Villa Paris

photo: view of villa, downhill

One of a series of country-like lanes in east Paris.

Out In the Country In the City

Paris:- Friday, 29. June 2001:- The weather is half of this and half of that, but it is mostly summer weather. It is not as if it were some other season's weather. I have a feeling, irrational for Paris perhaps, that this season is going to continue.

This means I can put anything off until tomorrow. It also means that I have a choice of a 100 different subjects to treat. In itself, this is befuddling - having a choice. No need to race out to do this or that between bad weather fronts.

There is a bit of wind and the temperature has come down a bit, but the city is keeping its pollution alert going - letting residents park for free, to try and tease them into using public transport.

What I feel vaguely, is that I want to get up somewhere high. I haven't been in east Paris for some time so I open the map page for the 19th arrondissement.

Just to the east of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont the map shows a herringbone of semi-streets,photo: villa, row of houses aligned on either side of the Rue Mouzaïa, between the Rue de Bellevue and the Place de Rhin-et-Danube. The métro stop Pré-Saint-Gervais seems like as good a place to start as any.

The métro station I start at is cool but when the train comes it is warm inside. There are not many other passengers, and not many get on and off before it gets to Châtelet.

No two alike, the houses step up the side of the Butte de Beaurefard.

I switch to the Porte des Lilas line and ride it to the Place des Fêtes and I change to the odd line seven - which begins at Louis-Blanc, comes out and loops around what must be the height of Belleville, and goes back to Louis-Blanc. Also, the train seems to be a new model, but with the old steel wheels.

The intersection at Pré-Saint-Gervais is not remarkable, except that all the streets slope into it and slope out of it. What goes up, gets to come down later, so I take the Rue Mouzaïa - which looked, on the map, like it was the map's herring backbone of the area.

The Rue Mouzaïa could be any town street in France, but not especially in Paris. Large trees line both sides, giving it near total shade - it curves, it is uphill at first, and the buildings along it are either houses, small apartments, or a few shops or workshops. There is no bustle at all.

Even here one of the workshops or warehouses has been converted into a Mexican-style cantina, but you have to be in top of it before this is really obvious. Beside it, the Rue des Lilas abruptly changes into a 30-degree slope of stairs, giving a fair view from the top of them.

On the left, further along the Rue Mouzaïa, the first 'rib' of the herringbone appears. This is an uphill alley called the Villa Félix Faure. Two-story houses are set back from it, each with a garden full of greenery, and the houses are stacked edge-to-edge, piling up the hill.

The alley has no provision for cars. The city's green garbage containers are lined up on either side - making me wonder if the garbagemen wheel them up or down to the truck and back again. Probably not 'back again.'

This particular 'villa' is repeated seven times on this side, with six of them running from the Rue Mouzaïa upphoto: villa, row of houses, left to the Rue de Bellevue. In some of them the greenery is so dense, the passageways are almost like tunnels.

In another 'allée' or 'villa,' another set of houses dropping down from the Rue de Bellevue.

I go up one 'villa' - the Villa de Bellevue I think - and on top there is the road of the same name and on its other side are high and huge public housing apartments - probably with some views of Paris to equal Montmartre's or the second stage of the Tour Eiffel.

But here, on this side of the street, there are these modest houses, no two alike, lining these carless alleys, stepping down the north side of the Butte de Beauregard, all the way to the Place de Rhin-et-Danube, only interrupted by the Rue Mouzaïa.

What the map hasn't shown so clearly, is that the alleys - these 'villas,' these 'allées' - continue, and run down from two other streets - the rues de l'Eqalité and de la Liberté, with a central one being 'de la Fraternité.' Then, in the northwest, they go beyond the Rue Général Brunet and down to the Rue Miguel Hidalgo, and a few go beyond it too.

In all, it is like a coherent subdivision - one that allowed everybody to build a slightly different house, paint it a different color, and have different types of plants in their front gardens. There must be some minuscule gardens at the rear too, because the houses along one 'villa' do not touch the backs of their neighbors in the next.

In all, it is not like anywhere elsewhere in Paris. In the middle of one the 'villas' there is the greenphoto: shop rue mouzaia of the small gardens overflowing the fences, the small houses and their individual touches and colors, their different roofs - and there is no 'Paris' to be seen anywhere.

One of the few shops in the Rue Mouzaïa is a locksmith's.

There are next to no shops in the Rue Mouzaïa and around the Place de Rhin-et-Danube there are nearly none too. But there is a café next to what might be an interesting hotel called the Rhin-et-Danube - with equipped kitchens! - and another called Le Café Parisien, which looks like a small theatre stage overlooking the place.

In the middle of the place there is a statue. An old lady tells me it is the model for a design on a piece of money, but not one-franc or two-franc coins. Another lady, with a stroller, overhears this and says it is the first time she has heard this while living in the neighborhood for over ten years.

This is what my later research tells me too - next to nothing. Yet this north slope of the Butte de Beauregard - a name no longer on maps - is the old location of the Carriéres d'Amérique - the underground quarries that were the source of 'plaster of Paris' - once exported in quantity to America.

A great deal of Paris is built on top of its own building materials - clay, limestone, gypsum, grindstone and sand - and this was especially true here, in this place called the Quartier d'Amérique.

The biggest and most obvious pit was the present Parc des Buttes Chaumont, just to the west. Its 20-metre high 'grotto' was the entrance to the underground part of the quarries. In certain places there are 15-metre high galleries, stacked three-high, under the 'Villas de la Mouzaïa.'

The open-air quarries were worked until 1872, while the underground ones were stopped quite a bit earlier. The métro stop Rhin-et-Danube is in one of these.

Actually I'm not sure about any of this - all I have are scraps of histories, and they don't seem to match. One says the Carriéres d'Amérique were open-pit and another says excavation was done underground.

The police, around 1850, used to stage raids on the squatters living in the quarry tunnels - the area had a bad reputation. A 'new' horse market was set up in the Place de Rhin-et-Danube in 1878, but it didn't last long.

It seems as if the subdivision of the 'Villas de la Mouzaïa' occurred between 1881 and 1902, butphoto: wide view of villa, uphill maybe it wasn't begun before 1889. One source contradicts another.

Both sides of one of the 'villas,' with the Rue de Bellevue at the top.

I don't know if the 'Quartier d'Amérique' is still called this - but it was certainly mentioned as such during the 'Paris En 80 Quartiers' series of exhibitions last fall. But so was the 'Place du Combat,' which is now named the Place du Colonnel Fabien.

None of this matters much if all you want to do is get out of Paris without leaving the city. To see some greenery, to see and smell some flowers and hear some birds, all you have to do is wander around the 'Villas de la Mouzaïa' on the Butte de Beauregard for an hour of two.

Don't expect too much excitement from this un-Parisian area of low-key charm. One other thing, it might take about 45 minutes to get from one café to the next, because there isn't one on every corner.

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