AFTER COMPLETING A RECORDING assignment in the 7th arrondissement I found myself in rue du Bac heading for the Métro and home.
Stretching for some 1150 metres from the junction of the Quai Voltaire and the Quai Anatole-France alongside the Seine, rue du Bac crosses the busy boulevard Saint-Germain and ends at rue de Sèvres.
I was at the rue de Sèvres end of the street and so I set off to walk to the Métro station Rue du Bac at the junction of the rue du Bac and the boulevard Raspail, a little over half way along the street, recording the sounds around me as I went.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk and the red arrow shows the continuation of rue du Bac to la Seine
Rue du Bac looking north-east towards la Seine
Rue du Bac takes its name from a ferry (a bac in French) established around 1550 on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The ferry crossed the Seine at the site of today’s Pont Royal, a bridge constructed under the reign of Louis XIV to replace the Pont Rouge built in 1632.
The street was created between 1600 and 1610 and originally named grand chemin du Bac, then ruelle du Bac, grande rue du Bac and finally simply, rue du Bac.
I began my walk along rue du Bac at one of Paris’ largest department stores, Le Bon Marché.
Le Bon Marché department store
Now owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838 by the entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicault. By 1869, it had developed into one of the first department stores in the world heralding a retail revolution that lives with us to the present day.
Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk:
A little further on from Le Bon Marché I came upon the Chapel of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation. It is not a religious institute, but an organisation of secular priests and lay people dedicated to missionary work overseas.
Chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangers
And then, across the street, the Square des Missions Étrangers.
Rue du Bac is in a rather chic part of Paris and that is reflected in the boutiques lining this part of the street.
This shop, Pierre Farman at N°122 for example, sells vintage aircraft parts – heaven for an aircraft enthusiast like me!
Founded in 1903 by the Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named after his stepdaughter, Angelina’s has a world-wide reputation for its elegant Salons de Thé and its classiques de la pâtisserie française including its signature Le Mont Blanc comprising meringue, Chantilly légère and vermicelles de crème de marrons.
This pâtisserie in rue du Bac is one of several Angelina’s in Paris and around the world.
A little further on is the Sotheby’s estate agency. I always think that estate agents who display elegant pictures of properties for sale but no prices are best avoided!
And then I came upon …
And finally …
The Métro Station Rue du Bac.
In the earlier part of the day I’d been concentrating on my sound recording assignment so I hadn’t set out to record a soundwalk in this part of rue du Bac but, as it turned out, I’m rather pleased I did. And I think the sounds of a dog barking, a boutique security guard chasing a shoplifter and a church clock striking the hour, all of which I came upon completely by chance, added to the local colour.
TWICE IN THE LAST few weeks I’ve found myself in rue Dénoyez, the fascinating plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement where the walls are covered with a kaleidoscope of constantly changing street art.
On the first of my two recent visits to this street I was being interviewed for a prospective radio piece and on the second, I was recording a conversation with my good friend, Heather Munro, who was taking a short break from the dramatic sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, USA.
On both occasions I was asked about the banner that has appeared across rue Dénoyez, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez – and I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea why it was there.
But I can now put that right!
Rue Dénoyez is in Belleville in the east of Paris and before 1860 Belleville was a very lively place. Then, it was outside le mur des Fermiers généraux, the tax wall that surrounded Paris, which meant that alcohol was tax-free and therefore much cheaper than within the then Paris City limits. Consequently people from Paris would come to the cafés, bars and cabarets in Belleville in great numbers to drink and dance and have a good time.
After 1860, all that changed. Belleville was absorbed into the City of Paris and with the advantage of tax-free alcohol now gone Belleville began a long and steady decline. And rue Dénoyez suffered from that decline.
In the 20th century immigrants began to arrive in Belleville with Jews fleeing from Germany coming in the early 1930s and Spaniards in 1939. Many Algerians and Tunisian Jews arrived in the early 1960s and then came an influx from the Maghreb. In the 1980s it was the Chinese and more recently, sub-Saharan Africans. All this has contrived to make Belleville the colourful melting pot of different nationalities that it is today.
