I’m a former resident of Belleville, that fascinating, messy eastern Parisian district that many tourists find unnerving and odd when they stumble on it. The reason behind the frequent cognitive dissonance? Noisy, crowded, chaotic, and not always pristine-looking, this incredibly diverse, unpretentious area doesn’t especially correspond to the idyllic (and fictional) image of the city most people continue to hold.
And it’s indeed not for everyone: you admittedly have to be accustomed to quite a bit of urban grit to see through some of the more unpleasant and even disturbing attributes. Open-air prostitution on Boulevard de la Villette remains an unsettling problem, not least since Chinese immigrants in search of a better life are often all but forced into it, seeing no better options. It isn’t unusual to see trash piled on the sides of the road and blowing casually in the wind, especially after the market that takes over Boulevard de Belleville every week.
And many of the buildings stand in frank disrepair, with peeling paint, collapsing foundations, and conditions that look less than healthy or safe for residents. High-rise buildings and decaying “social lodging” from the colonial era house mostly poor immigrants and workers on short-term visas who’ve come to Paris in search of a better life– but their day-to-day quality of life is definitely not on par with most Parisians’.
Still, my beloved former neighborhood is gentrifying, like the rest of traditionally working-class Paris, at breakneck speed. This is evidenced most recently in the opening of an enormous wine bar, health food stores, and vegan restaurants along the Rue de Belleville.
Despite these considerable shifts, I continue to find something grippingly odd and impenetrable about the neighborhood. Just when I think I’ve got it cracked, I’m suddenly struck by a sense that it reserves more mysteries than most places in the capital.
Belleville is a place that often appears to have been left to a weirdly poetic entropy. Unlike more carefully curated and constantly renovated corners of the city, which show their ‘best” facade for the sake of keeping the tourism industry humming, Belleville is remarkably transparent in its showing of historical layers. But if it does so in a visual, superficial sense, through flaking paint, murals superimposed on top of old advertising slogans (see example below), and buildings that look virtually untouched since the early 20th century, it’s harder for visitors to really grasp the history of the place compared to areas designated as “touristy”.
I’ll be offering a separate, far more comprehensive, guide to Belleville once I’m back from summer hiatus in a couple of weeks. For now, I’ll leave you with an image that’s particularly enigmatic, particularly since it stands on Place Frehel, well-known for its slam poetry and street art scene.
This 1993 installation on Rue de Belleville and Place Frehel is from French artist Ben. It reads “Beware of words” or “You have to be wary of words”, depending on how one chooses to translate. Adam Roberts, founder of the excellent site Invisible Paris writes, comparing the Place Frehel to a “missing tooth” in the city landscape,
On one side of this small, unintended cavity, a jumble of tables and chairs form the terrace of the Culture Rapide bar, the leading venue in the city for slam performance poetry. Above, an installation by the artist Ben informs us that “Il faut se méfier des mots.” Words clearly have their importance in this rather unique location, but it is not easy to find the right ones to describe it.
This piece has indeed puzzled me since I first encountered it, and I find that its meaning changes as time yawns on (as all art is wont to do). Most recently, glimpsing it as I traipsed with a friend down Rue de Belleville on a balmy May evening, its warning– to be wary of words– made me think of American politics, and a current President who uses words as crafty yet often surreal weapons– as if their relationship to facts were wholly optional.
I have little doubt that the next time I’m there, it’ll leave yet another impression– much like this other intriguing example of street art, this one high up on Rue de Belleville (on the right as you approach Rue des Pyrenées. To me, it suggests a shadowy, perhaps not entirely benevolent goddess guarding the entirety of the silver-screen cinema era on a scroll.
Getting to Belleville:
Get off at metro Belleville (line 2 or 11; streets to explore include Boulevard de Belleville, Rue Denoyez (famous for its street art and its hip, slovenly cafes); Rue de Belleville and the aforementioned Place Frehel. Alternatively, get off at Metro Pyrenees and descend Rue de Belleville– from here (on a clear day, at least), you can catch a glimpse of the Eiffel; Tower– way, way off on the horizon.
As I said a bit earlier, a more complete guide to the neighborhood is forthcoming. Above all, I recommend you go explore it before it gentrifies beyond recognition– and likely loses many of its refreshingly unedited, mysterious layers as a result.