Highs and Lows in Belleville

Ducks in the window
Chinese signs reflected in roasted ducks.

Former Country Playground Now Tasty Ethnic Stew

Paris:- Wednesday, 2. April 1997:- Coming out of the métro at Belleville, the first thing I see is Chinese neon characters on a grocery store. At the top of the stairs, I swing 180 degrees to my left and see the Belleville intersection. There are no utility poles and wires in the sky; except for the fast-food place on the opposite corner, it looks like Shanghai.

Well it does and it doesn't. The taxis have Mercedes motors, not pedals. There's not that many bicycles. The people are not all Chinese - Indochinese - some are African, from both sides of the Sahara.

This is Belleville, at the corner of the 19th, 20th, 10th and 11th arrondissements. This is Paris' 'number-two-son' Chinatown; the 'number-one-son' Chinatown is in the south 13th, on the other side of the Seine.

The afternoon sun is headed towards warm, the air is headed towards unclear; it is getting thick. Up the rue de Belleville, the shady side is thick with signs in Chinese stacked at different heights and sizes. Opposite, there is a characterless concrete building, probably city flats above city services. The 'Haute'-Courtille Beyond the new, up the hill, there are more oriental businesses, in older buildings.

Every kind of oriental restaurant you want in the rue de Belleville.

Every second place is a restaurant, and three-quarters of them have take-away, with roasted ducks dark brown in the shop windows. Some restaurants are Thai, some Laotian, some don't say exactly, unless you can read Chinese. Wherever they are supposed to remind one of, Chinese writing in neon, invariably says, 'Eat Here, Good Food!' - only quite a bit more poetically. Or maybe they say, 'Dim Sim City.' I've forgotten all the Chinese restaurant names I used to know - except for 'Green Door' and 'Orange Door.'

The supermarkets look like supermarkets with lots of Chinese writing on them. Once on a train to Berlin, I shared a compartment with a student couple who came to Paris to buy groceries. The 18-hour train ride had no food service of any kind, and they shared some of their treasures with me. I learned I liked oriental soft drinks no more than any others.

Between the restaurants, there are some fading small-scale French shops, and some garish 'International' telephone parlors - with rates posted in their windows, for Hanoi, Bangkok and Delhi. They look like game joints.

About two blocks up from the métro exit, there are still signs in Chinese, but there are more western shops. It is not a high-rent district, and the upper floors of buildings are old and have lots of windows with shutters. Down the side streets, the buildings are even less impressive. A worker's district, still.

Aside from the obvious Chinese signs, Belleville is a village, where classes and races are like a stew with very many ingredients in a relatively small pot. After the Greeks, Turks, Antillians, Jews and Arabs, the Asiatics have arrived. The variety is astonishing, but the balance seems to be in equilibrium - the world's bazar of people at the crossroads of the earth.

In the midst of this, two good-old-days French bar-cafés with the rue Dénoyez holding them apart. Behind them, in this old-time street, all was slated for demolition, but with the original plan of destruction has been derailed by a citizen's group.

'Lower' Belleville is the part on the other side of the big intersection, with the 10th arrondissement on the north and the 11th on the south. All Belleville, divided by the wall of the Fermiers Généraux, was reunited in 1860, although divided into four arrondissements. The administration probably takes place at a round table in the back room of a local restaurant.

The arrival of Russian and Polish Jews was followed in the '50's by Tunisian Jews, North Africans and Yugoslavs, who came to work in the car factories. They in turn were followed by Turks, for the clothing industry; and by the Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and finally by the orientals.

Many working-class French have stayed to work in the many small ateliers and back-alley workshops, and the amount of renovation in this working-class area has not been so thorough as on the other side of the intersection.

A few hundred metres stroll in the rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, gives a pretty good idea of the old village of Belleville, especially The 'Basse'-Courtille with the light the way it is today - one side in complete shadow and the side I take in complete, and warm, sunshine. In the contrast, black water glitters in the gutters as street cleaners open the taps to sluice the litter down the drains. At street corners, I hop small lakes and reflecting rivers.

The slightly quieter-looking rue du Faubourg-du-Temple is teeming in the afternoon shadows.

There are a number of names from another time as well - the Cour de la Grâce de Dieu, inside has not the expected slum, but old, repainted and tidy. Disappointing: Le Java, an ex- bal musette, shuttered and un-renovated.

Given the numerous origins of the inhabitants, these are lively neighborhoods, reminiscent of Eastern Europe or near Asia. As far as I know, no tour buses have Belleville on their itineraries, but a métro ticket will get you here just as well as anyplace else in Paris.

Pre-Industrial - It Was Fun While It Lasted

After France had somewhat recovered from the excesses of being an Empire, the expansion of the population of Paris put constant pressure on those living within the city's walls - and this pressure often caused the walls to be extended ever outwards.

Courtille, now Belleville, was beyond the wall, then it was cut in two by a new wall; finally it was annexed to the city. But as long as it was on the outskirts, it was a popular destination for having picnics and parties, or simply, fêtes.

What I have been loosely calling 'Upper' or 'Lower' Belleville were called Haute-Courtille and Basse-Courtille in the last century. 'Courti' is an old word from Picardy, signifying a place where ordinary people could have fêtes outside, as in a beer-garden. The 'Haute' part was mainly guinguettes, or country-style bar- restaurant-dancehalls where citizens from the city enjoyed themselves on weekends.

The lower part of the Haute-Courtille, about where I've been walking after leaving the métro, was a area of solid buildings - mainly devoted to the same purposes. At the end of mardi-gras, these places did their best business, with wine 'flowing in rivers.' In 1830 they said, "To see Paris during the 'Courtille,' it is like seeing Rome without the Pope."

On ash-Wednesday morning, as many as a 1,000 carriages filled with overnight revelers would descend from the Courtille and parade, throwing eggs, flour; to the Grands Boulevards, while tens of thousands lined the streets.

One of these revelers, popularly named 'Mylord Arsouille,' led the 'descente de la Courtille' four times with a vast equipage; the last being in 1838 just before he was bankrupted. One of the starting points, from 1830, was Dénoyez' tavern, to which was added the public dancehall, the Folie-Dénoyez. There is a bar with a name Les Halles de l'Asie like this at the corner of the present rue Denoyez and rue de Belleville.

Modern grocery across
rue de Belleville from
old location of the 'Folie-Dénoyez.'

Much of the same atmosphere reigned in Basse-Courtille, or Courtille du Temple as it was also known. There were many cabarets which were very popular, from the beginning of the Recency period and onward.

It was the popularity of these - the cabarets and the bals, folies, and the country-style ginguettes - that led to the Haussmannian frenzy of parks-building, such as in this case, at the nearby Buttes-Chaumont. The little people were having too much of a good time, and the parks were meant as a socially constructive and healthy alternative - to sitting around eating and drinking, doing a little dancing, in a popular garden atmosphere.

Every place in south Germany that has a beer tap and a smidgen of park, has a beer garden, even today. Although there are still some guinguettes out along the Marne - far enough out, I suppose - modern Parisians have to make do with the good Baron's sanitary parks, and modern amusement parks, or stay home and watch Forumula One racing on TV.

Before I start sobbing about the 'good old days,' I better sniff out some of these, not illegal, still existent, places of horrible pleasure - Paris' equivalent of the beer-garden, the Courtille, in short. I better do it before summer.

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