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.
AS WELL AS BEING a plein-air gallery of street art, the pavilion at the top of the Parc de Belleville also affords a panoramic view across Paris.
While the Parc de Belleville vies with Montmartre for the distinction of being the highest point in Paris, the Parc de Belleville is unchallenged as the highest park in the city and the view from the top is quite spectacular.
Designed by the architect, François Debulois, and the landscaper, Paul Brichet, the Parc de Belleville covers 45,000 square meters of hillside in the 20th arrondissement stretching from rue Piat in the northeast to rue Julien-Lacroix in the southwest. It was opened to the public in December 1988.
In medieval times the fertile land and natural springs on this hillside were perfect for cultivating grapes and so vineyards appeared. From the fourteenth century onwards, taverns and guinguettes also began to proliferate. Guinguettes were drinking establishments that also served as restaurants and dance halls. Up until the mid nineteenth century Belleville was outside the Paris city limits and was exempt from the tax on alcohol so the taverns and guinguettes offering cheap drink were hugely popular.
In the mid nineteenth century a gypsum quarry was carved out of the hillside and that attracted a population of seasonal workers who worked on Baron Haussmann’s Parisian construction projects during the winter and returned home in the summer to tend their fields. Itinerant workers together with cheap drink didn’t exactly enhance the reputation of the hillside and the area was dubbed ‘insalubrious’.
In the nineteenth century this hillside was also known for the grand party organised each year for Mardi Gras. On the last day of the Mardi Gras celebrations huge crowds came to witness the ‘Descente de la Courtille’, named after the cheap taverns and restaurants that lined the rue de Belleville.
The Open-Air Theatre
Today, the Parc de Belleville has a small museum, the Maison de l’Air, designed to highlight the importance of fresh air and the problems of pollution. There is also a wooden playground for children and an open-air theatre all set against a background of some 1,200 trees and shrubs and 1,000 m² of lawn.
A feature of the Parc de Belleville that makes full use of the sloping hillside is the Fontaine de Belleville. The name is perhaps a little misleading because it’s really a water cascade rather than a traditional fountain. It falls for 100 metres down the hillside making it the longest water feature in Paris.
I went to the Fontaine de Belleville to explore the different sound textures as the water falls from the top of the park to the bottom. Although I’ve been to the Parc de Belleville many times I’ve never managed to be there when the entire water cascade has been working … and this visit was no exception. Some stretches were inexplicably dry and others were subject to construction work but I was nevertheless able to explore most of the cascade.
Sounds of the Fontaine de Belleville:
At the top of the park the cascade begins its descent in two parallel streams separated by a walkway. Each stream falls over two flights of steps into a pool at the bottom. I began recording the sounds at the foot of the pool where excess water was overflowing into a drain. Presently a little girl appeared and, bedecked in her summer dress, she jumped into the pool with a splash. This was obviously fun because she kept on doing it completely oblivious to my microphones.
Moving on, I passed part of the cascade nestling in the pavé and then I came upon more steps where the cascade again splits into two. I stopped to record the water trickling over the steps on one side.
I found these sounds particularly interesting. First, the sonic texture of the water seemed to be gentler and better defined at this point than it was further up the hill. Second, the speed of the water varied which changed the sonic profile. And third, there was a curious sound in the background which sounded a little like the rumble of thunder. On this particularly hot summer’s day I can confirm that it wasn’t thunder but rather the rumble of the water emerging from the previous section of the cascade from a hole at the back of the top step in what seemed like a procession of large bubbles. As each bubble burst the flow of water increased. I found this absolutely fascinating to listen to.
Moving on again, I became aware that this water cascade does not operate entirely thanks to gravity, it requires assistance. At the end of the pavé circle is a pool where the sounds of water compete with the mechanical sounds of the pumping system.
I recorded sounds from the edge of the pool where the sonic texture of the water changed to more of a hiss competing with the sounds of the pumping system and where the sound of occasional birdsong provided a welcome counterpoint.
I ventured down some steps to stand underneath the pool where I found the sounds of the water falling over the edge neatly relegated the sounds of the pumping system back into second place. The pumping system is required not only to assist the flow of water down the hillside but also to pump it back up to the top again. It follows therefore that the mechanical sounds of the pumping system are as much a part of the sound tapestry of the cascade as the sounds of the water itself.
This graffiti covered section of the cascade did not carry water so I could only imagine what it might sound like if it was in full flow.
Below this point a large section of the cascade was being renovated so it too was out of action, which was rather a shame because it’s the part of the cascade that usually attracts most visitors especially on a hot summer’s day. But all was not lost; this section at the bottom of the cascade leading to rue Julien-Lacroix at least was still open.