Revival for rue Dénoyez began with the arrival of the artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents.
Today, rue Dénoyez is home to several art galleries like Frichez-Nous la Paix at N° 22 bis and La Maison de la Plage at N°18 bis for example, which provide a space for artists to work and exhibit their work. And the work of these artists also spills over to the walls and surrounding buildings along the street.
So what’s the story behind the banner across the street, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’?
The banner was erected in early October in response to a proposal to build two subsidised housing projects in the street that could see the end of rue Dénoyez as a plein air street art gallery.
The proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
N° 10 rue de Belleville, Au Vieux Saumer, at the corner of rue Dénoyez
In a city as unaffordable as Paris it’s hard to argue against more subsidised housing but one might ask, as the residents of rue Dénoyez are, why choose this particular street? The local council claim that there is no alternative, this is the only space available they say. Paradoxically, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has expressed her determination to further develop urban art in the city.
Outside the Atelier Hors-Champ I spoke to a man who was about to sign the petition that has been set up. He told me that he thought the development was bound to go ahead and probably the best they could hope for was to delay it. The work is due to start in July 2015.
On the first of my recent visits to rue Dénoyez I recorded a soundwalk along the street, although I didn’t realise at the time that this, along with my other recordings of this street, will become historically significant if and when the development of the street begins and its character inevitably changes. Fairly soon these recordings could become more sounds to add to my list of the ‘vanishing sounds’ of Paris.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
These sounds though are interesting for another reason, a rather amusing and slightly bizarre reason.
Walking along the street I recorded the sounds around me including the sound of the artists shaking their aerosol cans of paint as they went about their work. These sounds were to take a bizarre twist as I came towards the end of my walk.
A middle-aged man, obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis, had been watching an artist at work. When the artist finished and moved off, the man picked up a discarded paint can and for some inexplicable reason decided to bang it against the wall. You can listen to what happened next 6 minutes into my recording.
A little girl was watching the man attentively. She called out to her friend, “Attends! Regarde!”, whereupon the aerosol can exploded showering the man in a haze of white paint. The giggles of the little girl and her friend I thought spoke volumes. As my friend Heather said when I told her this story, “Voilà la justice!”
If the proposed development does go ahead the character of rue Dénoyez will undoubtedly change, but my abiding memory of the street will always be the sound of that exploding aerosol can. Somehow, it seems to portend the arrival of the wrecking ball.
So, as my tribute to rue Dénoyez and its artists it seemed fitting to use the sounds of the exploding can and turn them into my own small piece of street art – my contribution to the legacy of this colourful street.
Rue Dénoyez – The exploding can: (Best listened to with headphones)
AS PART OF MY RESEARCH for an audio project I’m working on about the Paris Commune of 1871, I found myself in the 13th arrondissement in the Butte-aux-Cailles area of Paris. My intention was to visit the office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871) in rue des Cinq-Diamants to browse the literature they have about the Paris Commune and see what might help with my research. I should have known though that it would be folly to turn up without checking first to make sure that the office was open and, of course, it was not!
Office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871)
Still, thanks to the tail end of our Indian summer, the weather was delightful and so I decided to stay and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring this part of Paris including doing a soundwalk along the main street, rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the little square at the western end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, Place de la Commune de Paris 1871, one of twenty-three squares and streets in Paris named after the Paris Commune or the people associated with it. There’s another example at the eastern end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where another square, Place Paul Verlaine, is named after the French poet and member of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune, and yet another at the foot of the Butte-aux-Cailles, Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, named after the French socialist and revolutionary who was one of the group that briefly seized the reins of power on 31 October 1870 for which he was condemned to death in absentia on 9 March 1871.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
As I walked along the street listening to the everyday sounds around me, I couldn’t help reflecting upon the Paris Commune of 1871 since that’s what had brought me here on this sunny October afternoon.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
In 1870, thanks to his increasing unpopularity at home and France’s waning power abroad, Napoleon III decided to embark upon an ill-fated war against a coalition of German states led by Prussia. On 1st September 1870, France was defeated at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III was deposed and the Second Empire collapsed.
