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 titters 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
I WAS RETURNING from an expedition to the Pont Marie, one of the oldest bridges in Paris, where I had been on my feet for a little over three hours collecting material for my Paris Bridges Project. It was a sultry afternoon, I was tired and in need of a sit down and some refreshment. I was heading for a café I often frequent when I’m in these parts when I happened upon a short, narrow, medieval Parisian street I’ve walked along many times but never really stopped to take much notice of, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau. For the first time, I was intrigued by this street so I paused to absorb the atmosphere.
Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau lies along the green arrow
The street runs parallel to la Seine and it’s bordered to the east by the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and by the rue des Barres to the west with the Êglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris just beyond.
Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau looking from east to west
As I’ve said, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a short, narrow, medieval street and I was particularly intrigued by its name.
In French, the word ‘grenier’ means attic or loft so to my mind, “street of the loft on the water” didn’t seem to make much sense. All became clear though when I got home and consulted my bible on these matters, Bernard Stéphane’s ‘Dictionnaire des Noms de Rues’.
It seems that in the early thirteenth-century, a Monsieur Garnier or Guernier owned some houses in the passage between the Êglise Saint-Gervais and the river. In 1241, all of these houses were acquired by the Knights Templar save for one in which Garnier’s goddaughter lived.
The records show that in 1257 the street was known as rue André-sur-l’Eau but by 1391 it had become rue du Garnier-sur-l’Eau. It seems then that the present day rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a corruption of the fourteenth-century name, rue du Garnier sur l’Eau. So nothing at all to do with attics or lofts then!
Not only was I intrigued with the name of the street, I was also intrigued by its atmosphere. When I arrived, the street was practically empty save for the occasional passers-by pausing to look at the shop at the bottom of the street. Apart from the shop, the only one in the street, and the occasional traffic passing along the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe the street had a very medieval feel to it.
I was also keen to explore the sound tapestry of the street. After all, quiet streets in Paris are relatively rare things.
Those of you who follow this Blog regularly will know that I often use the technique of soundwalking to explore the city’s sound tapestry but the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is not a street that lends itself to soundwalking. It’s a short street and it takes no more than a minute to walk from one end to the other. In my experience, the best way to capture the sound tapestry of a street like this is to do the reverse of a soundwalk, that is to say, stay in one place and let the street walk past you.
And that’s exactly what I did. I positioned myself in the narrowest part of the street, about two-thirds of the way up towards rue des Barres, and from there I began to record and to see what would happen.
Sounds of rue du Grenier sur l’Eau:
As is so often the case, things seldom turn out the way one expects. My microphones revealed that, what appeared to be a quiet, medieval street was in fact a hive of sonic activity.
Ordinary Parisians passing by, some chatting to friends, some purposefully walking from one place to another, some carrying their shopping and looking rather weary and some simply strolling and enjoying the sunshine. Small children gambolling within sight of but not tied to their parents and testosterone-fuelled adolescents jockeying for position in life’s pecking order. And then there were the tourists, mostly in groups, receiving yet another commentary about yet another ‘site of interest’. The sounds of voices, footsteps, children running, a car horn, things falling over, a breathless jogger and rustling shopping bags were all now evident whereas they had been inaudible from further down the street. A bicycle rickshaw rattled past with the driver giving a fleeting commentary on the architecture. And another, more detailed, commentary came from an English-speaking French tour guide who was escorting a small party of Japanese tourists.
This commentary is actually worth listening to in some detail. The tour guide was talking about this timber-framed house. He tells us, or rather he was telling his tour party, that all the houses in Paris were like this until the seventeenth-century. Wood floating down the river was retrieved and used either as firewood or to make timber frames for the houses. The problem was that, because the streets were very narrow, a fire in one house could easily leap across and set fire to the neighbouring houses. To avoid this hazard, a law was issued around 1600 saying that the wood had to be covered with plaster. It’s only in recent years that some of the plaster has been removed to expose the wood. In the picture above you can see that the timber frame is exposed on the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau side of the house but the plaster remains on the rue des Barres side. This house is now a youth hostel but it’s so popular, especially in the summer, that guests are only allowed to stay for three nights.
I’m not quite sure how much of all this was absorbed by the Japanese tourists but it fascinated me!
