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!
MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me recently to one of the iconic bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
Linking the 15th and 16th arrondissements and crossing the artificial island, the Île aux Cygnes in the middle of la Seine, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim crosses the river just downstream from the Tour Eiffel.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking downstream
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim we see today is the second bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first was a metal footbridge, the Passerelle de Passy, which was built for the 1878 Universal Exposition. When Paris hosted the Universal Exposition in 1900 it was decided to draw up plans to replace the existing footbridge with something more substantial.
In 1902, the Métropolitan railway and the Seine Navigation department organised a competition for a two-tier bridge, with a road bridge on the lower level comprising two lateral roadways separated by a central walkway and, on the upper level, a Métropolitan railway viaduct supported by metal columns resting on the central space.
A proposal by the French engineer, Louis Biette, was accepted and the firm, Daydé & Pillé, were charged with constructing the new bridge. Construction work began in 1903 and was completed in 1905. The new bridge, the bridge we see today, was called the Viaduc de Passy, reflecting the name of both the original footbridge and the commune of Passy which is located at the Right Bank end of the bridge.
The monumental stone arch across the tip of the Île aux Cygnes
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim comprises two unequal metal structures, each comprising three cantilever spans separated by a monumental stone structure on the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes. The larger of the two structures connects to the Right Bank and its arches measure 30 metres, 54 metres and 30 metres and for the smaller structure connecting to the Left bank, the arches measure 24 metres, 42 metres and 24 metres. The two structures are anchored by an abutment at each end and by a common abutment on the Île aux Cygnes.
The larger of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The smaller of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The lower level of the bridge comprises two roadways each 6 metres wide, two pavements each 2 metres wide and a central walkway 8.7 metres wide, which also doubles up as two cycle lanes. The total length of the bridge is 237 metres.
The upper deck carrying Métro Line 6 comprises a metal deck supported by cast-iron pillars 6 metres apart. The upper deck is 7.3 metres wide.
A Paris municipal architect, Jean Camille Formigé, was responsible for the decoration of the bridge. He engaged three sculptors, Gustave Michel, Jules-Felix Coutan, and Jean Antoine Injalbert to create sculptures to adorn the bridge.
‘Les forgerons-riveteurs’ by Gustave Michel
The bridge retained the name ‘Viaduc de Passy’ until 1948 when it was renamed to commemorate the Battle of Bir Hakeim, fought by Free French forces against the German Afrika Korps in 1942.
My Paris Bridges project is not only about exploring the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about exploring the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Since one of the characteristic features of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the viaduct carrying Métro Line 6 on the upper level of the bridge, the sounds of Métro trains crossing the viaduct are clearly one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge and so I went to investigate.
My exploration began at the Métro station Passy at the Right Bank end of the bridge from where I caught a Métro train and made the short journey across the bridge to the next station, Bir-Hakeim.
From Passy to Bir-Hakeim:
Another characteristic feature of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the spectacular view of the Tour Eiffel from the bridge and especially from a Métro train crossing the viaduct. Even on the dullest of days the view is quite special.
Tour Eiffel from a Métro train crossing the viaduct
And when standing on the bridge the view is equally impressive.
Tour Eiffel from on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Having crossed the viaduct I alighted at Bir-Hakeim station from where I could get an excellent view of the Métro line crossing the viaduct.
Métro Line 6 crossing the viaduct on Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Next, I wanted to explore the sounds on the lower level of the bridge. I walked across the bridge on the central walkway underneath the viaduct from the Right Bank to the Left Bank listening carefully to the sounds around me. I then walked back in the opposite direction this time not only pausing to listen but also to record.
Sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim on the bridge:
I discovered two characteristic sounds on the bridge – the sounds of the Métro passing overhead and of course, the sounds of the passing traffic.
I found the sounds of the traffic to be different here to that found on some of the other Parisian bridges. Traffic lights at both ends of the bridge regulate the flow and so the traffic passes in waves rather than in a constant stream and the bridge is also long enough to avoid endless queues of traffic backing up across the bridge, at least for most of the time. In addition, the very smooth road surface together with the large expanse of open space either side of the bridge along its length seems to help dampen the more aggressive sounds of the traffic.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim – On the bridge underneath the viaduct
The sounds of the Métro passing overhead were interesting. As the Métro line approaches the stations at either end of the bridge, Passy on one side and Bir-Hakeim on the other, the sounds of the trains passing over the viaduct are much clearer than they are around the centre of the bridge. The reason for this could be that there are buildings close to both ends of the bridge that reflect and thus amplify the sounds whereas the expanse of open space on either side of the bridge in the centre helps to dissipate the sounds.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking across towards Passy from the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes
As well as recording the sounds of the traffic and the Métro crossing the bridge, both of which are clearly characteristic sounds of the bridge, I was eager to see if I could find any sounds that might be unique to the bridge.
On the hunt for any such sounds I walked back and forth across the bridge several times and even went under the bridge but, after much very careful listening, none of the sounds I heard seemed to strike me as being unique to this bridge. After all, this is not the only Parisian bridge to carry a roadway with traffic and a viaduct for the Métro. As part of my Paris Bridges project I published a piece on this blog some time ago about the Pont de Bercy, which although made of stone, is functionally similar to the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
While the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the Métro are characteristic sounds of both these bridges I wanted to see if there was any sound on or around the Pont de Bir-Hakeim that would distinguish it from its upstream cousin.