After the debacle of Sedan, Prussian forces advanced on Paris and the city was besieged for four months until it was finally captured in January 1871 bringing the war to an end.
A new French government of National Defence was quickly established and an armistice, ratified on 1 March 1871, included a provision for the election of a French National Assembly, which would have the authority to conclude a peace with Germany.
However, provincial royalists dominated this new French national government and when the government moved from Paris out to Versailles republican Parisians feared a return to a monarchy.
Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government, disarmed the National Guard, a citizens’ militia organised to assist in the defence of Paris during the siege and made up primarily of ordinary working people – and another French revolution was born.
The revolutionaries dominated municipal elections in March 1871 and organized a communal government, the Commune de Paris. Commune members included Jacobins who followed Revolutionary traditions of 1793, Proudhonists who supported a nation-wide federation of communal governments, and Blanquistes who demanded violent action to bring about change.
Following the quick suppression of several communes across France, the Versailles government attacked the revolutionaries, the Fédérés as they became known, completely crushing them. In what can only be described as a spectacular act of state terrorism, some 20,000 Communards, as well as those suspected of being Communards, were massacred during a single week known as La Semaine Sanglante, Bloody Week. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the national government continued to take harsh repressive measures following their victory, imprisoning and exiling many of the remaining Communards.
In the short time it existed as a communal government, the Paris Commune implemented the separation of the church from the state, the introduction of free and obligatory primary education, the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended), the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries, the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service, the free return by the city pawnshops of all workmen’s tools and household items valued up to 20 francs pledged during the siege, the postponement of commercial debt obligations and the abolition of interest on the debts, the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner (the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner’s right to compensation) and the prohibition of fines imposed by employers on their workmen.
What else the Paris Commune might have achieved had it not been so brutally repressed we can only guess.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
Of course, what I’ve set out above is only a thumbnail sketch of the events leading up to the Paris Commune and the life – and death – of the Commune itself. But it was this sketch that I had in my mind as I walked along rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles. And I also had in mind that, in the fight to suppress the Paris Commune, the Bataille de la Butte-aux-Cailles took place hereabouts. The Polish politician and Communard General, Walery Antoni Wróblewski, successfully defended the advance of Thiers’ forces, the Versaillais, here for some time until he was eventually pushed back which enabled the Versaillais to capture the entire Left Bank of the Seine and enter the eastern suburbs of Paris where the dénouement was finally played out.
And as I was thinking of all these things, I looked across the street and saw this restaurant, Le Temps des Cerises.
Le Temps des Cerises – The Time of the Cherries
This seemed to be entirely appropriate because Le Temps des Cerises is, in the spirit of the Paris Commune, a Société Coopérative Ouvrière de Production, a workers cooperative. But the name, Le Temps des Cerises, also has another significance.
In 1866, a French socialist, journalist and songwriter, Jean-Baptiste Clément, wrote a song called Le Temps des Cerises which was to become inextricably linked with the Paris Commune. Clément was very active within the Paris Commune and was present at the barricades during La Semaine Sanglante. But, facing the risk of arrest or worse, he managed to flee Paris, went to Belgium and then to London and was then condemned to death in absentia. Parisians had sung Le Temps des Cerises during both the Prussian and Versailles sieges but now Clément dedicated it to:
“Valiant Citizen Louise, the volunteer doctor’s assistant of rue Fontaine-au-Roi, Sunday, 28 May, 1871”
Standing in rue de la Butte-aux-Cailes looking at this restaurant and reflecting on the Paris Commune and particularly on La Semaine Sanglante, the words of Le Temps des Cerises, a sentimental love song that became the anthem of the struggle, and defeat, of the Communards, came back to me …
I will always love the time of the cherries.
I will keep this time in my heart,
An open wound.
Le Temps des Cerises:
Le Temps des Cerises:
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Et gai rossignol et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreille…
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang…
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour
Évitez les belles!
Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai pas sans souffrir un jour…
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des peines d’amour !
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte!
Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne pourra jamais fermer ma douleur…
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !
