ALTHOUGH PERHAPS NOT quite yet an obsession, searching for quiet in the busy, traffic strewn city of Paris has become a major preoccupation for me, even though it is a Sisyphean task since quiet is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.
Just to be clear, for me quiet isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive, often unwelcome sounds, are allowed to speak and tell their own story.
Aggressive and unwelcome sounds can be found in abundance at any of the major road intersections in Paris, intersections like Place de la Bastille for example, which straddles the 4th, 11th and 12th arrondissements. Seven roads converge here, each spewing a toxic ribbon of traffic around the 1830 July Column.
One might be forgiven for thinking that amidst the cacophonous noise pollution around Place de la Bastille quiet might be elusive, but it can be found if one searches diligently.
One of the streets leading from Place de la Bastille is Rue de la Roquette, a seventeenth century street once home to the French poet Paul Verlaine, the dramatist Michel-Jean Sedaine, the historian Jules Michelet and, for a time in the 1980s, the celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay. At N°2 Rue de la Roquette is a seventeenth century archway leading into the Passage du Cheval Blanc.
Once home to timber warehouses supplying the cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers close by, today the Passage du Cheval Blanc comprises a labyrinth of individual passageways and courtyards housing small businesses from the Maison Lucien Gau, specialising in the creation, conservation and restoration of lighting and bronze art objects, to architects’ offices and design studios as well as the studios of the radio station Oui FM.
Maison Lucien Gau
Walking from Place de la Bastille through the seventeenth century archway into the Passage du Cheval Blanc the atmosphere changes: the cacophony of Place de la Bastille gradually fades giving way to the indigenous sounds of the passage itself and a calming quietness.
Sounds inside the Passage du Cheval Blanc:
A distinguishing feature of the Passage du Cheval Blanc is that each of the interior passageways is named after a month of the year from January to June.
April – It’s not actually a passageway but a staircase
The sound piece above is my soundwalk from January to June and back to January again.
I have long held the view that constant, aggressive and unwelcome sounds are just as polluting and damaging to our health as the other sources that pollute our atmosphere with a plethora of toxic emissions. Walking through the Passage du Cheval Blanc, I couldn’t help thinking about how the mainly young, creative people who work here must profit from the absence of aggressive, unwelcome sounds.
TRAWLING THROUGH MY Twitter feed the other day I came upon this photograph by Eugène Atget made in 1898 entitled ‘La Place Saint-Médard’.
La Place Saint-Médard by Eugène Atget 1898
The original photograph is an 18.1 x 21.9 cm albumen print created from a finely divided silver and gold image dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Albumen prints were the most common photographic printing process from 1855 until around the turn of the nineteenth century.
This Atget image chimes with me because I know this area of Paris particularly well, but when I saw the photograph I was struck by two things: First, the title, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’, and second, what did this place sound like in 1898?
The title of the photograph, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ is curious because that name does not exist in this spot today and, so far as I know, it never has. I can quite see why Eugène Atget might have thought that the space he photographed bore that name: It is at the foot of rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris dating back to Roman times and it is adjacent to the Eglise Saint-Médard whose origins date back to the 7th century. The space that Atget photographed does have the attributes of a typical Parisian ‘Place’ but as far as I can establish it is, and in Atget’s time was, part of rue Mouffetard.
Eugène Atget’s ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ on December 24th 2016
So what did Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ sound like in 1898?
Thanks to his large-format wooden bellows camera, rapid rectilinear lens and glass plates we know what Atget saw as he stood in this place but we have no record of what he actually heard.
And that’s not surprising because for most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound, which means that almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
We could create a late nineteenth century soundscape of this place from our imagination of course and we might not be too wide of the mark, but we cannot create the actual sounds in that place on that day.
I admire enormously Eugène Atget’s painstaking documentation of a nineteenth-century Paris undergoing great change and I consider it a great privilege to follow in his footsteps documenting contemporary Paris in sound.
Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ – Recorded on December 24th 2016:
A Christmas Eve queue for the boulangerie close to Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’
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.
ORIGINALLY A FOCUS for celebrations in Belleville before that commune was consumed into the City of Paris in 1863, today’s Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement stands in the midst of the experiment that was 1970s urbanism.
Surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, the Place des Fêtes is a large pedestrianised space, 200 metres long and 150 meters wide, occupied for three mornings a week by a popular outdoor market. At its centre is an obelisk created by the Hungarian artist, Zoltán Zsakó.
The obelisk stands on a granite base and is made mostly from translucent glass with bass reliefs surrounding the graffiti encrusted lower portion.
Although I have no idea what the artistic intent behind the obelisk is, it does have a practical purpose. It covers the emergency exit from the underground car park beneath the Place des Fêtes.
Another artistic feature of the Place des Fêtes is la fontaine-labyrinthe, the fountain-maze, created by another Hungarian artist, Marta Pan.
La fontaine-labyrinthe is one of the fountains to emerge from the 1978 competition to create seven contemporary fountains in different squares in Paris. Another winner of that competition was La Fontaine Stravinsky in the centre of the city featured in this blog one year ago.
Sounds in Place des Fêtes:
The sounds I recorded in the Place des Fêtes on a hot August afternoon included the sounds of energetic youths skateboarding and young children enjoying the final days of summer before returning to school on 1st September.
Relief from the 1970s concrete jungle can be found on the western edge of the Place des Fêtes in the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, a garden designed by the ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Jean-Charles Alphand, who worked for Baron Haussmann and his renovation of Paris in the late 19th century.
The garden was opened in 1863 and redeveloped, along with the rest of the Place des Fêtes, in the 1970s.
Today, the garden honours the memory of Monseigneur Fernand Maillet (1896 – 1963), a parish priest born close by who, in 1924, took over the direction of the renowned boy’s choir, la manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de bois. In 1963 he founded la Fédération internationale des Pueri Cantores, an international association bringing together twenty-seven national choral associations on five continents.
It seems entirely appropriate that the centrepiece of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the kiosque à Musique, or bandstand, reflects the musical association with Monseigneur Maillet.
At the eastern end of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet is a reminder of the garden in Alphand’s time, a nineteenth-century Wallace fountain.
This is not the classic large model fountain resting on an octagonal pedestal on which four caryatids are affixed with their backs turned and their arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. This is the small model version, a simple pushbutton fountain that one can find in squares and public gardens across Paris and on a hot, late August day it was a fountain much in demand.
THE SQUARE DANIELLE MITTERAND, formerly the Jardin de la rue de Bièvre, is a small green space at N° 20 rue de Bièvre in the 5th arrondissement.
The Jardin de la rue de la Bièvre was created in 1978 but on 8th March 2013, International Women’s Day, it was renamed Square Danielle Mitterand.
Danielle Émilienne Isabelle Gouze was born in October 1924 at Verdun in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France. During the Second World War she was a liaison officer in the French Resistance where she met François Mitterrand. They were married three months after the Liberation, on 28th October 1944. François Mitterand went on to become President of France from 1981 to 1995.
The Square was named after Danielle Mitterand in recognition of her work in the Resistance movement and her subsequent work for human rights.
In 1986 she founded the Fondation Danielle Mitterand – Frances Libertés, an organisation dedicated to building a fairer and more socially-responsible world by defending human rights and protecting shared assets, specifically by promoting the right to water access for all and ensuring that people’s right to utilise their resources is recognised and respected.
The foundation’s work has three component parts: support for projects run by communities at grassroots level, citizen, civil society and political decision-maker awareness raising work, and finally advocacy work with the public authorities and in the United Nations. The Foundation has consultative status on the UN Economic and Social Council.
Over the years, the Foundation has participated in many issues including the right to free potable water for all, the fight against racism, support for the Tibetan people and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It has also worked for the reconstruction of the educational and social system in Cambodia and on issues surrounding health security in Africa.
The location of the Square Danielle Mitterand is appropriate since it’s just two doors away from N° 22 rue de Bièvre, the private residence of François and Danielle Mitterand from 1972 to 1995.
Although Danielle lived at N° 22 during that time, François commuted between there and rue Jacob in nearby Saint-Germain and the home he shared with his long-time mistress, Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine.
