Paris' Centre - Funk City

photo: sebasto cheapo clothing

One of the Boulevard de Sébastopol's one-only boutiques.

Sebasto and Saint-Denis

Paris:- Wednesday, 10. January 2001:- All of Paris is pretty compact. It fits within its ring road, which I call the 'Perifreak!' because you either survive on it or freak out. Even Parisians, hardened by free-rules urban road battles, don't like it.

Inside of it, we have this tidy town - one that 25 million visitors thought was worth a couple days of their time last year. The Romans thought so too when they arrived 2000 years ago - in 52 BC - and planted their standards, built their baths and arenas, and more or less invented the centre of the present-day city.

This centre is considered by mapmakers to be the Ile de la Cité, with its zero-kilometre marker in front of the Notre Dame cathedral. A few people live on this island in the Seine, and there are a couple of other sights, some small hotels, two parks, a flower market, some cafés and trinket shops - plus the police prefecture, the major courts and the Hôtel Dieu hospital.

What the island lacks is a lot of supermarkets, department stores, ritzy shops and major museums. Visitors still like it for Notre Dame, the few other sights and the parks and its generally quiet atmosphere - while Parisians may come on Sundays for the flowers, or on other days for the law.

So, for Parisians, with just flowers and courts, the Ile de la Cité is not Paris' centre. This is split in two on either side of the island in the middle of the Seine between the Quarter Latin on the south, or left bank, and the right bank on the north. The Romans didn't like the rightphoto: for parisian cowboys bank much - it was swampy - so they left no Latin name for it and Parisians don't have any special name for it either.

The central food market called Les Halles used to be just north of Châtelet near the river, but it was taken out and stuck somewhere out in the country near Orly airport. This left a big hole which was filled up with a sunken mall, called the Forum des Halles, which also has some modest cultural activities.

Boots, boots, boots for Paris' drugstore cowboys.

To the east, the quaint slums around Beaubourg were erased and the present modern-art cultural factory was erected - creating an east-west commercial-cultural barbell.

Underneath Châtelet and Les Halles, four métro lines join or cross, and two regional express lines cross too. These two link Paris' major airports to Châtelet-Les Halles, and to Disneyland far to the east and Saint-Germain-en-Laye far to the west.

The sum of this is Paris' centre of transport, both underground and public, and above ground, and mainly private. This is not matched across the river on the left bank, so as far as traffic is concerned - the right bank's Châtelet-Les Halles is the centre of town.

Within the area, Paris' main city hall is on the east side, with the BHV department store across from it. It is on the crosstown Rue de Rivoli, and the area's western side is anchored by the Samaritaine department store on the same street.

Despite the completion of the mall at Les Halles and the cultural monster at Beaubourg, and the two department stores that were already in the area, the rest has remained stoutly funky.

Maybe this to too strong, but it seems odd - that where so many people are, there has been so little development to try and exploit this very centre of Paris.

Paris has its ritzy Rue Saint-Honoré, the swank Rue Royal, the western 'Grands Boulevards' - with the eastern half being generally renovated - and the big concentration of a bourgeois shopping heaven on the Boulevard Haussmann, near the Opéra.

photo: cafe afro cuban soul hotAnd a lot of the world-renowned name-brand shops - les boutiques chics - with headquarters on the right bank, have opened outposts on the left bank, to serve masses of the new bourgeois there - somewhat to the disgust of the left bank's intello denizens.

'Cool' is not totally absent from the Rue Saint-Denis, but it is rare.

Meanwhile, the centre of town - the Châtelet-Les Halles area - remains funky despite the considerable mass of mankind that passes through it or into it.

Lately, but after a very long time, you can tell that this has begun to be noticed. Judging by all the re-construction and remodeling taking place on the Rue de Rivoli between the eastern city hall and the western Louvre métro station, some promoters think the area is ripe to take advantage of its central location.

But in between, off Rivoli, from the Seine in the south to beyond Les Halles in the north - a ten-minute walk in any direction - there remains a wonderfully raffish and funky warren of streets dating back to the 8th century - such as the trail which started out as a Roman road to Saint-Denis.

In 861 the Rue Saint-Denis was attached to the Grand-Pont, now the Pont-au-Change. It has had its variety of names until becoming the Grand-chaussée de Monsieur Saint-Denys in 1372. Since it was also the route French kings used to solemnly enter their 'bonne ville' on the way to Notre-Dame, it was a 'voie Royal.'

Today this may be a bit difficult to imagine with its peep shows and other dubious shops. The whole area is filled with a lot of bistros, cafés, jazz joints, fast-food outlets, pizza restaurants, trinket shops and souvenir emporiums, small hotels, wine bars, a few cinemas and a lot of bistros, which are worth mentioning twice because some of them are hold-overs from the market days of Les Halles.