I found exploring the Fontaine de Belleville and listening carefully to its sounds a fascinating way to spend a morning.
Listening to the little girl splashing in the pool at the top and the children at the bottom doing much the same I was reminded of a line from the poem by Richard Wilbur, A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra;
“Happy in all that ragged, loose collapse of water, its effortless descent and flatteries of spray…”
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)
THE RUE DÉNOYEZ in the east of Paris is about as far removed from the tourist guide, Haussmannian, picture postcard Paris as it’s possible to get.
The Rue Dénoyez is a narrow cobbled street near the bottom of the rue de Belleville. It takes its name from the tavern Dénoyez, a mecca of entertainment in the 1830’s. At the head of rue Dénoyez, where it joins the rue de Bellville, still stands the famous café, Aux Folies, named after an 18th century watering hole in the then rural quarter of Courtille, famous for the annual debauches of the city carnival known as the descent de la Courtille. In the 20th century, Aux Folies was a favourite haunt of both Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
Until fairly recently the rue Dénoyez was in a sad state of decline but today it’s been revitalised. Now it’s home to vivacious street art where spraying graffiti onto the walls is not a crime – it’s actually encouraged, turning the rue Dénoyez into one of the most colourful streets in Paris.
And the street artists go about their work with enthusiasm.
I like Belleville. I find the multi-cultural atmosphere exciting, stimulating and fascinating. And every time I go, I visit rue Dénoyez – and every time it’s completely different. The street art on the walls seems to change by the day.
New artists appear expressing their own talents and creating their own art.
Walking along the rue Dénoyez it’s hard not to be seduced by the visual impact – the shapes, the colours and the artists at work. But for someone wired up like me, there is a listening experience to be had in this street too.
My soundwalk in the rue Dénoyez reveals the sounds of the street artists shaking their aerosol cans.
The sounds of pigeons taking flight in the blink of an eye.
And even the sound of a sewing machine in this tailor’s shop.
All these sounds, and more, are contained in my soundwalk along the rue Dénoyez and, for me at least, they provided a counterpoint to the visual assault on my senses as I walked along the street.
It did occur to me though that a series of loudspeakers along the street would provide a wonderful opportunity to add ‘sonic graffiti’ to complement the ever-changing visual street art.
That sounds like a plan that I shall have to investigate.
I REALLY LIKE BELLEVILLE. It’s in the east of Paris, straddling the 19th and 20th arrondissements but it also incorporates parts of the 10th and 11th as well. Like many of the independent communes surrounding Paris, Belleville was incorporated into the city in 1860.
The French singer and cultural icon, Edith Piaf, emerged from these working class roots. The story is that she was born in the street, in the snow, under a lamp post, outside N° 72 rue de Belleville.
Further down the rue de Belleville is Aux Folies, a former theatre where Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and many others performed regularly.
The Rue de Belleville is the main artery through the commune and it’s home to its fair share of traffic.
Although we accept the sound of traffic as part and parcel of city living it can be irritating and a nuisance, but if we stop and actually listen to the sound of traffic it can often take on a different hue. It’s sometimes possible for traffic and pedestrians to exist in harmony rather than at odds with each other. I recorded these sounds in the Rue de Belleville last Saturday and I think they illustrate the point.
Traffic in the Rue de Belleville:
Today, Belleville has a culturally diverse population and it’s home to one of the city’s two Chinatowns which means that, along with echoes of Edith Piaf and the sound of traffic, there is a rich and diverse tapestry of sounds to be heard.
On Saturday I walked along the Rue de Belleville amidst the Chinese traders selling their wares in the shops and on the street.
I also called into the Chinese supermarket to wonder at the range of Chinese foods and spices most of which I’d never heard of and certainly didn’t recognise.
One of the features of Belleville that I find fascinating is the Chinese men who gather close to Belleville Métro station in the late afternoon. They form in groups to talk and to exchange news and gossip and although I can’t understand a word they say, I find the sounds endlessly fascinating.
As I said, I really like Belleville.
For some time now I have been aware that I have perhaps been spending too much time recording sound in the centre of Paris where the pickings are easier and not enough time further afield. Last Saturday I decided to do something about that.
I took this photograph, which I thought was quite amusing, when I arrived at my target for the day, Belleville, most of which lies in the XIX arrondissement.
There were two reasons for choosing Belleville. First, this is where Edith Piaf, whose singing I adore, was born, allegedly under a lamppost on the steps of N° 72 rue de Belleville, at least that’s what the plaque on the wall of N° 72 says. My second reason for choosing Belleville was for it’s colourful multi-cultural community. Read more