The Mitterand ménage was undoubtedly complicated but nevertheless seemed to work remarkably well. In 1958 Danielle acquired a long-term lover of her own, a gym teacher who sometimes fetched the morning croissants and then sat down to a friendly breakfast with François.
All this was widely known in Parisian society but a compliant and complacent French press kept it under wraps until the end of Mitterrand’s presidency in 1995.
Both Danielle Mitterand and Anne Pingeot attended Françcois Mitterand’s funeral in 1996.
Danielle Mitterand died in Paris on 22nd November 2011, aged 87.
Sounds in the Square Danielle Mitterand:
The Square Danielle Mitterand is not the most elegant square in Paris but I like it. Sitting at the back of the Square on an August afternoon I was content simply to listen to life passing by in the Square and in rue de Bièvre.
Rue de Bièvre
I LAST FEATURED rue Dénoyez, the plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement, in this blog in November 2014. At that time, 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.
‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – November 2014
The other day, I went back to rue Dénoyez to see what has happened since I was last there.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
The development 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.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months it seems the project is still going ahead.
Although the demolition work was due to have been completed by April this year I found that little seems to have happened so far except that the occupants have left and the buildings stand hauntingly empty.
Undaunted though, I found one street artist still leaving his mark.
A soundwalk in rue Dénoyez:
At the end of my soundwalk I came upon a man who had lived in rue Dénoyez in the early 1970s and he reflected upon life here in those days.
If all goes to plan, work on the new development will be completed in the spring of 2018.
While new social housing is to be welcomed one can’t help feeling that some of the character of this unique street will be lost in the process. As the man who spoke to me said, “il faut que ça change”.
You can see the presentation prepared by the local authority about the new development here.
NAMED AFTER THE French socialist, journalist, songwriter and communard, Place Jean-Baptiste Clément sits atop the Butte de Montmartre between Rue Norvins and Rue Lepic.
To the passing tourists perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément is an unnamed octagonal structure hidden behind iron railings.
This structure is now home to la Commanderie du Clos Montmartre, an association bringing together wine lovers of Paris, but in the 19th century it was essential to the survival of the inhabitants hereabouts. It is in fact the remains of la fontaine du Château d’eau de Montmartre, the first water tower in Montmartre.
Montmartre sits on top of a hill and because of its altitude and topography getting water up to the 19th century village was a major problem. To alleviate this the water tower, powered by a hydraulic pump installed on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Ouen, was built in 1835. The water tower was abandoned at the end of the 19th century and replaced by reservoirs built close to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
While the water tower and its history is interesting there is, for me at least, another distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément – the delightful pavé surface of the pavements and the road.
I spent most of a Saturday afternoon recently sitting on a Parisian green bench beside the bus stop in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément listening to the captivating sounds of people walking past over the pavé.
Sounds in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément:
Of course, not everyone thinks that pavé is captivating; it can be uncomfortable for pedestrians and particularly cyclists, some argue that traffic passing over it causes too much noise and it has been known for the pavé to be ripped up to form barricades, something Jean-Baptiste Clément would have been very familiar with.
But on the plus side, the pavé does have at least one environmental benefit, especially in an area like Montmartre. It forms a water-permeable surface that helps to prevent the clogging of sewers and flooding during periods of heavy rain.
And as for the noise …
As a professional listener to Paris, I have long thought that the sound of pedestrians and traffic passing over the pavé is as much part of the fabric of the Parisian landscape as the bricks in the walls. Far from being ‘noise’, these sounds are, to my ear at least, some of the defining sounds of the city.
SET IN THE HEART of medieval Paris, rue Maître Albert began life as an unnamed pathway leading from the Seine to the present day place Maubert. In 1300, the plans of Paris show the street with the curious name, rue Perdue – the lost street – and unfortunately, the reason why it acquired that name seems also to have been lost. In the 17th century it became rue Saint-Michel – it was named after a college of the same name – but in 1763 it reverted back to rue Perdue before becoming rue Maître Albert in 1844.
Rue Maître Albert is named after one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the 13th century variously known as Albrecht von Bollstadt, Albert of Cologne, Albertus Magnus, Albert le Grand and since 1931, Saint Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Christian Scholars.
