More Paris


A centrepiece of Haussmannian modernity: the Avenue de L’Opéra (1864-79) and the Palais Garnier (Opera) (1861-75)

by Charles Rearick

Paris has long been the most visited city in Europe, but most of it is not visited. Why not? The basic reason is, as the French say, the embarras de richesses that confronts visitors. Tourists have to choose some places to see and others to skip. Guidebooks such as Michelin’s help visitors make choices by ranking the sights with stars, indicating levels of importance and interest. That makes planning a visit much easier than the earliest guidebooks did, some five centuries ago. Those first guides aimed at being comprehensive, providing notes on all the monuments and places deemed “remarkable” and “of distinction.” Of course, the city was much smaller then – and the “must-see” category was relatively limited. Visitors, aristocratic or royal and wealthy, were able to afford a lengthy stay. Today’s kind of guidebook, laying out priorities and itineraries, emerged to meet the demand of middle-class tourists in the nineteenth century – visitors wanting to “see” the city in a brief visit – a week or even one day!

Centre Stage

What to see? Always the question. From the beginning, guidebooks and visitors have focused first and foremost on the core of the city, close to the Seine – the oldest part, thick with venerable monuments and impressive sites. Guides before the French Revolution gave top billing to noble and royal residences, churches, and monastic institutions. Some of those have endured as perennial “must-sees”: the Louvre, Sainte Chapelle, and Notre Dame, to name a few. Some guides have also pointed visitors toward the fashionable lively places of the day. In the Old Regime that meant the Palais-Royal; in the nineteenth century, the Grands Boulevards, and in the belle époque, the Champs-Élysées. In each era the choices reflected the values and tastes of the guidebook authors as well as the elites who were the city’s principal visitors. All the premodern “must-sees” were in an ellipse near the Seine.

The prefect Georges Haussmann’s renovations in the 1850s-60s made that central part famously modern and attractive, creating new broad boulevards and eliminating some derelict or insurrectionist neighbourhoods. Haussmann’s projects, transforming the historic heart of the city, did not include similar improvements for most of the newly enlarged Paris – in particular, former suburbs annexed in 1860. Concentrating resources on the old centre promised bigger payoffs for the regime. Making the centre more beautiful and monumental was more certain to impress important visitors and world opinion. And it did effectively enhance the international reputation of France and Emperor Louis Napoleon. Certainly the “transformation” of Paris (Haussmann’s term) left admirers awed by the “new Paris.”[1] They barely noticed or mentioned most of the outer quarters. Peripheral Paris, where most Parisians lived and worked, went left largely untouched – and out of the world limelight.

The mainstreet of Belleville, (the Rue de Belleville), winding up the hillside to the city limit

Off Stage

In other words, more than half the city, the ten outer arrondissements (districts), came out of the Haussmannian “transformation” with scarcely anything new to attract visitors. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did a few scattered sites around the edge – Montmartre, the cemetery Père-Lachaise, and the new park Buttes-Chaumont – appear in guidebook itineraries, included as merely optional destinations, to be considered after the important ones. Even now the outer area draws few tourists, apart from those isolated spots.

The outer arrondissements remained peripheral and marginal in every sense of the word. In particular, the working-class arrondissements on the northern and eastern side were ignored by visitors and by authorities alike. They were like a “Siberia” relative to the modernised core, critics such as the urbanist Louis Lazare pointed out. They were the miserably poor Paris, contrasting with the rich Paris, the beaux quartiers. Or, in the everyday vernacular of Parisians, they were the “popular” quarters as opposed to the “bourgeois” quarters.

For centuries, the edge of the city was a dumping ground for all that the city proper rejected: human wastes, dead horses, dangerous and polluting industries, and mines. It was also a refuge for pariahs and the poor, who could not afford to live in the modernised central districts. That role for the outskirts continued through the nineteenth century and beyond.


In sum, to decision-makers under the Second Empire as well as the Republic that followed, the popular quarters in the north and east were doubly unimportant. Not only were they outside the showcase centre, but they were also the gritty domain of commoners – a mass of the working poor and underclasses. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, bourgeois Parisians disdained and feared that plebeian population on the edge, seeing them an ever-menacing source of crime and revolution.[2] In matters of urban planning and improvements, the large majority known as the “people of Paris” lacked what Pierre Bourdieu calls social capital–personal connections to powerful decision-makers in the centre.