I spent well over an hour standing in rue du Grenier sur l’Eau observing, but observing through active listening. I suspect that most of the people who passed by were aware to some extent of the soundscape around them but probably only as something in the distant background. For those engaged in conversation, these ‘background’ sounds would probably have passed by largely unnoticed.
For me though, the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau, small as it is, seemed to be huge canvas upon which was woven a colourful and captivating sonic tapestry depicting the fascinating contemporary atmosphere of this medieval street.
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.
ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.
The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.
I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.
Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.
Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.
While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.
The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.
Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.
Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.
I then took another picture to the left …
… and one to the right.
But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?
Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.
A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:
Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.
In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.
Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget
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!
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.
I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.
Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long. It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.
I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.
This is what I saw and heard …
Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:
It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
IN A RECENT ARTICLE on this blog I explored the Métro station Jaurès in the 19th arrondissement. This Métro station fascinates me partly because it is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s Métro stations aériennes, (all his stations aériennes fascinate me), and partly because it is named after a man who particularly interests me, Jean Jaurès.
Jean Jaurès in 1904 – Image via Wikipedia
In the blog piece, I refer to the fact that Jean Jaurès was assassinated in the Café du Croissant in rue Montmartre just days before the outbreak of the First World War.
The other day I found myself in rue Montmartre and, in need of shelter from the rain, I ducked into the nearest café which just happened to be the very same Café du Croissant, or La Taverne du Croissant as it’s now called, in which Jaurès died. Since I had recently published my blog piece about the Métro station Jaurès, and since this year is the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Jaurès has been much on my mind so coming upon the Café du Croissant like this seemed a curious coincidence.
Café du Croissant – rue Montmartre
La Taverne du Croissant with its dark wooden furniture and its wooden floors has a comfortable feel to it but, save for the plaque on the wall outside, there is little to remind one of the event that took place here a hundred years ago.
Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès was born on 3rd September 1859 in Castres in the south west of France. He was educated in Paris and admitted to the prestigious École normale supérieure in 1878 to study philosophy. He graduated in 1881 and then spent two years teaching philosophy in southern France before taking up a lecturing post at the University of Toulouse.
Jean Jaurès’ political career began in 1885 when he was elected deputy (member of the legislative assembly of the French Parliament) for the Tarn département. He was initially a moderate republican but by the late 1880’s he had fully embraced socialism.
Over the next few years, Jaurès won and lost seats to the National Assembly several times but in 1902 he was returned as the deputy for Albi, a seat he retained until his death.
As well a being a politician, Jaurès was also a journalist. He edited La Petite République, and was, along with Émile Zola, one of the most energetic defenders of Alfred Dreyfus during the notorious Dreyfus Affair. In 1904, he founded the socialist paper L’Humanité, a newspaper that still exists.
At the end of the 19th century, with its leaders either dead or exiled after the failure of the Paris commune in 1871, French socialism was in disarray. It wasn’t until 1905, with the establishment of SFIO, the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Workers’ International) that the Left gained some coherence. SFIO was led by Jules Guesde and Jean Jaurès, but it was Jaurès who quickly became its most influential figure.
Jean Jaurès was also a pacifist, something that was to cost him his life.
As the dark clouds descended over Europe in 1914, Jean Jaurès passionately believed that it was worth trying to use diplomatic means to prevent war. He tried to promote understanding between France and Germany and then, as conflict became imminent, he tried to organise general strikes in France and in Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate. Jaurès though was swimming against the tide. Defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine still loomed large in the minds of the French establishment; revenge for the former and the return of the latter seemed to overshadow Jaurès’ efforts.
Café du Croissant – Inside
On the afternoon of 30th July 1914, Jean Jaurès returned to Paris from an emergency meeting of the International Socialist Bureau of the Second International in Brussels. Austria had already mobilised and upon his arrival in Paris Jaurès learned that Russia had now mobilised as well.
The following morning, the 31st July, Jaurès had a succession of meetings and then, during the afternoon, he went to his newspaper, L’Humanité, to write a piece about ‘antiwar mobilisation’ for publication the following day.
In the evening he went to the Café du Croissant for dinner with four colleagues. Jaurès sat at a table with his back to an open window shielded from the street by a drawn curtain. In the street outside, a 29 year old archaeology student, a member the League of Young Friends of Alsace-Lorraine and a French nationalist, Raoul Villain, stood poised ready to assassinate a man he had never met. He fired two shots from a Smith & Wesson revolver. One shot missed and lodged into some woodwork, the other pierced Jaurès’ skull and he fell dead.
