IT WAS ORIGINALLY a very ordinary square in Montmartre, a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills but today, Place du Tertre is one of the most visited squares in Paris. Standing in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur the square is filled with cafés, tourists, artists, street performers and buskers.
Place du Tertre dates back to 1635 when it occupied land owned by the Abbaye de Montmartre, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 12th century. It stands on top of a hill, the Butte Montmartre, and it is from its location that the square derives its name; tertre is the French word for hillock.
As its population increased, Montmartre became an independent commune in 1790 and then in 1860, along with a clutch of other surrounding communes, it was absorbed into the City of Paris.
Although Montmartre is a popular tourist magnet today, it wasn’t always so.
The commune was partially destroyed at the end of March, 1814 in the Battle of Paris when the French surrendered to the coalition forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia forcing the Emperor Napoleon to abdicate and to go into exile. During this time Russian Cossack soldiers set up camp on the hill and, so the story goes, it was at N°6 Place du Tertre, in the café La Mère Catherine, that the Cossacks first introduced the term bistro (Russian for ‘quickly’) into the French lexicon.
Montmartre suffered again during the Revolution of 1848 when the insurgents hid in the underground galleries of the gypsum mines and in the Paris Commune of 1870-71 when it became the cradle of the insurrection. During the Paris Commune, the Communards seized all the canons used for the defence of Paris and gathered them on Place du Tertre.
By the end of the 19th century the character of Montmartre was changing. The extraction of gypsum in the many quarries came to an end, new buildings slowly replaced the vineyards and orchards and some of the windmills were transformed into cabarets.
Place du Tertre, around 1900 : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
“In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colourful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.”
A thriving bohemian culture driven by its critique of decadent society attracted artists, intellectuals and writers to Montmartre where they frequented its vibrant halls of entertainment and celebrated them in their paintings, literature, and poems. Vincent van Gough, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were just some of the artists who took up residence in the district.
Montmartre reached its artistic zenith around the time of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 by which time it boasted over forty venues comprising cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theatres, and circuses. But it wasn’t to last. The area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre’s nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere.
Artists though are still to be found in Place du Tertre, some with regular pitches in the square and others, more itinerant, walking around capturing the willing, and sometimes the unsuspecting tourists.
Over the years many artists have migrated to Montmartre but one of the few famous ones to have been born there was Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). Utrillo specialised in painting cityscapes and it was with him in mind that I recorded my soundwalk; my sonic equivalent of an Utrillo cityscape.
Place du Tertre – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk around Place du Tertre captures some of its contemporary atmosphere but, alas, it doesn’t capture the moment on Christmas Eve 1898, when Louis Renault’s first car was driven up the Butte Montmartre to the Place du Tertre, marking the advent of the French automobile industry.
The plaque to mark the arrival of Louis Renault’s first motorcar in Place du Tertre.
Whilst its artists and entertainers might not be quite as illustrious as in the past, Place du Tertre continues to be at the heart of the vibrant community that is Montmartre.
RUE FOYATIER IS not only one of the most visited streets in Paris it’s also one of the most unusual. It was opened in 1867 and named after the sculptor Denis Foyatier (1793–1863).
Rue Foyatier is one of the most visited streets in the city because it’s one of the main thoroughfares leading up la butte Montmartre, the large hill in the 18th arrondissement that gives its name to the surrounding district. It’s unusual because it’s not a conventional street; it is in fact an escalier, a giant staircase.
Images of rue Foyatier, and other staircases leading up la butte Montmartre, have become iconic images of Paris thanks to the work of Brassaï and other great photographers.
Brassaï: Escalier de la butte Montmartre, Paris 18e, c. 1937-1938
At 100 metres long and 12 metres wide, rue Foyatier begins at the foot of the butte Montmartre at rue André Barsacq and ends at the top of the hill at rue Saint-Éluthère in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
Viewed from the bottom of the street the climb up rue Foyatier looks daunting. Those brave enough to tackle it will negotiate 222 stone steps and climb 36 metres in order to reach the top. From my own experience I can attest that the climb is in fact as daunting as it looks!
But for those who can’t face the climb on foot there is an alternative, a funicular railway.
The funicular was opened on 13th July 1900 and was entirely rebuilt in 1935 and again in 1991. Some two million people a year use the funicular to ascend the butte Montmartre. The journey takes a little under two minutes and it costs the price of a Métro ticket.
Much of the sound work I do in Paris is influenced to a large extent by the work of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century Parisian street photographers and so, with Brassaï’s iconic photograph in mind, I set off to capture the sound tapestry of the Escalier de la butte Montmartre.
