The International Writers Magazine: The 19th Arrondissement
and Undiscovered: Beauty in Residential Paris
With no intention and no Practique
map-guide, I exited the Metro at Barbes Rochechouart. By passing
the narrow straight streets lined with textile shops, I walked
east up the major boulevard. I took time to stop at the patisserie
for a croissant and pooled together the change for a liter and
a half of water. After a month on a students budget had
to appreciate experience without expenditure.
flooded the stairs of Sacre Coeur, smiling faces blocking a low-rising
skyline, flashbulbs blazing brighter than the midday sun. This morning,
walked north until I faced the motorway belting in the city. In the
19th Arrondissement rues became wide, sweeping, multi-laned. Traffic-lighted
intersections met divided highways as if I had been transported back
to suburbia; schools, community centers, recreation parks as ordinary
as any you would find stateside assimilated urban towerblocks, sweeping
20 stories high each with a small balcony, into the amalgamation. Many
acted as giant billboard stands, hoisting neon Samsung and Sanyo signs
60 meters in the air beside the beltway. Arranged like a beige hive,
I assumed a middle class neighborhood, filled with well-employed families
living in these towering corporate endowed megaliths. Train tracks sprawled
out in rotary style. A traditional building sat alone, no others with
which to stand, surrounded by apartment complexes.
I walked though a park with equidistant trees and sparse grass filled
over with paving stones. Strangely, lying within a city that prizes
their flora almost as much as their cuisine, lived little green.
Weaving my way away from the wide boulevards and automobiles, I wandered
down a stream of a street along one towerblock. Towels, clothing, dying
plants, and international flags hung from the balconies. A group of
boys perched atop a cinderblock wall that moated the complex called
as I walked by. I was followed by two of them for a short distance before
they shrunk back to their roost, subdued by a look; they were only 10.
As I rounded this building, I gazed over the lot adjacent. No playground,
no trees, bushes, flowers, or even grass, as barren as any wasteland.
I realized these monoliths were not where the fortunate lived but perhaps
the Parisian version of the slums.
A few misplaced minorities shuffled their way in and out across their
desert entrance yards. There were hundreds of them. Not people but buildings.
Thousands of people.
Sinking deeper, the towers became shorter. Maybe only five or six stories
tall in a palate of art deco pastels. One clean white complex connected
its sections with waved, open bridges between every three floors against
a backdrop of clear blue sky. A jackhammer plowed into the ground around
a sewer grate. A dumpster overflowed with construction materials.
Apartments slowly dwindling, I gathered I was heading south toward the
heart of the city. Every Metro station I passed was a reminder of the
heat and my aching feet, but the living side of life astounded me enough
to continue my journey.
are preconceived notions of Paris and Parisians. Snooty, well dress,
idly drinking coffee at all hours, watching cinema and taking walks
in their lush urban parks. This was far from the Paris of myth and
legend. This Paris bared more earthy and common.
I followed a flooded
sewer grate deeper into the buildings sea. They became more and more
like the buildings to which I had become accustomed; prototypical style,
long windows, painted shutters, wrought iron. Most of the bottom floors
had been converted into failed shops, or maybe they were just closed
for the day, bolted shut with New York style roll down doors. Was it
Sunday? Or maybe Saturday.
A window flung open. Bold kaftans fluttered on plastic hangers from
the door jam. A fruit stand here. There some herbs and strange animal
looking parts. Fresh fish. Stranger fruit. Stranger herbs. Stranger
fish. Somewhere, I had come from the dunes of the towerblocks to the
vibrant Haitian neighborhood of Paris. A small district of a few square
blocks, this Saturday or Sunday market was in full regalia. Tribal beats
pounded from media stores, their windows completely covered over with
CD covers. Videos and DVDs piled out front in boxes. Everything was
cheap. 3 euros for a DVD. Fifty cents for a bag of oddly shaped citrus
fruit. Browsing, I realized my minority. In this international city,
I was the only white girl around. Looking up, all I could see was an
ocean of heritage, traditional dress, music, and food; everything alive
and smelling delicious. As I slowed past a storefront of fish, an octopus
leg flopped out of the bucket in front of me. I jumped. Several men
left the 19th Arrondissement behind. Few foreigners must see these
places, I imagined. Alone, walking the streets, tranquil, without
care, glistening sun and bright, blue sky overhead. The 19th is
unique, real, visceral. It is the almost arid smell, the dirt pounded
by rays from the sun like the Sahara, a tall mans shirt flapping
coolly next to a petit pair of shorts, a half-dead fish going after
Marx April 2005
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