As a result, the poorer outskirts did not get infrastructure improvements and embellishments like those realised in the centre under the Second Empire and the republic that followed. Public works projects for the outer territory were put off to an indefinite future. All across northern Paris – from Montmartre to Ménilmontant and on to the Place de la Nation–urbanist authorities failed to create anything like the famous straight broad boulevards and monument-capped vistas. The most important Haussmann-era street in that outer sector is the Rue des Pyrénées, which is serpentine and narrow in comparison with the new boulevards in the centre. In short, the quarters of lower-order Parisians were left behind – and continued to be so through the twentieth century, even into our own time.

In my own annual sojourns in Paris, I long followed the classic pattern of the guidebooks and visitors: for decades I stayed in the central districts, rarely if ever going to the outer ones. But since 2010, I have rented apartments in peripheral arrondissements on the eastern side of the city. (That shift happened by chance, because of my finding apartments available for just the right period or through people I knew.)

I lived several months in the area called Belleville-Ménilmontant for the first time in the fall of 2010. Before being annexed, it was a large suburban village that extended from what became the Buttes-Chaumont park eastward to Père-Lachaise cemetery. There I discovered a flourishing local life that I had not seen in the other quartiers. Following my bent as a historian, I began to delve into the quarter’s past, trying to understand what shaped the lively diverse neighbourhood that I saw around me.

Flourishing local life: the Fête des Associations

An Exceptional Past

The distinctive history of Belleville is too much to relate here (I’m working on a full account), but in these pages I can summarise parts of its past that are still alive and influential. Without seeking out historians’ works, anyone strolling the streets of Belleville can learn a great deal of local history from reading the numerous plaques scattered through the area. In so doing, a visitor to Belleville can get to know a consequential side of Paris, past and present, that lies beyond the tourist clichés and beaten paths.

One dimension of the past that will not be apparent is the economic importance of Belleville as an industrial workshop. The historical markers treating that subject are few, and most of the artisans, factories and warehouses have disappeared.

But reminders of two tumultuous episodes of political history are in public view throughout the quarter. The first is the Commune of 1871, a revolutionary municipal government that tried for 72 days to make Paris a social democracy independent of the conservative national government. Belleville men and women took a leading role in supporting the Commune’s programme and fighting for it in a civil war – to the bloody last days of massacre in their home quarter.

The second period of exceptional embattlement came during the Second World War when Bellevillois were in the forefront of the resistance against the German occupiers. In both episodes Belleville stood out as the defiant outsider, its inhabitants rising up against powerful forces based in the centre.

Belleville has also made history with its contributions to French popular culture. The quarter’s large working-class population nurtured a local subculture that bore remarkable fruit in the domain of entertainment. A wellspring of that subculture was a common attitude of the Bellevillois: a shared resentment of being looked down upon by the bourgeois and “aristos” in central Paris. In reaction to that disdain, they rejected or playfully mocked the proprieties and fussy niceties being used to denigrate them. In speech, for instance, they nurtured a distinctive accent and slang of their own that became the recognisable standard of plebeian Parisian. Ménilmontant-born Maurice Chevalier and others carried that accent and slang (and some of the attitude) onto music-hall stages and screens far and wide. Chevalier as a child, trying to escape the grim industrial jobs that were the common lot, found that his hardscrabble neighbourhood offered him at least one advantage not found in the centre or western side of the city: an exceptionally large number of shoe-string cafés-concerts where amateurs like himself could try out and make their debuts. The abundance of such venues was due to the strong demand of workers for low-cost entertainment near their homes. Aristide Bruant, Maurice Chevalier, and Édith Piaf, among others, began their careers in that milieu.

Classic Popular

This exceptional history that I’ve just sketched has not brought masses of tourists out to explore Belleville. But many people everywhere have images of it in their minds without going there. Most have seen it in movies and photographs. For Belleville has been the subject of stock images of popular Parisiana over the last century and a half. It figures in well-known photos by Willie Ronis, René-Jacques, and Robert Doisneau. Its grimy-gray old dwellings and steep cobblestone streets were the setting of the charming 1955 movie about a boy and a red balloon that had a life of its own (Albert Lamorisse’s Ballon rouge, 1955). Old narrow streets, scruffy tenements, stark cafés, and courtyards of Belleville have been a locale of choice for all manner of artistic works representing grim, worn Vieux Paris at its most popular and most picturesque.