Rue Foyatier in Sound:
I recorded these sounds from more or less the same position that Brassaï took his picture. In fact, I was positioned to the right of the first lamppost with my microphones close to and facing across the steps towards the funicular and the 2.5 hectare terraced public garden that lies beyond.
Brassaï would have captured his image in a fraction of second but, stretching to a little over twenty-minutes, my exposure time was much longer.
My sound image includes breathless people struggling up the steps and people walking down seemingly much more relaxed, the sounds of the funicular cars being raised and lowered by their taught metal cables and the sounds of the crowds drifting across from the terraced garden at the foot of Sacré-Cœur.
If you listen carefully you will also hear snatches of individual stories unfolding, like the lady who stops to announce that her sock had fallen down, the testosterone-fuelled young man telling his friend that he wants to race up the steps and the breathless young American lady asking her friends if they are, “suckin’ wind yet?”
I have deliberately not included any images of what I could see from my recording position because to do so would miss the point. Just as Brassaï lets his picture capture the atmosphere and tell the story of this place, my recording is intended to do the same by simply letting the sounds speak for themselves and leaving you to create your own images from your imagination.
For those who do negotiate rue Foyatier, either on foot or on the funicular, the reward at the top is certainly worthwhile – a magnificent view of the Parisian skyline.
SUZANNE CURCHOD (1737 – 1794) was a French-Swiss woman of letters and hostess of one of the most celebrated salons of the Ancien Régime. She was also the wife of Jacques Necker, Controller-General of Finances under Louis XVI.
After her husband’s fall from power in 1790, the Neckers left Paris and returned to Switzerland. Suzanne died in 1794 but not before she had founded a hospital in Paris that still bears her name, the Hôpital Necker.
Suzanne Curchod – Madame Necker
The Hôpital des Enfants Malades (hospital for sick children) was created by the Conseil général des Hospices in January 1801 on the site of a former hospice for abandoned children, the Maison Royale de l’Enfant Jesus. The newly formed hospital, believed to be the oldest children’s hospital in the world, opened in June 1802 catering for 149 boys and 92 girls aged from 2 to 14 years old housed in separate wings, each containing 30 to 40 beds.
On 1st January 1927 the Necker hospital for adults and the Hôpital des Enfants Malades were merged to become the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades, the name by which its still known today.
Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malade in Rue de Sèvres in 2015
Hôpital Necker in Rue de Sèvres in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Today, the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades is a university teaching hospital affiliated to the prestigious Université Paris Descartes and it’s part of the public hospital system, the Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris.
The Carré Necker
The hospital has 400 beds for children and 200 beds for adults. It is one of the world’s leading institutions for paediatric medicine and surgery and it’s a referral centre for some rare diseases and particularly complex conditions.
The Carré Necker
Over the years, many eminent physicians and surgeons have worked at the hospital but perhaps none more eminent than the French physician, René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec (1781 – 1826). In 1816, while working at the hospital, Laennec invented the stethoscope and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions.
As well as having a plaque to mark his invention, Laennec has more recently been distinguished by having the new Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec named after him. This 54,000 M2 facility was opened on 10th July 2013 by François Hollande, Président de la République.
Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec
At a total cost of 215.4 million Euros, the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec caters for paediatric surgery, infant resuscitation, accident and emergency, paediatric imaging, cardiology, nephrology, gastroenterology, maternity and neonatology. It has been designed to centralise these paediatric specialities so as increase the efficiency of clinical care and to reduce the time required to get that care to patients. Special emphasis has also been put on the comfort of the patients and the parents with individual rooms designed on a parent-child-carer model.
On my visit to the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades I went into the reception area of the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec to record some of the atmosphere.
Inside the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec:
The reception area is spacious and well-lit with a cafeteria and bookstall, a gift shop, a reading room full of children’s books, a large children’s play area and a quiet room for mothers and children. Entry into the unit is via huge automatic glass doors that open and close with a gentle swish as people pass through. You can hear these swishing sounds in my recording. These sounds must surely be one of the defining sounds of this place although I suspect that those who come here with much more pressing things on their mind will scarcely be aware of them.
A clown entertaining children in the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades in 1945
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I SPEND A LARGE part of my time recording and archiving the sounds of Paris. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between sound and place and the extent to which sounds can define, or at least help to define, a place.
It seems to me that as our city soundscapes become increasingly amorphous and homogenous the distinctive sounds that help to define a place have become less obvious, which I suppose poses the question: do the constituent parts that make up a city sound the same, similar or different – does the centre of the city really sound that much different to its periphery for example, or indeed, does Paris really sound that much different to London, New York or Tokyo?