Born around the year 1200, Albert studied at the University of Padua and later taught at Hildesheim, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Regensburg, and Strasbourg. He then taught at the University of Paris, where he received his doctorate in 1245. He was a philosopher and a natural scientist, gaining a reputation for expertise in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, metaphysics, and mathematics as well as in biblical studies and theology. Perhaps the most famous of his disciples was Saint Thomas Aquinas. Maître Albert died in Cologne in 1280.
Whether or not Maître Albert actually lived in the street that bears his name is unclear, although he may well have done because we know that he did much of his teaching in the neighbouring place Maubert.
Some say that the name Maubert is a contraction of Maître Albert but an alternative view is that Maubert is a corruption of Jean Aubert, abbot of the Abbeye de Sainte-Genevieve, which owned the land on which la place Maubert stood.
What is known for certain is that from the 15th century place Maubert was a place of execution with one of its most notable victims being the French scholar, translator and printer, Etienne Dolet who was tortured, hanged and burned in the square with his books in August 1546.
Today, rue Maître Albert still runs from the Seine to la place Maubert and it still has a medieval feel to it – save for the modern day traffic of course that often uses it as a short cut from the quai de la Tournelle to place Maubert.
Seine flood. Neighbourhood of the Place Maubert (Rue Maître Albert). View northward. Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1910. Photograph by Albert Harlingue (1879-1963). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Auteur © Albert Harlingue / BHVP / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy Paris en Images
I went to explore rue Maître Albert and to capture its atmosphere in sound. Instead of doing a conventional soundwalk along the street I decided to take the contre-flâneur approach and let the street walk past me. I sat on a stone windowsill across the street from the atelier of Philippe Vergain, Ebéniste d’Art, and waited for the street to speak to me.
Sounds of rue Maître Albert:
Close to me on my side of the street was a gallery with a window display that had faint echoes of Maître Albert, the natural scientist.
Listening to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world and listening to the sounds of relatively quiet Parisian streets always stimulates my imagination. What stories lie behind the sounds of the people walking past going about their daily lives, the snatches of half-heard conversations, the doors opening and closing as people pass in and out of buildings? What did this street sound like in medieval times when Maitre Albert was teaching hereabouts, what did it sound like in the 16th century when Protestant printers were being executed at the head of the street in place Maubert or during the great flood of 1910? Only our imagination can provide the answer.
AVENUE DE CHOISY and the neighbouring Avenue d’Ivry in the 13th arrondissement are the main thoroughfares through the largest ‘Chinatown’ in Paris, although the area is perhaps better described as a quartier asiatique because as well as the Chinese, there are also Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians living in the area.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Avenue de Choisy recording the sounds of the colourful Chinese New Year parade as it processed around the neighbourhood but, spectacular as these sounds are, they’re reserved for the Chinese festive season and don’t really reflect everyday life in the area. I wanted to go back and explore the Avenue de Choisy and record a soundwalk capturing the ordinary sounds of ordinary people going about their everyday lives.
Start of Avenue de Choisy (leading off to the left) at its junction with Boulevard Masséna
A soundwalk is most commonly described as an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, but I think sound walking can be much more than that. Soundwalking is my way of observing and exploring the world around me.
Sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, either metaphorically or in reality, all sounds have a context. So for a sound hunter like me, while listening attentively to the sounds around me is important and a great joy, listening to sounds and exploring their social, cultural and historical context never fails to take me on a fascinating voyage of discovery.
My soundwalk along the Avenue de Choisy is a good example of using a soundwalk not only to listen to and record the contemporary urban soundscape but also to explore and learn things I didn’t know before.
The arrow indicates my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy from Boulevard Masséna in the south to Place d’Italie in the north
The Avenue de Choisy stretches for 1.3 km form Boulevard Masséna in the south to Boulevard Vincent-Auriol and Place d’Italie in the north. Allowing for diversions inspired by my curiosity, it took me almost two hours to complete my soundwalk along the avenue. I’ve edited the soundwalk down to a more manageable length for this blog.
Avenue de Choisy – A Soundwalk:
The Avenue de Choisy began life as part of the Roman road leading from Lutèce (the Roman name for Paris) to Lyon. Later it became the chemin de Vitry and then, in 1672, it acquired the name ‘Choisy’ because it led to the then hamlet of Choisy-le-Roi.