Maximilien Luce – A Street in Paris in May 1871 – Google Art Project
LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.
Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.
Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.
Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.
Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.
Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi
I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.
I couldn’t wait!
Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!
His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.
So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.
Des’ binaural recording equipment – Marantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones
He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.
Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk
Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!
Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.
Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg
Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in rue Descartes:
My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right
Antonella in rue Mouffetard:
My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy
I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.
I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.
And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!
IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.
Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.
Rue des Ursins looking from West to East
At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.
In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.
Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget
The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.
Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture
I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.
Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:
Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I recounted how I went to the Marché aux Fleurs last Saturday shortly after the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and how the market had been renamed in her honour as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The next day I returned to this flower market to witness its transformation into the Marché aux Oiseaux, a bird market.
The main part of the Marché aux Fleurs comprises two iron pavilions filled with a cornucopia of plants, shrubs, flowers and garden accessories. But on Sundays the road between the two pavilions is taken over by temporary stalls selling a wide variety of birds, from the rare and exotic to the more prosaic, together with a selection bird related accessories.
When I went there on Sunday, the road between the iron pavilions of the flower market was awash with people who, as with most markets, obviously come here not only to buy and sell but also to meet friends and other like-minded people.
Marché aux Oiseaux – A Soundwalk:
I found the soundscape in the Marché aux Oiseaux fascinating – an intriguing interweaving of sounds from two different species in close proximity, the avian and the human, with both speaking to themselves but not to each other. It seemed as though the air was filled with a cacophony of conversation.
At the end of my Sunday morning walk through the Marché aux Oiseaux this cacophony of avian and human conversation seemed to be reconciled by the unifying, man-made sounds of the distant bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris drifting across the market on the warm, summer air.
Here are some more sights of the Marché aux Oiseaux:
THE FRENCH SELDOM name places after living people but in the case of the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris they’ve made an exception.
Last Saturday, at the end of a three-day State Visit to France which included attending the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Anne Hidalgo, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, and the French Président, François Hollande, visited the Marché aux Fleurs, which has been renamed the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II in her honour.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been to the Marché aux Fleurs so I thought I would go along on Saturday and reaquaint myself with this renowned Parisian flower market.
Close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs, in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808. Housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof, the market offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories as well as other hidden treasures.
Sounds of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II:
I arrived at the market shortly after the Queen had left and so, on this beautiful sunny day, I was able to walk around unencumbered by the restrictions surrounding Royal visits.
I spoke to some of the stallholders and they seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and with the new name of the market. I also came upon two young ladies clutching an iPhone who were particularly excited since they had just found a photograph of themselves meeting the Queen on a French Television website.
Not everyone is happy with the new name though. Some on the Left said it was ‘ridiculous’ that an unelected monarch was getting such an accolade in a republic that executed most of its royals more than 200 years ago.
At the entrance to the market next to the Paris Préfecture de Police, where earlier the Queen had unveiled a street sign with the new name of the market, I discovered that work was well underway deconstructing the paraphernalia that had been erected for the unveiling ceremony. The four white, padded chairs that moments ago had hosted distinguished bottoms were now stacked on top of each other looking rather forlorn as if contemplating their fate.
In my next blog piece I will reveal what happens to the Marché aux Fleurs on Sunday mornings when the flowers and plants take a back seat and the market is transformed into the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market.
In the meantime, here are some more sights of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The Queen visiting the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II
Image via PA
RUE DE STEINKERQUE must be one of the most visited streets in Paris and yet I doubt that few people who pass along it will know it by name. At a little over one hundred and fifty metres long and seven metres wide it’s quite a small street but it has a footfall that far outweighs its size.
Rue de Steinkerque was originally a pathway in the commune of Montmartre. It was formally recognised as a street by decree in 1868 and it was officially named in 1877.
Its name comes from the Battle of Steinkerque fought near the village of Steenkerque, fifty kilometres south-west of Brussels, on 3rd August 1692. The battle was won by the French under Marshal François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg against a joint English-Scottish-Dutch-German army under Prince William of Orange.