Of course, I’m not the first to ponder questions like this. Some time ago, Ian Rawes, founder and curator of the acclaimed London Sound Survey, embarked upon a fascinating study based on the question, “What does London really sound like?” In his introduction to the study Ian says:
“One of the goals of the London Sound Survey is to treat sound as a means to an end, that of knowing more about the past and present nature of the city and what it’s like to live here. London is now more ethnically varied than at any time in its history with high population churn and rates of income inequality not seen since the early 20th century.
So, despite the homogenising effects of modernity on how public spaces sound, more insights should arise from examining likely patterns of difference around the city than seeking commonalities.”
Although not yet completed, it will be interesting to see what Ian’s study reveals and to see if his findings might provide some empirically based answer.
In the introduction to his study Ian also quotes the pioneering field recordist Ludwig Koch who said, ‘There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris’. Even though this may be a little fanciful, it’s a quotation I use at every opportunity because I understand what Koch meant by it.
The quotation comes from the introduction to a short programme Ludwig Koch made for the BBC in 1952 featuring some of the sounds of Paris that he had recorded. In 2012, I was invited by Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive and custodian of the Ludwig Koch archive at the British Library, to follow in the footsteps of Ludwig Koch and record the contemporary sounds of Paris from the same places that he had recorded from sixty years before. It was a fascinating experience. It revealed that over the last sixty years some sounds have disappeared altogether and new sounds have emerged, some sounds have changed and others have stayed remarkably the same.
Although I’ve amassed a huge collection of the sounds of the city, my head tells me that I haven’t yet been able to define precisely what Paris really sounds like in the way that Ian hopes to do for London, but my heart agrees with Ludwig Koch, I am sure that there is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.
This was brought home to me the other day when I found myself walking along a street in the east of Paris in the rain.
What does Paris really sound like?
For me, the sound of traffic rolling over rain-soaked pavé is a quintessentially Parisian sound that not only defines this part of this particular street but also goes some way towards defining the city itself.
These sounds seem to have a timeless quality to them and for me at least they provide an elegant continuity with Parisian sounds that would have been familiar to Ludwig Koch.
But are these sounds part of Ludwig Koch’s atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris?
Well for me they are even though I don’t have any empirical evidence to substantiate it. What I know for sure is that I find these sounds enormously powerful and evocative and always inextricably linked to Paris.
RUE CHARLEMAGNE IS a street in the Marais quarter of the 4th arrondissement of Paris. It stretches for 236 metres from rue Saint-Paul to the junction of rue de Fourcy and rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk along rue Charlemagne
Rue Charlemagne – A Soundwalk:
There’s been a street of some sort hereabouts since the middle of the 14th Century and during its lifetime it has had a variety of names. Originally known as rue de Jouy, the street became rue de l’Abbé-de-Jouy, rue de la Fausse-Poterne, rue de la Fausse-Poterne-Saint-Paul, rue de l’Archet-Saint-Paul and rue des Prêtres-Saint-Paul.
The name, rue Charlemagne, dates from 1844 and it comes from the name of the school in the street, the Lycée Charlemagne, which in turn is named after Charlemagne, or Charles I, King of the Franks, who united most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France and Germany.
Rue Charlemagne looking from East to West
The Lycée Charlemagne is a significant feature of the street. It was founded by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1804 although it occupies buildings that are very much older and were once home to the Order of Jesuits.
Main entrance to the Lycée Charlemagne
Today, the Lycée offers two-year courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering science preparing students for entry to the Grandes écoles.
Another significant feature of rue Charlemagne are the longest surviving remains of the Philippe Auguste Wall.
Remains of the Philippe Auguste wall
Before leaving for the Third Crusade, Philip II of France (Philippe Auguste) ordered a stone wall to be built to protect Paris in his absence. The wall was built between 1190 and 1215 and it was 5,100 metres long, between six and eight metres high and enclosed an area of 253 hectares.
These remains of the Philippe Auguste wall stretch from rue Charlemagne along the Jardins Saint-Paul but on the corner with rue Charlemagne are the remains of the Tour Montgomery named after Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, a French nobleman and a captain in King Henry II’s Scots Guards.
Remains of le Tour Montgomery
Montgomery is remembered for mortally wounding King Henry in a jousting accident. For a short time after the accident, Montgomery was imprisoned in what became the Tour Montgomery. From his deathbed Henry absolved Montgomery of any blame, but, finding himself disgraced, Montgomery retreated to his estates in Normandy. There he studied theology and converted to Protestantism, making him an enemy of the state.
