeking quiet formerly took refuge – Marcel Duhamel, Jacques Prévert or Yves Tanguy, and Raymond Queneau at 54 Rue du Château, which in the 1920s formed the third apex of the surrealist triangle, along with Rue Blomet and Rue Fontaine.24 In the 1950s, Alberto Giacometti had his studio on Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, and, among the hundreds of photographs taken of him, my favourite is that in which Cartier-Bresson captured him crossing the corner of Rue d’Alésia in the rain, with his raincoat pulled over his head.

Denfert-Rochereau and the 14th Arrondissement

During these days of public-transport strike we have been forced, whether we like it or not, to retreat into ourselves rather more than we generally do . . . It is in circumstances such as these that you notice how the arrondissement forms a little town of its own, quite complete within the city, a twentieth of the capital possessing its own mairie, its church, its markets and its cinemas. For my part, I have known for a long time that it is possible to live without leaving the quatorzième . . . And by chance, this was the festival of the Lion of Belfort. We never failed to visit it on this occasion; we were very fond of it; it was our great fetish, and a kind of virility symbol for the surrounding inhabitants. In its paw it crushes an arrow, which may have a number of symbolic meanings.

That was the inimitable Henri Calet in Combat, on 28 October 1946. His own quatorzième fell into two parts: one sad and administrative, to the left as you come from the Lion de Belfort; the other, to the right, lived-in and busy, the dividing line being Avenue d’Orléans, ‘formerly Rue d’Enfer, which was our open-air market hall, our Grands Boulevards, our Champs-Élysées, our Broadway’.25 Curiously enough, the 14th has not changed a great deal since 1945:

I took the no. 8 bus, now known as the 38, the day it was brought back in service . . . We had a pleasant ride, on pneumatic tyres, from one end of the line to the other. It seemed like a trip back in time; the Lion of Belfort, the Closerie des Lilas, Maréchal Ney who had also made his return (modern wars do not interest him; what he likes is the cavalry charge), the Tarnier clinic, the Luxembourg.26

From Rue Daguerre to the flea market of Vanves, from the Villa Seurat to the provincial Rues du Commandeur, Hallé, Ducouëdic and Sophie-Germain, nothing in his arrondissement escaped Calet. The reservoirs of the Vanne and the miraculously elevated streets that surround them (Rue Saint-Yves, Rue Gauguet, Rue des Artistes), the Montsouris park, the artists’ villas on Rue Nansouty, the Cité Universitaire – he was at home everywhere, even at the hospital where he would happily end his days:

I think I shall be in my place here. From the Tarnier clinic to the hospital of La Rochefoucauld, passing the Asile Maternel on Avenue du Maine, takes scarcely fifteen minutes. I have taken about forty years to make this journey; I have dawdled from one asylum to another . . . To grow old on Avenue d’Orléans, then die without pain, simply putting a farewell letter in the post, is not asking the impossible, after all.

The 13th arrondissement, Butte-aux-Cailles, the Italie quarter

The 14th arrondissement, as a residential overflow from the very bourgeois Faubourg Saint-Jacques, escaped massive destruction. The 13th, on the other hand, the proletarian extension of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, was one of the first to undergo the disasters of the postwar era, even before the bulldozers went to work on the heights of Belleville. As early as the 1950s, a start was made on destroying the Glacière quarter, then that of Maison-Blanche. This was followed by the Italie quarter, stretching broadly along Boulevard Vincent-Auriol. Today, demolition along the Seine is almost complete, where gloomy bistrots used to welcome bargemen and warehouse workers. (One of these on the Quai de la Gare, called La Maison Rouge, remained for many years standing alone like the Hôtel de Nantes on the Place du Carrousel).

There remain in the 13th arrondissement, scattered in a dislocated fabric, some fortunate islands such as the Place des Peupliers (now de l’Abbé-Hénocque) and the streets radiating out from it, bordered with little houses with pointed roofs, some half-timbered and others in brick, regularly arranged and showing great individual imagination. But among the microquarters of this arrondissement, the most famous is the Butte-aux-Cailles. You can reach this from Boulevard Blanqui, by steps that very properly bear the name of Eugène Atget. Or else from Place Paul-Verlaine, where Louis Bonnier built a swimming pool in the 1920s that could have been designed by Gaudí, filled from an artesian well. Or again climb along the side of Sainte-Anne’s church to reach the Place de la Commune-de-Paris. With its fashionable restaurants and neo-Haussmannian street lights, the summit of the Butte-aux-Cailles lacks the guilelessness of the Plaisance quarter, but on its gentle slopes, fine paved passages bordered by low houses and gardens bring you down towards Rue Barrault, Rue Martin-Bernard or Rue Bobillot, named after a sergeant killed in Tonkin during the conquest of Indochina.

The Italie quarter escaped disaster by becoming the main Chinatown of Paris (it might be better to say Indochinatown, as the first Asian immigrants to settle there in the 1970s were ‘boat people’ from South Vietnam, though the majority of those now arriving from Southeast Asia are Chinese of the diaspora). Its limits – currently Rue de Tolbiac and the ‘boulevards of the marshals’, Avenue d’Italie and Rue Nationale – are slowly and steadily advancing, but the density of restaurants and shops is greatest at the corner of Avenues de Choisy and d’Ivry. There is nothing picturesque in the architecture or décor, unlike the large Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco or Singapore, whether because the ugliness of the tower blocks was seen as irremediable, or because of a preference to avoid difference that might have been due to our famous French hospitality. What is exotic is simply the population, and for anyone who likes not knowing where he has ended up, nothing can rival even the poorest supermarkets, where the shopkeepers do not speak French and the tins of preserves, videocassettes, vegetables and cakes are magnificently coloured but almost impossible to identify.

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