Today, rue de Steinkerque is a well-trodden tourist trail leading from the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Métro station Anvers to the Place Saint-Pierre and Montmartre.
And sitting at the top of the street on the summit of la butte Montmartre is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which seems to act like a magnet for the swathe of tourists in the street below.
But to get to this towering monument built as a penance for the excesses of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune of 1871, tourists have to negotiate the rue de Steinkerque with the crowds of people, the lines of gift shops, the trinket peddlers – and the thieves determined to surreptitiously remove anything of value from the unsuspecting tourists.
I went to explore rue de Steinkerque the other day and to record a soundwalk and, not for the first time in this street, I arrived at the top find that one of the pockets of my shoulder bag had been completely unzipped without me being aware of it. Thankfully, nothing was taken – this time!
Rue de Steinkerque – A Soundwalk:
Not quite all the shops lining the rue de Steinkerque are gift and trinket shops. At the bottom of the street is the Sympa store, a place to find cheap clothing, often big brand names at unbelievably low prices.
No investment in marketing here, the clothes are just dumped into bins by the roadside for the customers to rummage through.
By contrast, the street also boasts La Cure Gourmande, a renowned maker of biscuits, chocolates and confectionary …
… as well as la Maison Georges Larnicol and le Petit Musée du Chocolat, which is well worth a visit …
… and a couple of antique shops.
A lot of people who come to rue de Steinkerque come as part of a tourist group and so it’s quite common to see tourist guides with their distinctive umbrellas gathering their flocks for the trek up the street.
If you find yourself heading for Montmartre you will more than likely find yourself in rue de Steinkerque at some point. Enjoy the atmosphere – but beware those who might be out to spoil your day!
IF THINGS HAD GONE to plan, the iconic logo – blue letters on a background of Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles – would not have said ‘TATI’ at all.
In 1948, when Jules Ouaki opened a small textile shop in Boulevard de Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement of Paris he wanted to call it ‘TITA’ after the nickname of his mother, Esther, but that name had already been registered by someone else and so by rearranging the letters, ‘TITA’ became ‘TATI’.
The iconic TATI logo
Jules Ouaki was born in Tunis in 1920, the eldest of nine children. He arrived in Paris at the end of the Second World War penniless but not without ambition. He found work in the ‘rag trade’ selling lingerie but, like others before him, Jules Ouaki was not content to be a small time salesman.
In the second-half of the nineteenth-century, the new and phenomenally successful Parisian department stores revolutionised the concept of retailing. All of them had grown from very humble beginnings to become successful retail giants thanks to great entrepreneurs like Aristide Boucicaut at Le Bon Marché, Ernest Cognacq at La Samaritaine, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos at Printemps and Albert Kahn at the Galeries Lafayette. Jules Ouaki was an entrepreneur and he too would seek to grow a giant retail business.
In 1948, Jules Ouaki opened a 50 M2 shop on the Boulevard de Rochechouart in the Barbès district of Paris selling mainly textiles and clothing. This first TATI self-service store emulated the by then well-established retailing principle of ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ but Ouaki also needed to differentiate his business in what was becoming an overcrowded market. To do that he decided to position TATI not only to sell its goods at low prices – but at the lowest prices. And thus was born the advertising slogan still proclaimed today from on top of the site of the original store – ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
This slogan, ‘TATI – The Lowest Prices’, attracted customers and served Jules Ouaki well. He was able to expand his enterprise turning the original 50 M2 shop into the sprawling 2,800 M2 retail space we see in the Boulevard Rochechouart today. In the 1970’s TATI expanded even further opening new stores in Paris in Place de la République and Rue de Rennes as well as beginning an expansion into the provinces with stores opening in Nancy, Lille, Rouen, Marseille and Lyon.
So the TATI success seemed assured – but there was a sting in the tail for this family business founded on the mantra of ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
In 1982, Jules Ouaki died leaving his wife, Eleanor, and five children but no clear plan of succession for the running of the business. Who was now to take up the reins and lead the business? It was left to Eleanor to choose a successor. Her choice was Fabien, the youngest of the five children and he, after much vacillation, agreed ‘but only to please his mother’ he later said.