Next to the Lycée Charlemagne is the Fontaine Charlemagne, a decorative fountain built against the presbytery wall of the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. On the pediment above the fountain are the Coat of Arms of the City of Paris and the Roman numerals indicating the year 1840, the year the fountain was created.
The fountain itself comprises a niche decorated with aquatic plants and animals and a cast iron basin supported by dolphins with a statue of a child holding a seashell over his head.
At the eastern end of rue Charlemagne is a courtyard with a cluster of art and antique shops.
As I walked along rue Charlemagne recording the sounds around me, I came upon some children playing football in the Jardins Saint-Paul in the shadow of the Philippe-Auguste wall.
As I approached, some of these children spilled over into rue Charlemagne itself just below the Tour Montgomery and from there they seemed to form an unexpected centrepiece to my soundwalk.
Rue Charlemagne looking from East to West
AFTER THE SPECTACULAR sound and light show attended by some 600,000 people in the Champs Élysées the night before, New Year’s Day 2015 saw la plus belle avenue du monde filled with marching bands, colourful floats and circus performers for le défilé du jour de l’An, the New Year’s Day parade.
Organised by the association, Le Monde Festif, under the chairmanship of the celebrated showman, Marcel Campion, the parade consisted of musicians, clowns, jugglers and acrobats from five famous circuses (Pinder, Bouglione, Muller, Phoenix and Romanès), as well as fifteen marching bands from a dozen countries and a fleet of classic cars and decorated floats.
I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Day in the Champs Élysées capturing the sounds and savouring the atmosphere.
Showtime in the Champs Élysées:
WHAT A DIFFERENCE a day makes!
Shortly before 11.00 this morning I arrived in Place Jean-Paul II, the open space in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, to find that it was home to a selection of the world’s media. Radio and TV broadcasters were busy establishing satellite links with their studios and preparing to broadcast ‘live’ to their audiences around the world.
Yet twenty-four hours earlier the media would have been hard pressed to find a story here – any story – let alone a story worth reporting. But then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Shortly before 11.30 yesterday morning, 7th January, two masked gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher stormed the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. They shot and killed twelve people, including eight Charlie Hebdo employees and two police officers, and wounded eleven others.
After the news broke, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims, support for freedom of speech, and defiance against the perpetrators. The symbol for all this became encapsulated by the declaration, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”).
At midday today people in Paris and across France paused for a minute of silence to mourn the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
In declaring today a day of national mourning it was decreed that flags on all public buildings should be flown at half mast and that the bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris should be rung in honour of the victims.
The Bells of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris speaking for the nation:
From the Place Jean-Paul II I listened as the cathedral bells began to peal a minute or two before midday. The rain fell, a crowd gathered and then the sound of the bells faded and the crowd fell silent. The sound of a police siren in the distance reminded us why we were here and brought into stark relief the names of those who were not, those who were murdered at around this time yesterday …
- Frédéric Boisseau, 42, building maintenance worker for Sodexo, killed in the lobby
- Franck Brinsolaro, 49, police officer, was assigned as a bodyguard for Charb
- Cabu (Jean Cabut) 76, cartoonist
- Elsa Cayat, 54, psychoanalyst and columnist
- Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), 47, cartoonist, columnist and editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo
- Philippe Honoré, 74, cartoonist
- Bernard Maris, 68, economist, editor, and columnist
- Ahmed Merabet, 42, police officer, shot in the head as he lay wounded on the ground outside.
- Moustapha Ourad, proofreader
- Michel Renaud, 69, festival organiser, a guest at the meeting
- Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), 57, cartoonist
- Georges Wolinski, 80, cartoonist
After the silence the bells began to peal again and they did so for a further twenty minutes. Despite the heavy rain, practically everyone stayed until the bells had finished after which there was spontaneous applause.
It seemed to me that the silence, surrounded by the sound of the bells and the sound of the rain falling like tears from the sky said everything that needed to be said.
The remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo have announced that publication will continue, with next week’s edition of the newspaper to be released as usual except that, with eight pages, it will be half its usual length – but it will have a print run of one million copies compared to its usual 60,000.
ONE WEEK AGO, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I emerged from the overcrowded retail emporium, La Fnac, into the Avenue des Ternes in the 17th arrondissement. Outside the store I found a brass trio from the Armée du Salut (the Salvation Army) braving the cold to give their rendition of some popular Christmas carols.
I stopped to listen to them and then, after leaving a contribution in their collecting tin, I walked round the corner into one of my favourite Parisian street markets, the Marché Poncelet.