Reaction to Jaurès’ death was mixed, the Left were understandably angry while some on the Right rejoiced but across Europe the reaction was a wave of shock. This seemed to be yet another link in the chain of uncertainty that was engulfing Europe.
Le Temps, one of Paris’ most influential newspapers at the time, lamented that he was extinguished ‘just at the moment when … his oratory was about to become a weapon of national defence‘.¹
Café du Croissant in 2014:
Sitting in the Café du Croissant in 2014 over a cup of coffee with the rain pattering on the windows close to the spot where Jaurès was shot, I couldn’t help thinking about how normal everything seemed, people engaged in conversation, the sound of crockery clinking, the lady behind the bar going about her work.
I also couldn’t help thinking about Jean Jaurès and his ideals and wondering what might have been if his vision that ordinary people acting in sufficient numbers and with sufficient strength could have prevented the terrible slaughter that subsequently unfolded.
Professor Colin Jones sums it up: “The assassination of the eminent socialist Jean Jaurès … removed a leading figure on the Left who might have prevailed against what became an almost Gaderene rush into war”.²
In death, Jean Jaurès received the ultimate accolade the French can bestow. Ten years after his death, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon.
Astonishingly, in 1919, Raoul Villain was acquitted of the murder of Jean Jaurès. On the 17th September 1936 he was shot and killed during the Spanish Civil War. He is buried in the cemetery of Sant Vicent de sa Cala on the island of Ibiza.
Here is an extract from the article Jean Jaurès wrote for his newspaper, l’Humanité, a few hours before his death on 31st July 1914, just three days before war was declared …
“Le plus grand danger à l’heure actuelle n’est pas, si je puis dire, dans les événements eux-mêmes. […] Il est dans l’énervement qui gagne, dans l’inquiétude qui se propage, dans les impulsions subites qui naissent de la peur, de l’incertitude aiguë, de l’anxiété prolongée. […] Ce qui importe avant tout, c’est la continuité de l’action, c’est le perpétuel éveil de la pensée et de la conscience ouvrière. Là est la vraie sauvegarde. Là est la garantie de l’avenir.”
My translation …
“The greatest danger today is not, so to speak, in the events themselves. [...] It is in the nervousness that grows, in the concern that is propagated, in the sudden impulses that arise from fear, of acute uncertainty, prolonged anxiety. [...] What matters above all is the continuity of action, it is the perpetual awakening of thought and of working-class consciousness. That is the real safeguard. That is the guarantee of the future.”
¹‘Catastrophe’ by Max Hastings (page 83)
²‘Paris – The Biography of a City’ by Colin Jones (page 377)
La Taverne du Croissant, 146 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris
THE OTHER DAY I was walking along the Quai Branly from the Tour Eiffel towards the Pont Bir-Hakeim, the magnificent double-decked bridge that carries traffic, pedestrians and Métro Line 6 across la Seine.
Pont Bir-Hakeim from Quai Branly
Unusually for early February it was a beautiful day. It was warm, the sun was shining and all was well with the world save of course for the constant stream of traffic hurtling along the Quai Branly. I decided to escape at least some of the traffic noise by negotiating some steps down to the towpath beside the river and continuing my journey from there. This towpath is part of the Promenade du quai Branly that stretches from the Pont de l’Alma to Pont Bir-Hakeim and it follows the old railway track from Invalides to Versailles, which is now RER Line C, on one side and the river Seine on the other. The Seine of course is a working river and so there are many boats berthed here along what is known as the Port de Suffren.
As I walked along the towpath my attention was drawn to these two boats. The larger of the two, the white one, is Le Maxim’s, one of three Bateaux Maxim’s owned by the legendary Maxim’s de Paris. The other boat is a working barge.
It wasn’t the sight of these boats that attracted my attention but rather their sounds. The two boats carried by the waves were rocking gently back and forth with each straining at its moorings.
Boats in conversation at Port de Suffren:
It seemed to me as though the two boats were having a conversation; the flighty, high-pitched, sounds from Le Maxim’s being tempered by the more sonorous interjections of the barge straining against the wire hawser stretched over its bow. Even the ever-present traffic noise from the quai Branly above and behind seemed to be partially mitigated by their conversation.
There were many people walking along the towpath on this sunny afternoon but none of them, save for me, stopped to listen to or even seemed to be aware of this nautical chorus.