WHEN AN URBAN LANDSCAPE changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice.
In a city like Paris where the soundscape is dominated by a blanket of noise pollution caused by incessant traffic one might assume that a change to the landscape, unless it involves a major re-routing of traffic, is unlikely to make much difference to the soundscape. But to the attentive listener there are examples where a change to the soundscape can change the character of a place just as much as a change to its landscape.
A development in rue Dénoyez in the east of Paris is one such example.
Once a very run down part of the commune of Belleville in the east of Paris, Rue Dénoyez was revived in the second half of the twentieth century with the arrival of artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents turning the street into a constantly changing plein-air art gallery.
The commune of Belleville is particularly sound rich and so I go there frequently to capture different aspects of the multi-cultural soundscape and each time I go I call into rue Dénoyez to watch and listen to the artists at work.
When I went there two years ago, in November 2014, I discovered that under the banner ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – ‘Save rue Dénoyez’, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.
The development proposal called 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.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months, the work was slated to begin in the summer of 2015.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2014
The petition was organised from here in part of the street scheduled for demolition and redevelopment
Any project mired in French bureaucracy is likely to remain there for a very long time, but when I called into rue Dénoyez in July this year I found that, although the work hadn’t yet begun, the artists’ studios and galleries were empty and shuttered and the emergence of ominous looking green barriers seemed a portent of imminent construction, or more appropriately, destruction.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
Fast forward to November this year, last week in fact: now the wrecking ball has done its work and the artists’ studios and galleries have disappeared to be replaced by a slash in the landscape.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2016
Knowing rue Dénoyez as well as I do, I must admit that seeing this new landscape for the first time came as a shock – more of a shock than I’d expected actually – and it took a while for me to absorb the dramatic change of scene.
Of course, this slash in the landscape is only temporary – the gap will be filled by the new housing project, but for me as an archivist of the contemporary soundscapes of Paris the transience of this gap is important because not only does it change the soundscape of the street but it also gives us a hint of what the future soundscape of rue Dénoyez may be.
I decided to capture the soundscape of rue Dénoyez complete with its new, temporary, gap.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the south-east end of rue Dénoyez, the opposite end from the demolition site. The sounds of dry autumn leaves scudding along the road, a young man firing up his motorcycle, footsteps passing, doors opening and closing, children making for the local piscine and neighbours gossiping filled the air in this part of the street much as they had before.
But as I approached the north-western end of the street and the slash in the landscape (8’ 51” into my soundwalk), the soundscape in rue Dénoyez changed noticeably from what it had been two years ago. Instead of the sound of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint and spectators watching and commentating with their cameras clicking, now there was now an eerie quiet broken only by the distant sound of a crow and the rather melancholy sound of a dilapidated washing machine being hauled over the pavé.
To compare the sounds of rue Dénoyez as it was before the demolition with what it is now, listen the last four minutes or so of my recent soundwalk recorded at the demolition site and then listen to the sounds recorded in the same place in 2014:
Sounds in rue Dénoyez 2014:
And the change to the landscape is not yet finished. The building below, until recently a bistro, on the corner of rue Dénoyez and Rue de Belleville is to be redeveloped into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre thus changing both the landscape and the soundscape even further.
I began by saying that when an urban landscape changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice, and this is certainly true of the development in rue Dénoyez. The demolition work in the street is impossible to miss and no doubt everyone has an opinion about it but the change to the accompanying soundscape is subtle and requires both attentive listening and a knowledge of the street as it once was to recognise that there has been a change.
My sonic exploration of places in Paris usually consists of hunting out two types of sounds: the ‘characteristic’ sounds, the everyday sounds that exist in a place but are not necessarily unique to it, and then the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that actually define or help to define a place.
In its prime, rue Dénoyez had its ‘characteristic’ everyday sounds but more importantly it had ‘unique’ sounds – the sounds of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint, which occasionally exploded, and the sounds of spectators watching, commentating and clicking their cameras. These were the sounds that defined the street.
Once the housing development is completed perhaps the everyday sounds of the street will not change all that much – dry autumn leaves will still scud along the road, footsteps will still pass, doors will still open and close, children will still make for the local piscine and neighbours will still gossip in the street, but what about the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that once defined this street?
The local authority say they will leave some space for plein-air art in the street but with the artists’ studios and galleries now demolished it seems the artistic soul of the street together with its once unique soundscape have been lost.
But at least I have the sounds of rue Dénoyez in its heyday safely in my archive – although now in the ‘Vanishing Sounds’ section.