Choisy-le-Roi became significant when a certain Mademoiselle de Montpensier had a château built there, which she bequeathed to the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.
Mademoiselle de Montpensier was in fact Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693), known as La Grande Mademoiselle, the wealthiest unmarried Princess in Europe.
Château de Choisy at the time of la Grande Mademoiselle
The château became a royal residence becoming for a time an intimate refuge for Louis XV and his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour. During the French revolution the château was confiscated, its contents sold at auction and its grounds divided into individual lots and sold. The buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished bit by bit during the nineteenth century.
I began my soundwalk at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, some 10 km north of today’s Choisy-le-Roi.
From here, despite the conspicuous McDonald’s, the Asian character of the street was immediately obvious not only from the sounds but also from the cluster of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and shops and the group of Chinese women selling exotic food from upturned cardboard boxes in the street. The women didn’t want to be photographed but they’re the ones near the McDonald’s behind the lady with the buggy.
But before reaching the McDonald’s, at N°3 Avenue de Choisy I came upon something that hinted at life in this street before the 1970s wave of immigration brought the Asian influence here.
On the wall leading down to an underground car park I found a mosaic of an early motor car designed and built by the French automobile manufacturer, Panhard & Levassor. But what’s it doing here?
Across the street from the mosaic are a cluster of apartment tower blocks, a shopping centre and an underground car park. These are part of the legacy of the late 1960s and early 1970s Italie XIII project, a vast urban scheme to fundamentally transform some neighbourhoods in the 13th arrondissement. Although never completed, perhaps the best known legacy of the Italie XIII project are Les Olympiads close to Avenue d’Ivry and this complex at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, L’ensemble Masséna.
Both were built on the principle of vertical zoning. The ground level is a functional level dedicated mostly to car parking and delivery bays built under an esplanade and consequently more or less invisible. The next level, the esplanade, is dedicated to pedestrians, shops and the main entrances to the tower blocks, while the final level comprises the apartments themselves rising to some 104 metres (341 feet).
And the connection with the mosaic on the wall …?
Well, L’ensemble Masséna is actually built on the site of the former Panhard & Levassor automobile plant so I couldn’t resist diverting off the Avenue de Choisy and walking through the tower blocks to see if I could find any trace it.
I found nothing, at least until I’d walked the full length of the complex and emerged into Avenue d’Ivry, whereupon to my great delight I discovered the birthplace of the Panhard & Levassor company still standing.
The original Panhard & Levassor automobile factory opened in 1891
René Panhard and Émile Levassor founded their company in 1887 and sold their first automobile in 1890, based on a Daimler engine licence. In 1891, they built their first model to their own design, a ‘state of the art’ Systeme Panhard consisting of four wheels, a front-mounted engine with rear wheel drive, and a crude sliding-gear transmission that would remain the standard until Cadillac introduced synchromesh in 1928. A front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive was to become the standard layout for automobiles for most of the next century. The same year, Panhard and Levassor shared their Daimler engine licence with bicycle maker Armand Peugeot, who formed his own car company.
An 1895 example of the Systeme Panhard
Over the years, Panhard & Levassor grew as they developed a strong brand and a core of loyal customers but it wasn’t to last. Faced with falling sales and the need to raise cash, the company was sold progressively to Citroën who took full control in 1965 and in 1967 the marque was retired.
Returning to Avenue de Choisy to continue my soundwalk, at N°15 I came upon the Europasie grocery store and I couldn’t resist going in to capture the sounds.
Leaving the grocery store I walked further on to N°27 where I found another reminder of the former industrialisation of this area, l’Église Saint-Hippolyte.
Built between 1909 and 1924 by the architect Jules Astruc, this church was built on land donated by Hippolyte Panhard, only son of René Panhard, co-founder of Panhard & Levassor. Hippolyte Panhard (1870-1957) was a Director and then Chairman of Panhard & Levassor until 1941 and the church was named in his honour after Hippolyte, his patron saint.
The church does perhaps seem a little incongruous now – a neo-Gothic edifice standing in the middle of ‘Chinatown’ – but it’s very peaceful inside and well worth a visit. And of course, I went in and recorded the atmosphere.