Under its new leadership TATI continued to expand through the 1980’s and 1990’s adding more brands, an increased product offering and a wider geographical presence.
As well as selling textiles and clothing, TATI now offered household products, cosmetics, wedding dresses, sweets, jewellery, spectacles and even a travel agency. It also began to expand outside France. Stores were opened in Europe, South Africa and the United States, including one store on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Fabien Ouaki became the largest shareholder in TATI in 1995 and by then he was heading a successful enterprise that had 29 stores and well over 1,000 employees.
But, remember the sting in the tail …
In the early days, Jules Ouaki had differentiated TATI not only by selling at low prices – but at the lowest prices, a formula that worked well and led to great success. But commercial differentiation only works if it does what it says and actually differentiates an enterprise from its competitors. Once competitors muscle in and copy a successful commercial model the enterprise faces serious trouble unless it acts quickly and decisively.
At the turn of the millennium TATI faced exactly this problem. Competitors like H & M , Babu and Zara were striking at the very heart of the TATI business, the discount textile market. TATI was over-diversified and overstretched and couldn’t respond. The company eventually ran out of cash and on 28th August 2003, TATI filed a petition for bankruptcy with the Tribunal de Commerce de Paris.
The court gave Fabien Ouaki some breathing space to try to right the ship but to no avail. At the end of 2004, the Ouaki family decided that after fifty-six years of trading they were going to pull out and let the business go.
Soon after, TATI was bought by a subsidiary of Groupe Eram for €10 million payable in cash plus €4.5 million for the store inventories. Since then, the new owners seem to have been able to breathe new life into the enterprise.
Today, TATI has 129 outlets in France and is making a rapid expansion into Eastern Europe. Its central focus is on the 25% of households earning less than €20,000 per year across Europe whilst attracting a significantly higher proportion of French consumers. To that end it has to some extent moved away from the former ‘bazaar’ type presentation of its products to a more formal in-store presentation and it now has a presence on the internet. Yet, despite this slightly more up-market approach, the average selling price of items in a TATI store is €5.
I went to explore TATI in the Boulevard de Rochechouart the other day and walking round listening to the soundscape inside the store I couldn’t help pondering its history, its near death experience and its subsequent revival.
Inside TATI on the Boulevard de Rochechouart:
Jules Ouaki founded TATI in 1948 as a lowest price retailer. Whatever his motives, the effect of what he did was to democratise shopping – to make at least some of the essentials of life, clothing in particular, accessible to the poorest in society.
We will never know whether Jules Ouaki, the entrepreneur, could have weathered the storm of competition that descended upon TATI at the turn of the century or whether he would have been ahead of the game and foreseen the challenge and responded to it before it happened.
It seems to me that the old TATI suffered from a condition common to many failing businesses – a myopic view of the world unadorned with any semblance of reality coupled with ambitions exceeding the depth of its pocket.
Groupe Eram appear to have secured TATI’s future for the time being but they have done one thing that seems to me at least to be completely inexplicable. They have allegedly done away with the iconic TATI logo. The Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles have completely gone and the blue letters have been replaced with letters in, can you believe it, raspberry!
The new TATI logo
Groupe Eram may be anxious to shed the image of the former failed TATI but I’m sure the original logo will live on in the minds of many Parisians as one of those things you just don’t mess with. Anyway, although introduced in February 2013, I for one am delighted to see that news of the new logo has yet to reach the TATI store in the Boulevard de Rochechouart!
RUE VAVIN STRETCHES from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Rue d’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. The street is 375 metres long and 12 metres wide at its widest point and two streets, the Boulevard Raspail and Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, intersect it.
Rue Vavin is named after Alexis Vavin (1792-1863), a French politician who, amongst other things, opposed the coup of Napoleon III. As well as the Rue Vavin, the Avenue Vavin (now a short cul-de-sac) and the Métro station Vavin are also named after him.
The other day I decided to explore the Rue Vavin, to search out the places of historical interest and to do a soundwalk.
I began at the Rue d’Assas outside one of the entrances to the Jardin du Luxembourg and I walked along the street to the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the other end.