My experience of hunting for sounds in the urban environment has taught me that patience is a virtue and that if you search hard enough and wait long enough something almost always turns up.
Seeking somewhere to sit down after all the walking I’d done, I ventured down the steps beside the bridge to the Allée des Cygnes, the pathway that runs along the length of the Île aux Cygnes. A bench hove into view and I sat down and pondered where I might go next to search out the sounds I was seeking.
I sat there for almost twenty minutes before I decided that it was time to get up and leave. And then, quite suddenly, I found that I didn’t have to go and search for more sounds after all — instead, the sounds were coming to me!
Emerging from under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim from the upstream side was a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine. Tourist boats ply la Seine all the time and the sound of them passing under the bridges is quite normal and hardly unique – or is it?
Well, the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches passing under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are, believe it or not, unique to this bridge. But why should that be?
The answer is that the route for most of the tourist boats, irrespective of where they start their journey, stretches from the upstream Pont de Sully to the downstream Pont de Bir-Hakeim. Both these bridges are used as turning points for the tourist boats. At the Pont de Sully, the boats travel quite a long way beyond the bridge before turning round whereas at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim they all, save for the Bateaux Mouches, turn round on the upstream side of the bridge without passing under it. The Bateaux Mouches on the other hand does pass under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, but only just, before turning round and passing through it again in the opposite direction.
It is the sounds of this nautical ballet as the Bateaux Mouches turns round almost within its own length just beyond the bridge that I contend are the unique sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
This ballet is played out here in sound and in pictures:
Sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning just beyond the bridge:
Some might argue that the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are not unique to this bridge because the sounds of it turning upstream at the Pont de Sully might be the same, or at least similar. I would counter that by saying that at the Pont de Sully the Bateaux Mouches turns so far beyond the bridge that its sounds cannot be heard or, given a favourable wind, can barely be heard from that bridge. I know that because I’ve been to find out.
In any event, if you listen to the sound piece carefully you will hear towards the end of the piece the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches completing its turn accompanied by the sounds of a Métro train passing over the viaduct on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim. That confluence of sounds doesn’t happen anywhere else in Paris!
And finally, and nothing at all to do with the sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, I was captivated by the lamps suspended from the viaduct on this iconic Parisian bridge.
* Louis Biette also built the Viaduc d’Austerlitz, a metal viaduct that crosses the Seine in a single span.
* Daydé & Pillé also built other bridges in Paris including the Pont de Mirabeau (1896), the Pont Saint-Michel (1890) and the Viaduc du quai de la Rapée (1905). They also built the Grand Palais for the 1900 Universelle Exposition.
THE FIRST OF MAY is a public holiday in France, La Fête du Travail or Labour Day as it’s known in some countries.
Traditionally, the First of May is also the day when Lily of the Valley, or Muguet, is sold everywhere on streets across France as a of the symbol of springtime and of good luck.
Muguet (Lily of the Valley) being distributed in rue de Rivoli
La Fête du Travail is primarily an opportunity to campaign for and to celebrate workers’ rights and in Paris many people take to the streets to make their voices heard.
For me, as a sonic journalist and dedicated collector of the sounds of Paris, the First of May always marks the start of the Parisian marching season. I know that over the next few months I will spend many hours on the streets capturing the sounds of marches, demonstrations and protests covering every shade of political opinion.
In Paris it’s become traditional for the two extremes of political opinion to take to the streets on the First of May. In the morning the right-wing Front National march from the Palais-Royal to Place de l’Opéra and in the afternoon the left-wing Socialists and Trades Unions march from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation. I used to record both of these marches each year but latterly I’ve taken to recording them alternately, the left one year and the right the next.
This year it was the turn of the Front National and so an hour before the march was due to begin I arrived in the Place des Pyramides in front of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, heroine to the far right, and jostled with the seasoned TV and Radio crews and the press photographers to get the best vantage point.
I recorded the march as it approached along the rue de Rivoli and then passed the statue of Jeanne d’Arc and then I followed it to the Place de l’Opéra.
Front National March:
Two things struck me about this year’s march. First, the last time I recorded this Front National march was in 2012 and my impression was that there were more marchers then than there were this year. I have no statistical evidence to base that on but it was just my impression. And second, although this year’s marchers were vociferous, they seemed to me to be a little more subdued than in 2012.
If, like me, you are a seasoned observer of Parisian political marches and demonstrations from whatever part of the political spectrum, you cannot fail to be impressed by the importance that sound plays. I believe that the rhythm and constant repetition of the chants not only gives everyone a voice but it also acts as a means of discipline.
As an outside observer on the street, you can see that the rhythm and repetition of the chanting has an almost hypnotic effect on the marchers – although I doubt that they would probably accept that. In any of these political marches there are leaders who dictate what the chant should be, the pace and the rhythm of the chant and how many times it should be repeated and then there are the followers who do exactly that, follow the leader’s command.
It seems to me that through this constant chanting the marchers not only have a voice but they feel that their voice is being heard.
I am convinced that the power of sound through rhythm and constant repetition is the main reason why marches like this seldom become unruly or descend into mindless violence.
I followed the march to Place de l’Opéra but, unlike in 2012, I didn’t stay to record the speeches. Instead I had a fascinating chat with a French radio reporter who gave me a guided tour of her Nagra ARES C sound recorder before she went off to file her report for the lunchtime news bulletin.