And in the shadow of l’Église Saint-Hippolyte is another, much more recent church, Notre-Dame de Chine, dedicated in 2005 by Archbishop André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris.
Having stopped to look at these two churches I moved on and came upon a surprise.
Looking through some railings I was able to look down on a surviving part of the Petite Ceinture, the Little Belt railway that circled Paris from 1852 until it was abandoned in 1934. La Petite Ceinture never fails to surprise; a couple of weeks ago I found another stretch of it in the 20th arrondissement that I didn’t know was there either.
Across the street at N° 34 is the Fung Shun restaurant, one of many Asian restaurants along Avenue de Choisy, but this one is a little different. It used to be a boulangerie, a bakery with an interior designed by the decorators Benoist et Fils and Albert Raybaud. Benoist et Fils were experts in decoration fixed under glass and their work was carried out for three generations between 1860 and 1935. The storefront and the interior decoration were listed as a monument historique in 1984.
At N° 81 Avenue de Choisy is the Lycée Gabriel Fauré, a high school. Once again, this is a reminder of the area’s industrial past because from 1860 until 1940 this was part of the site of the Chocolaterie Lombart, the Lombart chocolate factory.
Lycée Gabriel Fauré formerly the Chocolaterie Lombart
The Lombart chocolate company, the first chocolate company in France, was founded in 1760 with a shop at 11 boulevard des Italiens.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chocolaterie Lombart was known as the largest factory in Paris employing some 500 workers. When it closed the site became part of the Panhard & Levassor empire and eventually the Lycée Gabriel Fauré. In 1957, the company was acquired by the Menier chocolate company.
The next stop on my soundwalk was at Kawa, le temple de la vaisselle asiatique, at N° 97. This temple of Asian dishes caters mainly for the catering trade but is open to anyone. If you’ve been to a Parisian Chinese restaurant and admired the plates, the bowls, the dishes or the soup spoons then they probably came from here.
Inside, I was intrigued by a lady seeking help from the proprietor about a very specific purchase but since the conversation was entirely in Chinese I have no idea what she was searching for.
Crossing Rue de Tolbiac, I continued along Avenue de Choisy to the north and the Parc de Choisy. Although looking a bit bare at this time of the year this park is a delight in the spring and summertime.
Designed by the architect Édouard Crevel (1880-1969), chief architect of the City of Paris, the 43 000 m² Parc de Choisy was built in 1937. Like other Paris parks of the 1930s, most of the park was built as a modern version of the French formal garden of the 18th century, rather than the picturesque style of the parks of the Second Empire and the Third Republic.
Édouard Crevel also designed the neighbouring red-brick Fondation George Eastman, a dental institute set up to monitor the dental hygiene of children. It was funded by the US industrialist George Eastman, inventor of photographic film and founder of Kodak, who suffered all his life from violent toothache.
The Parc de Choisy also has an industrial connection. From 1836 to 1937 a huge gasworks belonging to the Compagnie parisienne du gaz stood here.
A short walk from the Parc de Choisy brought me to the Tang Frères supermarket.
Tang Frères (Tang Brothers) is an Asian supermarket chain based in Paris and it’s reputed to be the biggest Asian supermarket chain west of China. They have several retail outlets throughout the city and its immediate suburbs, as well as an outlet in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, from where the company’s founding brothers originate.
“Old courtyard, 178 avenue de Choisy”, Paris (XIIIth arrondissement), 1913. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.
Image courtesy: Paris en Images
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Avenue de Choisy was a rural area outside the Paris city walls. In 1860, along with other surrounding suburbs, it was incorporated into the city and a process of industrialisation and urbanisation began. The Panhard & Levassor automobile plant, the Lombart chocolate factory and the gasworks became the major employers.
Housing conditions though were poor; there were slums and pockets of abject poverty. Many workers’ homes were poorly constructed and were greatly inferior to those of other Parisians.
By the 1960s, things were changing. Industry in the area was in decline, the major employers were closing their factories and a wave of immigration was about to begin.