Within a stone’s throw of the Arc de Triomphe, the Marché Poncelet occupies part of the Rue Poncelet and the Rue de Bayen. Around its edges you can find stalls selling flowers, chocolates, clothes, household goods, jewellery, trinkets and souvenirs but at its heart is the fresh food, the fruit, vegetables, seafood, artisan cheese and freshly baked bread that really makes this market so popular and gives it the reputation of being one of the best food markets in Paris.
The sounds of the Marché Poncelet:
As well as the colourful cornucopia of fresh food and other goods on display, the Marché Poncelet also boasts a fascinating soundscape. Like in most markets, the stallholders here are not shy about advertising their wares by shouting to attract the attention of customers but this market is in the centre of Paris and so, unlike many of the markets at the periphery of the city, the language here is exclusively French. Compare for example, the sounds of this market with the sounds of the Marché Barbès I recorded a few weeks ago where French is barely spoken at all.
Exploring how the soundscape of the city changes from the centre to the periphery is one of the things I find endlessly fascinating about exploring the sounds of Paris.
Perhaps it’s just my natural curiosity, but I always find myself looking for ‘connections’ when I visit places in Paris. Of course, connections between sound and place are at the heart of the work I do here but sometimes I stumble across other, often more abstruse, connections. Take for example the connection between the Marché Poncelet and projective geometry …
The Marché Poncelet takes its name from rue Poncelet, which was named after the French engineer and mathematician, Jean-Victor Poncelet (1788-1867).
Poncelet’s most notable mathematical work was in projective geometry, in particular, his work on Feuerbach’s theorem. He also made discoveries about projective harmonic conjugates among which were the poles and polar lines associated with conic sections. These discoveries led to the principle of duality and also aided in the development of complex numbers and projective geometry.
Of course, Poncelet’s mathematics is all gobbledegook to me but maybe the vendor in the picture above is on to something with his clémentines arranged geometrically.
The Marché Poncelet should certainly be on your ‘to-do’ list if you’re in Paris and once there, I recommend that you stop off at Daguerre Marée, which just has to be one of the very best seafood shops in town!
Here are some more sights of the Marché Poncelet:
AFTER COMPLETING A RECORDING assignment in the 7th arrondissement I found myself in rue du Bac heading for the Métro and home.
Stretching for some 1150 metres from the junction of the Quai Voltaire and the Quai Anatole-France alongside the Seine, rue du Bac crosses the busy boulevard Saint-Germain and ends at rue de Sèvres.
I was at the rue de Sèvres end of the street and so I set off to walk to the Métro station Rue du Bac at the junction of the rue du Bac and the boulevard Raspail, a little over half way along the street, recording the sounds around me as I went.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk and the red arrow shows the continuation of rue du Bac to la Seine
Rue du Bac looking north-east towards la Seine
Rue du Bac takes its name from a ferry (a bac in French) established around 1550 on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The ferry crossed the Seine at the site of today’s Pont Royal, a bridge constructed under the reign of Louis XIV to replace the Pont Rouge built in 1632.
The street was created between 1600 and 1610 and originally named grand chemin du Bac, then ruelle du Bac, grande rue du Bac and finally simply, rue du Bac.
I began my walk along rue du Bac at one of Paris’ largest department stores, Le Bon Marché.
Le Bon Marché department store
Now owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838 by the entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicault. By 1869, it had developed into one of the first department stores in the world heralding a retail revolution that lives with us to the present day.
Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk:
A little further on from Le Bon Marché I came upon the Chapel of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation. It is not a religious institute, but an organisation of secular priests and lay people dedicated to missionary work overseas.
Chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangers
And then, across the street, the Square des Missions Étrangers.
Rue du Bac is in a rather chic part of Paris and that is reflected in the boutiques lining this part of the street.
This shop, Pierre Farman at N°122 for example, sells vintage aircraft parts – heaven for an aircraft enthusiast like me!
Founded in 1903 by the Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named after his stepdaughter, Angelina’s has a world-wide reputation for its elegant Salons de Thé and its classiques de la pâtisserie française including its signature Le Mont Blanc comprising meringue, Chantilly légère and vermicelles de crème de marrons.
This pâtisserie in rue du Bac is one of several Angelina’s in Paris and around the world.
A little further on is the Sotheby’s estate agency. I always think that estate agents who display elegant pictures of properties for sale but no prices are best avoided!
And then I came upon …
And finally …
The Métro Station Rue du Bac.
In the earlier part of the day I’d been concentrating on my sound recording assignment so I hadn’t set out to record a soundwalk in this part of rue du Bac but, as it turned out, I’m rather pleased I did. And I think the sounds of a dog barking, a boutique security guard chasing a shoplifter and a church clock striking the hour, all of which I came upon completely by chance, added to the local colour.
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 giggles 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)