Rue Vavin – A Soundwalk:
N° 12 rue Vavin
The first building to catch my eye was N° 12.
For over eighty years this was home to the French publishing house founded in 1901 by the orientalist Paul Geuthner. He specialised in Oriental studies and published essays, texts, language textbooks and travelogues on the Near, Middle and Far East.
Paul Geuthner died in 1949 but the business continued and although no longer here at N° 12 rue Vavin (it’s now moved to 16 rue de la Grande Chaumière close by), and despite a change of ownership, the Société Nouvelle Librairie Orientalist Paul Geuthner is still very much alive and well.
Moving on towards the next building I wanted to see I paused to look at two things at the heart of rue Vavin, both of which are emblematic of Paris – a kiosquier selling his newspapers and a Wallace fountain.
The Parisian newspaper kiosk has been around for a 150 years. Today there are about 350 of them in Paris and they account for almost half of all daily newspaper and magazine sales.
And, like the Parisian newspaper kiosk, the Wallace fountain is another piece of iconic Parisian street furniture.
Named after the English philanthropist, Richard Wallace, who lived in Paris and financed their construction, these fountains were designed by the French sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Although originally intended as a source of free, potable water for the poor and also as encouragement to avoid the temptation to turn to strong liquor, everyone uses these fountains today. For the homeless of course, they are often their only source of free drinking water. The fountains operate from 15th March to 15th November (the risk of freezing during the winter months would imperil the internal plumbing) and they are regularly maintained and repainted every two years.
And while the Wallace fountain in rue Vavin might be one kind of watering hole, on the other side of the street there’s another, the Café Vavin.
N° 19 rue Vavin
Further along the street is N° 19.
This building was once home to the École normale d’enseignement du dessin, a school of drawing founded in 1881 by the architect, Alphonse Théodore Guérin. The only private art school in Paris at the time, it was staffed by volunteer teachers and its students paid no fees. The teaching was based on a mixture of workshops and academic classes in decorative composition, perspective, the history of art and anatomy.
N° 26 rue Vavin – Image via Wikipedia
If you’ve seen the film Last Tango in Paris you may recognise the next building I stopped to look at. N° 26 rue Vavin was the creation of the French architects Frédéric-Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin.
In 1903, Sauvage and Sarazin formed the Société anonyme de logements hygiéniques à bon marché, a company whose purpose was to construct good quality, affordable housing for the poorest in society. Built in 1912 as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), N° 26 rue Vavin is a good example of what Sauvage and Sarazin sought to achieve. Designed on the hygienist principles of providing accommodation with plenty of light and air the building has open terraces and is covered with white tiles similar to those found in the Paris Métro which self-clean when it rains.
Unlike with most buildings in Paris, it is forbidden to attach nameplates to the walls of N° 26 partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to avoid damage to the tiles. Consequently, the main door of the building has a very clean and uncluttered look to it.
After pausing to look at a magnificent display of blooms at a flower shop I walked further up rue Vavin to the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail where I found N° 33.
N° 33 rue Vavin
Between the two World Wars, N° 33 rue Vavin was home to the famous cabaret Le Bal de la Boule Blanche. It was here on the evening of 20th February 1931 that Georges Simenon hosted a ball to launch the first two books in the then new but now classic Inspector Maigret series – ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’ and ‘Le pendu de Saint-Pholien’.
Crossing the Boulevard Raspail I wanted to find N° 38 rue Vavin, once the home of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who is perhaps best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, I found a building site with the inevitable site meeting taking place.
N° 50 rue Vavin
The last stop on my soundwalk along the rue Vavin was at N° 50. Today it’s just one of many boutiques along the street but in the second half of the 19th century this was the Maison Voignier, supplier of organ pipes to, amongst others, one of the world’s greatest organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Rue Vavin is a fairly typical Parisian street. It’s home to some or a place of business for others, it’s also a thoroughfare from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Jardin du Luxembourg and it’s a magnet for shoppers. It has its own life, its own history and, of course, its own sounds all of which I think are worth exploring.