Willy Ronis’s images of salt-of-the-earth Parisians in their picturesque Belleville hillside have enjoyed a particularly strong appeal since the 1980s. Part of the response comes from feelings of nostalgia. The decaying quarter that Ronis captured after the Second World War was emblematic of an old-fashioned Paris that in subsequent decades was razed and replaced by jarring new forms. When Ronis’s Belleville album first came out (1954), it did not do well in sales. The reason seems to be that images of Belleville evoked miserable poverty above all, and at that time the prospect of urban renewal looked overwhelmingly positive. But years later, with the demise of the old popular cityscape, public interest and nostalgia increased, creating demand for multiple new editions of the album in the last decades of the century.

Nostalgia has been fully explicit and often eloquent in writings by opponents of the modernisers. The eminent historian of Paris, Louis Chevalier, took the lead with his 1977 book The Assassination of Paris, lamenting above all the destruction of the central market Les Halles, which he loved as an epicentre of old-time popular Paris. Decades later, following the line of Louis Chevalier, the journalist Claude Dubois regularly wrote nostalgic columns for Le Figaro along with books recounting and eulogising the old-time “little people” and their unglamorous neighbourhoods, like Belleville and the Bastille quarter. Those poor areas that urbanists deemed slums were to Dubois the home of the most Parisian of Parisians, the common folk, and their unique civilisation. Particularly dear to Dubois were the populo‘s colorful slang, songs and singers, accordion players, and lively neighbourhood sociability. All that old popular Paris was dying, overrun by outsiders and destroyed by uncomprehending elites, he lamented.

Folk dancing in the Parc de Belleville

The leading memorialist of a bygone Belleville was the writer Clément Lépidis, who (unlike Dubois) lived in the quarter almost all his life. In a regular stream of novels and memoirs from the 1960s to his death in 1997, he warmly recalled his boyhood friends and neighbours in Belleville between the wars. The tenements where they lived without “comforts” (no indoor plumbing, for one) were packed with a multinational mix of poor immigrants and their children, like Lépidis himself, whose differences of origin melted away in the shared experience of the schools and streets. Belleville was like a family, as he remembered it. His memories, he acknowledged unabashedly, were steeped in bitter-sweet nostalgia. The postwar destruction-and-reconstruction of Belleville left him feeling brutally displaced, exiled from his own beloved home quarter.[3]

Like Belleville, the former suburb called Montmartre was long a domain of the working poor, living in rustic small houses on steep crooked streets. One difference, however, is that its village-like popular life disappeared sooner than Belleville’s, as developers began building larger new houses for prosperous Parisians around 1900. Lower Montmartre was then at its height of glory as a sector of novel entertainment – notably, artistic cabarets, pioneered by the Chat Noir. In that legend-forming time, Belleville lacked such fashionable nightspots. So it did not attract the better-off clients who ventured out to select Montmartre dance halls, music-halls (the Moulin Rouge, most famously), and playful artistic cabarets like Artistide Bruant’s Le Mirliton.

Belleville also lacked a prominent anti-Communard shrine. It had nothing like Montmartre’s eye-catching basilica Sacré-Cœur, dominating the Parisian skyline by the end of the nineteenth century. In Belleville the opponents of the Commune preserved only the small courtyard where a Communard mob massacred prisoners (priests and police) who were considered enemies. That site could not compete as a tourist destination, and the massacre there did not become a mainstream collective memory. The quarter’s reputation as home of the most ruthless Communards, however, remained strong and unchecked. For many generations, then, respectable Parisians viewed Belleville as a quarter of political extremists – in addition to other dangerous types: cut-throat thieves, gangs of delinquents known as apaches, and assorted dregs of the lower depths.

Further, turn-of-the-century Belleville did not boast a galaxy of great painters, as Montmartre did with its well-developed infrastructure of studios, teachers, models, and connections to art dealers and galleries. Unlike any other quarter of Paris, Montmartre shone as a mecca for aspiring artists from deep in the provinces (Toulouse-Lautrec) and abroad – Van Gogh, Steinlen, Picasso (first in 1900), Modigliani (1906), and Chagall (1910), to mention only a few.

In sum, Belleville’s working people were not eclipsed by bohemian artists, cutting-edge entertainers, and pleasure seekers from the west of Paris and beyond. The populo predominated. In the minds of comfortable Parisians, the stereotypes that endured were of pro-revolutionary workers, honourable artisans, and low-life lawbreakers. In classic popular imagery the endearing figures were artisans, concierges, street vendors and street singers, butchers and bakers serving their neighbourhood in longtime-personal relationships. To sympathetic observers, Belleville’s working-classes represented the authentic people of Paris – long-rooted old-fashioned Parisians living in self-contained communities. They were considered “true Parisians,” like an indigenous folk, leading local ways of life untouched by the trendy ways of the cosmopolitan higher classes ensconced in the “beaux quartiers.”

