The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – A Postscript
MY LAST THREE POSTS have covered my recent exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis and its sounds.
In Part 1, I walked along the western side of the canal from its starting point in the Parc de la Villette to the end of the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. In Part 2, I crossed over the Pont MacDonald, left the Paris city limits, and walked along the eastern side of the canal to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, in the commune of Aubervilliers. In Part 3, I left Aubervilliers and continued walking along the eastern side of the canal until I reached the heart of Saint-Denis where I had to cross over to the western side again in order to continue to the end of the canal at L’Écluse de la Briche where the canal discharges into la Seine. As I walked along the canal I stopped from time to time to capture the sights and sounds of the canal and I made several detours to look at and to listen to other things that caught my interest.
I’ve included some of the sights and sounds I captured along the canal in my previous three posts but now I want to add something else I captured, something that I think captures the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
As I passed the penultimate lock on the canal, Lock N°6, L’Écluse Saint-Denis, I discovered that my way was barred because of renovation work to the walls of the quay and so I had to cross over the Passerelle de la Gare to the other side. As I crossed over this footbridge I had no idea that it would be a further hour before I continued my journey along the canal.
My diversion over the Passerelle de la Gare, across the Place de la Gare, then over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis and back again to the western quay
Saint-Denis; Place de la Gare
I crossed the footbridge and entered the Place de la Gare, the concourse outside Saint-Denis railway station, when I came upon something completely unexpected and something that occupied me for the next hour or so.
I found that I was in the midst of an African street market complete with its colourful sights and sounds.
Street Market in the Place de la Gare – Saint-Denis:
The market stretched across the Place de la Gare and over the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis but it’s not an official market, on the contrary, it’s an ad hoc and technically illegal market that appears most days of the week. The police though seem to tolerate it, they patrol the area regularly, always in groups of three, whereupon the vendors hastily pack their goods away and wait until the police leave before they get back to work.
Of course, the police haven’t always been so tolerant and I was reminded of this when I saw a sign attached to lamppost with an alternative name for this space – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961.
October 1961 was a particularly inglorious time for the police as the two memorial plaques I found explain.
Memorial plaque in the Place de la Gare
Memorial plaque on the Pont de la Gare Saint-Denis
I’ve referred to these events elsewhere in this blog so here I’ll just leave the plaques to tell their own story.
In my walk along the entire length of the Canal Saint-Denis, I photographed many images and recorded many sounds but, for me, it is the sounds of this market that capture the real essence of the Canal Saint-Denis.
At the end of Part 3 of my exploration of the canal I said:
“My walk along the canal made me think not only about my immediate surroundings but also about history; the medieval history of the fertile Plaine Saint-Denis, the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and the more recent de-industrialisation with the urban decline and attempts at renewal that have followed in its wake.”
With a little imagination, I think the contemporary sounds I discovered in the Place de la Gare illustrate some of that history.
At first glance, it might not be obvious how to connect these sounds with a medieval past but markets and their sounds are nothing new to Saint-Denis or to the surrounding area.
The first market hereabouts, la foire de la Saint-Denis, the Fair of Saint-Denis, dates back to the seventh century when an autumn fair was held beginning on October 9th each year, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint-Denis and the date of the annual pilgrimage to his tomb. The fair was held at the Place Panetière and in covered markets, but also in the main cemetery of the Abbeye de Saint-Denis. It lasted for seven-weeks, from October 9th to November 29th, Saint Andrew’s Day, and since it was held well after the harvest and during grape-picking it allowed the abbey to sell its grain and surplus wine produced by its extensive vineyards.
The subsequent arrival of the Vikings interrupted this annual fair but the monks of Saint-Denis revived it again in 1053 with the Lendit Fair. In the early twelfth century, the market was moved to the La Plaine Saint-Denis, halfway between Paris and Saint-Denis, where it began on the second Wednesday in June and lasted until June 23, the eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist. The market returned to the Place Panetière in 1556.
Today, as well as the ad hoc street market in the Place de la Gare, Saint-Denis is well-known for its thriving indoor and street markets clustered around the former Place Panetière, now the Place Victor Hugo.
When it was opened in 1821, the Canal Saint-Denis created a ribbon of water cutting through the edge of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and stretching across the agricultural Plaine Saint-Denis and through medieval Aubervilliers as far as Saint-Denis. In its wake came the railway and a wave of industrialisation. The canal became a major artery feeding the burgeoning industries; it became the lifeblood of the communities along its banks.
Today, save for the stretch along the Quai de la Gironde in the 19th arrondissement, a walk along the Canal Saint-Denis reveals little of the sonic environment that might have existed in the nineteenth century. Of course, barges still pass up and down the canal and trains cross it, there is mechanical activity – trucks take on loads of ready-mix concrete and JCB’s load and off-load construction materials, but there is little of the bustle of human activity that would have characterised the canal during the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The sounds I came upon in the Place de la Gare reminded me that this canal, in its hey-day, would have had a pulse reflecting the heartbeat of the human communities along its banks.
After industrialisation came de-industrialisation along with its bedfellows, increased unemployment, increased poverty, the flight of the wealthiest part of the population and increased immigration.
Issues around immigration seem to make big headlines today but immigration is nothing new along the Canal Saint-Denis. Nineteenth century industrialisation saw waves of immigrants arrive just as de-industrialisation has. The sounds I found in the Place de la Gare seemed to me to reflect the ebb and flow of these populations.
I’ve said that the sounds I happened upon in the Place de la Gare were sounds that for me at least captured the very essence of the Canal Saint-Denis. Out of context they are simply the sounds of yet another street market but in the context that they are the sounds of human activity lying alongside and straddling the Canal Saint-Denis they seem to me to represent a series of footprints stretching from the present day to the distant past.
The essence of the Canal Saint-Denis surely rests with its location, its history and the activity on and around it. The sounds of this ad hoc market in the Place de la Gare with accents from the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere may represent this stretch of the Canal Saint-Denis today but I would argue that they are also a reflection of the medieval markets in the Plaine Saint-Denis which themselves were not attended exclusively by the French.
The modern-day sounds I think also represent a similar heartbeat to that which might have been found alongside the canal at the height of industrialisation – bustling activity against a background of competing accents. The period of de-industrialisation, of course, is to some extent represented by the very people I found in the Place de la Gare.
The one piece of history that is perhaps not represented by these sounds is the retrieval of the dead bodies from the canal in October 1961. Maybe that’s appropriate though because I suspect that they would have been treated with a respectful silence.
Place de la Gare – Place des Victimes du 17 October 1961
In my exploration of the Canal Saint-Denis I recorded many sounds all of which are a faithful record of the canal as it is today. But, for me, none of them conjure up as much of the essence of the canal as the sounds in the Place de la Gare.