Around and about Paris: Hidden Villages of Paris

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In her internationally acclaimed series Around and About Paris, author Thirza Vallois takes you on numerous walks to the hidden villages of Paris. Following is a visit to a couple of those that lie in eastern Paris. You will find the full story of the area in Around and About Paris/ Volume III, in the chapter on the 20th arrondissement. Spring is a good time to explore the lesser known “villages” of Paris, all of which lie blissfully beyond the tourist track. They come in different shapes and sizes and were often humble working-class or artists’ quarters. Today, when a patch of greenery is viewed as an item of luxury, they are highly coveted by Parisians, and provide a delightful destination for the adventurous among you. Start from Place de la Porte de Bagnolet on the eastern edge of the circular Boulevard Extérieurs, also known as the Boulevards des Maréchaux after the twenty military heroes they commemorate. This is a busy junction dense with traffic, but it is also a pleasant spot of greenery, especially if you look north and ignore the unsightly blocks of flats behind you. On the left-hand side, a charming row of terrace houses, standing on a ridge, their pocket-size gardens lush with bushy vegetation, belies the stereotyped image of all you have been told about the infamous arrondissement. A substantial flight of steps leads you to a compound of 89 houses called “La Campagne à Paris”, one of the rare examples of successful council housing in Paris, where aesthetics and the environment were given careful thought. Although Napoleon III was the first to grasp the importance of environment as a weapon to defuse social discontent, and contributed greatly to the embellishment of Paris by way of gardens and tree-lines avenues, he failed to solve the proletarian housing problem and swept it under the carpet, pushing the poor further and further away from the centre of the city, and out of his sight. But some 50 years later, Paul Strauss took the bull by the horns and set out to prove that the labourer of eastern Paris was not an unbridled murderous brute bent on terrorising his social betters, but an honest citizen – provided he was allotted decent housing. The hill on which the houses were built is actually artificial, for until 1875 this had been the gaping hole of a gypsum quarry, possibly the last one in Paris. Its owner, unable to find a buyer, filled it up with rubble from the newly opened eastern section of the Avenue de la République, Avenue Gambetta, rue Belgrand and rue des Pyrénées. He planted acacia and plane trees to retain the soil of the new hillock and gave it the pretty name of l’Ermitage Gambetta. In 1907 the newly formed philanthropic society “La Campagne à Paris”, a subsidiary of a charity founded to combat tuberculosis, took over the tree-shaded hill and built on it houses. However, work came to a halt with the outbreak of World War I, which delayed the completion of the project until 1926. The official inauguration ceremony on 20 June was honoured with the presence of the Mayor as well as Paul Strauss, Irénée Blanc and Jules Siegfried, the three promoters of this happy initiative who are commemorated in the three street names of this housing estate. Monsieur Sully Lombard, chairman of the society, gave an address in which he said the site was “worthy of being sung of by a Virgil or a Ronsard. It is enough for us,” he went on, “to look at these 89 houses, to contemplate this little village, in the heart of Paris, this village where we feel good, despite some of the inconveniences of the countryside, despite the early morning crowing of the cock, the inordinate barking of the dogs, the nasal sound of phonographs which can be heard from the very first summer evenings. It is enough for us to see this string of houses with their gardens and flowers, to note the considerable progress achieved in France in the field of hygiene and social welfare.” Looking towards the future he continued: “May the whole of France be covered with low-cost houses and we shall have no cause to envy those ancient times when, it is said, simplicity of manner reigned, when neither the unwholesome thirst for pleasure nor greed had yet consumed the hearts of men. Isn’t the family “cottage” a guarantee of health, temperance and morality just as the hovel is a cause of disease, wretchedness and all the shame that comes from lack of willpower?” Their example was not followed and France was not covered with little cottages surrounded by pretty gardens. Instead, from the 1950s on, a new generation of town planners set out to wreck Paris, and indeed France at large, by creating dehumanised urban and suburban ghettos, edgy and ready to explode. But here, as you stroll through these quiet streets, you will be enchanted by the unaffected good taste of the houses, where Art Nouveau and Art Deco have left their subtle mark. After meandering through rues Irénée Blanc, Jules Siegfried and Paul Strauss, walk down the steps towards the Place Chanute and left into rue du Capitaine Ferber to Place Edith Piaf, one of those shaded refreshing spots, somewhat provincial yet so Parisian, graced with one of Sir Richard Wallace’s fountains, one of Paris’s trademarks. There is also a sculpture of Edith Piaf here, but it is stuck to a drab slab of concrete and does justice neither to…
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