Eighteen-story high rises in a project called “Nouveau Belleville,” constructed in 1972-1973

Popular Paris Today

Belleville today is far less the outsider than it was during the century or so after being incorporated into Paris. No longer a working-class enclave, its local life is less distinctive. Deindustrialisation has transformed it since the 1960s, and what the French call gentrification (borrowing the term) is well underway. Yet outer districts such as Belleville are still noticeably different from the beaux quartiers to the west and the tourist zones in the centre. Some of the fundamentals of the area’s historic character remain the same today, such as lower rents and property values compared to those in the rest of the city. As a result, Belleville continues to attract low-income French and immigrant groups.

Officials and journalists still refer to Belleville as a “popular quarter,” even though the population has changed greatly since the old days when “popular” meant working-class, shopkeepers, and assorted have-nots living in cheaply built, decrepit dwellings. “Popular” now means locals who are, in the majority, still of modest means, many of them living in tall concrete apartment buildings that are subsidised public housing. But today’s Belleville is still an unglamorous people’s Paris – a quarter without department stores, without beautiful boulevards or avenues, and without great museums or monuments. “Popular,” then, is still apt.

Other descriptions are less fitting. Some guidebooks refer to the quarter as a “village” or a sector of villages, places where the sense of a small-scale close-knit community exists. The existence of such villages, subjectively delimited, will not be apparent to visitors. And in most of the quarter or district the layout of streets and dwellings is not conducive to such community relations. Another characterisation is an old one that Fox News resurrected several years ago (to the amusement of locals): Belleville is dangerous, a “no-go” zone. That report, unsubstantiated by police statistics, came from an American source misreading a French urbanist designation for problem-ridden poor sectors (Zones urbaines sensibles) needing prioritised aid. Still another description is the guidebook term “picturesque,” which like the other adjectives applies to only small, scattered parts of Belleville. All in all, it’s difficult to characterise Belleville today with one generalising descriptor.

Local Memories

The term “popular” remains particularly apt in a cultural sense. The reason is not just that Belleville has been home to an illustrious popular culture, but also that it sustains an exceptionally strong memory of it. Though gentrifying like all intra-muros Paris, Belleville is filled with memorials and mementoes recalling the plebeian locals who went on to win a place in the national and international limelight. Anyone walking around the area will come upon those locals’ names and often their portraits that ordinary Bellevillois have put up on walls outside and inside cafés and all manner of other public spaces. An officially supported collective memory is also on public display in the form of plaques and street signs.

The historical markers fall into two main categories: political and cultural. In both, the memorialised persons are locals from obscure, humble beginnings. They are of “the people” – not military or political leaders from royal and imperial eras, so commonly memorialised in the “bourgeois” quarters, and not artistic, literary, or scientific luminaries.

In the quarter’s political past, the most famous individual is Léon Gambetta. As an opponent of the Second Empire, Gambetta found his greatest base of support in fervently pro-democracy, anti-imperial Belleville. Known as a prominent advocate for a democratic republic, he was first elected by the Bellevillois in 1869 as their legislative representative. Under the early Third Republic, he was re-elected to the Chamber of Deputies regularly until his death in 1882. The large square (Place Gambetta) and the avenue outside the town hall of the twentieth arrondissement are named for him.

Belleville’s most prominent role as a revolutionary bastion was during the Commune of 1871. Its national guard battalions were known as the most stalwart militants fighting for the municipal revolution. A plaque on a street below the Parc de Belleville marks the spot where the Communards fought their last battle on a barricade. Because last year was the 150th anniversary of the Commune, texts and images celebrating the 1871 revolutionaries appeared on many walls through the quarter. The homages included posters, photos and drawings of Communards and their barricades, reproductions of Communard decrees and newspapers, and graffiti tributes. The local mayor’s office joined in the memorialising by sponsoring an exhibit “Les Damnés de la Commune” – a historical account in the form of cartoon scenes by artist and Belleville resident Raphaël Meyssan, on view in town hall and on the wall of a local arts centre, the Pavillon Carré de Baudouin. Nothing like this array of pro-Commune displays appeared in the wealthy west side of Paris, where opposition to the Commune has echoed through the years to our time.