First to arrive were immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa and then in the 1970s, as a result of the war in Vietnam and Laos, and the civil war in Cambodia, refugees, particularly from the Chinese communities in those countries, also arrived. Many of those immigrants and refugees made their way to the 13th arrondissement and the area around Avenue de Choisy.
I mentioned earlier the Italie XIII urban development scheme and its tower block legacy at the southern end of the 13th arrondissement around Avenue de Choisy. This high-rise development was designed to rejuvenate the area by attracting high-flying young Paris executives to live there, which it singularly failed to do. Consequently, the towers stood empty. And since nature abhors a vacuum, the newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees occupied this empty accommodation and consequently saved the Italie XIII scheme from total failure.
Since their arrival in the 1970s, this Southeast Asian community has thrived, prospered and brought a vitality to the neighbourhood.
In conclusion, I want to return to the theme of soundwalking.
I don’t criticise at all those who consider soundwalking to be an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, that’s a perfectly valid explanation of what a soundwalk can be. In fact, I sometimes soundwalk exactly like that, listening attentively to the sounds around me to the exclusion of everything else.
But sometimes I find that listening to the environment can be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Sometimes, listening to the environment, particularly the urban environment, not only paints a picture of the contemporary soundscape but can also summon up echoes of the past.
And it is searching out the association between the contemporary soundscape and the echoes of the past, the social, cultural and historical context of the contemporary sounds, that I find so compelling.
Listening to the environment is my way of observing and exploring the world around me and I hope that my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy has helped you to observe and explore this particular corner of Paris.
“Now, what shall we have for lunch?”
I CAME UPON IT by chance as I was walking alongside l’Eglise Notre Dame De La Croix in Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. At just twenty-five metres long and five metres wide, the Passage d’Eupatoria is easily missed.
Passage d’Eupatoria Passage from rue d’Eupatoria
Opened in 1856 as the Passage de l’Alma, the name was changed on 1st February 1857 to Passage d’Eupatoria because it leads off the adjacent rue d’Eupatoria.
When I saw the street sign at the head of the passage I was curious about the name ‘Eupatoria’.
Had I known more European history of course, I would have known that Eupatoria is a Black Sea port in Crimea. It was briefly occupied in 1854 by British, French and Turkish troops during the Crimean War, when it was the site of the Battle of Eupatoria during which the Ottomans and their allies successfully defeated an assault by the Russians on the port.
It is after this battle that rue d’Eupatoria and subsequently the Passage d’Eupatoria are named.
Bataille d’Eupatoria (1854). Huile sur bois. Musée des beaux-arts, Nantes.
Eupatoria is still a city of regional significance in Crimea (it’s known as Yevpatoria in Crimea), a region which, since March 2014, has been disputed between Ukraine (as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea) and Russia (as the Republic of Crimea).
Passage d’Eupatoria in 1948 © René-Jacques / BHVP / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Originally, the Passage d’Eupatoria was longer than it is today. A subsequent widening of some of the surrounding streets and the replacement of substandard buildings with newer ones resulted in the length of the passage being reduced.
Passage d’Eupatoria looking towards rue d’Eupatoria and L’Eglise Notre Dame De La Croix
Over the years, I’ve collected sounds from many small, inconspicuous looking Parisian streets and so I was keen to explore the sounds here, in the Passage d’Eupatoria. I walked to the wall at the end of the street, set up my microphones pointing towards rue d’Eupatoria, turned on my sound recorder and then walked away to explore the street.
I was expecting to capture little more than the sounds of the breeze rustling through the trees, maybe a little birdsong and undoubtedly the sound of traffic and people passing along rue d’Euparoria at the southern end of the passage.
What I actually captured were sounds that I had not expected.
Sounds in the passage d’Eupatoria:
I had become so absorbed in exploring the writing on the walls of the passage that I had completely failed to notice that a schoolyard ran along the eastern side of the passage. As I began record, children appeared in the yard and their unrestrained voices unexpectedly brought the Passage d’Eupatoria to life.
I don’t know how long the present school has been there but it’s not the first school in these parts.
For many years, the now demolished ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ school was located at N° 3 Passage d’Eupatoria and so, for me, the sound of today’s children playing alongside the street provided an audible link with the past.
L’Eglise Notre Dame De La Croix from Passage d’Eupatoria