My main point is Paris' centre and its under-development. The best example of this is the Boulevard de Sébastopol, which runsphoto: best chiens chaudes in town right up to the Gare de l'Est and Gare du Nord - and comes in as the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and by extension, from the Porte d'Orléans and the rest of France in the south.

'The best hot dogs in town' leaves scope for competitors in the suburbs.

The Boulevard de Sébastopol was opened from 1855 to 1858 and replaced a rabbit-warren of lesser streets. It was expressly conceived by Baron Haussmann, to reduce a hotbed of possible street-revolutionary activity - rather than provide a nice neighborhood for the newly-rich bourgeois, like so many of his other Paris projects.

Its opening disappeared the Rue de la Savonnerie, the Vieille-Monnaie, the Trois-Maures, the Cour Batave and amputated the Rue des Lombards, Reynie, Aubry-le-Boucher and Ours.

The Boulevard de Sébastopol was inaugurated with considerable pomp on Monday, 5. April 1858 at 14:00 by Napoléon III and the empress, in the presence of Baron Haussmann and Boitelle, the prefect of police.

The imperial cortege approached from the Saint-Denis side of the Chambre des Notaires. A huge curtain masked the beginning of the new boulevard and this was drawn aside as in a theatre, and the Emperor and Empress proceeded to the Gare de l'Est where they were received by the ministers and the city council.

According to the street's short history, this is the only famous thing that ever happened on it. Commercially, its other slight claims to fame was a shop - the Comptoir des Indes - selling ties, handkerchiefs and foulards; plus two other minor department stores and a city hygiene center - all probably disappeared before 1900.

Today, at the important intersection with the Rue de Rivoli, there are several scruffy shops selling cheap luggage. Somehow, the Boulevard de Sébastopol hasn't seemed to have caught on with anybody other than motorists who are heading north - and not stopping to buy luggage.

This may be about to change. At almost the same spot as a long-gone white-goods shop - 'A la Cour Batave' - an outfit called 'easyEverything' is going to open a branch of one of its 'world's largest internet cafés.'

This concept has been dreamed up by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the creator of the budget airline called 'easyJet' and the rental-car outfit called 'easyRentacar.' His cybercafé will have 400 PCs ready to go, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and café will be available around the clock too.

Set to open on Friday, 19. January, already there are groups of eager customers trying to get in to it today. According to the brochure I snag from a closed-door doorman, these large cybercafés are to be opened in 14 other European cities as well as in New York.

There is next to nothing of any interest whatsoever on the Boulevard de Sébastopol. It is unremembered for nothing. As far as I know it is not on any city redevelopment plan. But it has potential, lying between Les Halles and Beaubourg as well as being on top of all the métro and RER lines - on top of the centre of the city.

Huge numbers of people cross the boulevard to tramp between Les Halles and Beaubourg. All the same, I was surprised to see the interest the yet-to-open cybercafé was generating. The same could not be said of the Boulevard de Sébastopol's usual sort of shop - half of them are closed - being avoided by thousands on this, the first day of Paris' winter sales season.

Other than this novelty, if you like your city centers to be a bit funky, a bit gritty - you can go less than 100 metres west to the parallel 1140 year-old ever-lively Rue Saint-Denis for a street that jumbles near-trendy bistros together with flat-out sleaze.

If you have checked out your guides carefully, you can start at the Bourse du Commerce by the Rue de Louvre and head east through the garden between it and the Forum des Halles, and keep on going until you get to the Pompidou Centre at Beaubourg. It is, as I've mentioned above, about a 10-minute walk.

But if you feel like a bit more visual excitement - and a lot longer walk - try out going north and south. Startphoto: new chatelet metro entry north from the Hôtel de Ville and turn left, west, at the Rue de la Verrerie, and go up and down and west again, and again.

Châtelet-Les Halles '2000' upgrade - a replica art nouveau métro entry.

This way you will see a lot of the Paris left over after the Boulevard de Sébastopol was rammed through, plus you will cross it - and maybe you'll wonder like I do, how such a big street can be so nothing in an area where all the other streets, so old, are still very much alive.

Sooner or later all of the hoopla being put into the 'Grands Boulevards' will wear out because they aren't down so far that they've got a long way to come up.

When - if - Paris refocuses on its centre, it will be looking at a strategic area more or less left to its fate for the past 20 years - but one that still dates back a long way, back to Paris' very heart of time.

Either the city will take control of it - to preserve it, or developers will wake up and move in and demolish it. If location is everything for brand-name boutiques, Paris' centre is a location waiting to happen.

Don't wait ten years to see how this turns out. If you do, the result may be another, bigger, better, more sanitary, Forum des Halles or some sort of 'easyEverything' that is easy enough, but stunningly dull.

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