A Paris Working Class Suburb – Then and Now

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Walks near Paris

A Walk through a Parisian Cité

Having visited the Ile de Brise a few weeks ago, we are inviting you to follow us today on another spontaneous walking trip to the outskirts of Paris – one with a difference, however, inasmuch as we will be climbing down several notches on the social ladder.

Which is why, instead of boats and landscaped gardens, today we offer you allotments and scruffy municipal parks. And high-rise buildings. There is not a single place on this walk where you don’t see at least one of those.

I got the itinerary of the walk from a book called “Balades dans la nature” – which only goes to show that the French word “la nature” is only a very loose translation of its English counterpart. As a matter of fact, there is practically no “nature” (in the English sense) at all on this walk.

I must also warn you that the walk is interesting, by which I mean culturally interesting, rather than pretty – and that much of its interest lies in the fact that it is a good and relatively safe way of taking a peek at the dreaded “cités”, the French public housing estates that were made famous throughout the world some years ago by Mathieu Kassovitz’s daunting and terrifying movie “La Haine

The walk starts at the Metro stop Gallieni in eastern Paris. Walk underneath the bridge and turn immediately right into the Avenue des Camelia. Turn left into Avenue des Roses and right into Rue du General Leclerc, past suburban flower gardens and allotments …

"Walks near Paris - through a Parisian suburb"

… before making a right turn into Rue Charles Delescluze. Cross the motorway and turn right into the park Jean Moulin, a typically wonderful piece of 1970s urban planning, a scruffy and featureless expanse of grass that is surrounded on all sides by either high-rise buildings or six-lane freeways.

And what, the local council must have asked, do the residents of this housing estate need more than anything else? Yes: a monumental piece of sculpture that celebrates some event or other that happened many years before most of the local inhabitants were born (or have arrived in France, at any rate).

"Walks near Paris - through a park with an impressive statue"

The park appears to be where the local youth congregates, to play soccer, to smoke funny looking cigarettes or to do whatever it is that local youth in areas like this are doing to keep themselves amused. (Warning: do not do this walk at night. Leave all your valuables behind. Refrain from any ostentatious display of jewelry and expensive watches. And I am saying this only half in jest.)

"Walks near Paris - The view from a Paris suburb park"

Leave the park through the exit on Rue Blanche, turn right and then left into Rue Bain. Continue straight into the Sentier des Guilands, a stairway that leads you to the foot of the hill, past one of the quaintest and most “nostalgic” neighbourhoods of Paris.

This is how Paris’s suburban working classes lived before areas like it were “cleaned up” and their inhabitants were moved to the cités.

"Walks near Paris - How working class suburbs looked"

At the foot of the hill, down Rue de la Fraternité, there is more nostalgia, albeit in a slightly more urban setting: at times, you feel you have travelled back in time to the 1940s.

"Walks near Paris - A working class suburb street - vintage car"

Cross the Avenue de la Republique into Rue de la Liberté, and after turning left into Rue de l’Egalité, you half expect to run into Madame Desfarges knitting on the Place de la Guillotine around the corner, but instead, what you will see is something quite different: tiles.

"Walks near Paris - Two old men seated on a tiled bench"

When the local council wanted to redecorate this town square on the top of Rue Robespierre, they took the unusual step of asking the local town folks what they wanted, and it turned out that this was what they wanted: tiles – like the ones they have in Barcelona, particularly in Gaudi’s Parc Guell. Barcelona, the tile-covered (but of course!) information board told us, was what inspired this piece of urban regeneration.

The results are surprisingly beautiful.

"Walks near Paris - Tiled water faucet in a Paris suburban small park"

Beauty alone, however, it turns out, does little to resolve underlying problems of inner city areas. The beautifully tiled water fountain “has not worked in ages”, as a grumpy old resident complained to us when he saw us taking pictures. While the back of the information board, on closer inspection, had been brutally vandalized.

"Walks near Paris - Vandalised tiled notice board in a Parisian suburb

Sobering, really, if you think about it, putting it into the context of your other observations of the day, and more than enough to chew on on your way home. (Metro Robespierre is a short walk down the street.)

2 comments to A Paris Working Class Suburb – Then and Now

  • Lovely, simply lovely. Just to have sunshine would be a wonderful thing (can you tell we have another rainy, gray day in Seattle today?)

  • Great post. I’ve always thought Paris’s suburbs worth a visit, if not more interesting than the heart of the city. I’ll take a look for the movie, sounds worth watching if I can find a copy.

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