Icons of Belleville featured in the métro station Ménilmontant

Walls and signs throughout the quarter also serve to preserve the memory of courageous rebels of Belleville who played a prominent role during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. Plaques recall the names of resisters whom the Germans killed on the spot or deported to the death camps. The street sign for Rue Hélène Jakubowicz, in front of the apartment building where her family lived, tells passersby that the woman with the Polish name was a member of Jeunesses Communistes and was deported to Auschwitz on September 9, 1942, where she died at age seventeen. (Her family apartment harboured a printing shop producing anti-Nazi leaflets, and she was caught distributing them in a provincial city.) About a fifteen-minute walk from there, one arrives at the Place Henri Krasucki, where the street sign explains that Krasucki was a resistance fighter with the immigrant organisation (the M.O.I.) of the French Communist Party, was deported to the Nazi concentration camps, and became a French Communist Party leader after the war. [4]

These and other memorials reflect the large concentration of Polish Jews who had settled in Belleville between the world wars and who joined the resistance. Many were Communists, and many did not have French citizenship. As Communists, Jews, or simply anti-German patriots, resisters from Belleville and the twentieth arrondissement were arrested and deported to the death camps in larger numbers than in any other district of Paris. Similarly unmatched numbers of Jewish children – defenceless innocents – were caught up in the murderous machinery of the Nazis. The toll is inscribed on a monument behind the district town hall (Place Gambetta) and on schools like the one at 82 Rue de Ménilmontant:

To the memory of the small children of this elementary school, deported from 1942 to 1944, because they were born Jews, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the government of Vichy. More than 11,000 children were deported from France, of which more than 1,000 lived in the twentieth arrondissement. They were exterminated in the death camps.

The largest memorial to resisters is a seven-stories-high mural paying homage to the Manouchian group, a multi-national resistance cell of twenty-two Communist immigrants whom the German occupiers executed in February 1944. On the side of a building in the Passage Surmelin, the painting depicts the leader, Missak Manouchian with a poignant farewell letter that he wrote to his beloved partner on the eve of his execution at Mont Valérien.

The city’s largest memorial site, Père Lachaise cemetery, is just ten or fifteen minutes eastward from Maurice Chevalier’s Ménilmontant boyhood home. Two memorials there are especially important for Belleville’s collective memory. First is the grave of Édith Piaf, often encircled by fans honouring and mourning their favourite. Further east is the Wall of the Fédérés, where each year on the last Sunday of May a crowd gathers for ceremonial remembrance of the thousands of men and women who fought and died for the Commune. In front of that wall in May 1871, the conservative government’s troops lined up hundreds of Communards, executed them, and threw them into a ditch. For Parisians living in quarters nearby, the cemetery wall plaque and ceremony are sad reminders that Belleville was the last part of Paris to be conquered by the national army and the locals massacred.[5] Being reconquered meant more than losing one last battle: the inhabitants of Belleville, suspected of supporting the Commune, were terrorised and persecuted for months afterward.

In the realm of popular culture Belleville has a unique claim to fame: it is the birthplace of two of the twentieth-century’s biggest stars of song and music-hall: Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf. The collective memory of those mega-stars is manifest in images scattered around Belleville as in no other part of Paris–on walls in the streets and in cafés. Two places I know stand out in particular for their museum-like displays featuring the hometown’s most famous progeny: the café l’Entrepot’s (2 Rue Sorbier) and the bistrot Le Vieux Belleville, “café-restaurant mythique du Paris populaire” (12, Rue des Envierges). In the annals of chanson another Belleville distinction is that the singer-songwriter Aristide Bruant learned lower-class slang and debuted in café-concerts there before gaining fame in fin-de-siècle Montmartre cabarets. But he was not a child of the quarter, and he is not given commemorative notice – in sharp contrast to the two stars who began their lives in Belleville.

In contemporary pop culture Belleville has distinguished itself as a crucible of “le street art.” Wall works not only add aesthetic interest to unremarkable buildings, but also promote the local identity in images and words. When one walks about half-way up the steep Rue de Ménilmontant, near where Maurice Chevalier grew up, a building-size wall painting comes into view, proclaiming a line from a 1942 song written by Chevalier: “C’est nous les gars d’Ménilmontant” [“It’s us, the guys of Ménilmontant”]. Underneath that phrase and some musical notes are five white silhouetted figures dancing cheerily in a circle. They are the signature images of one of Belleville’s premier street artists, Jérôme Mesnager, who painted them on doors and walls throughout the quarter, beginning in the 1980s. Another pioneering star of Belleville street art, Nemo (1947-2021), painted stencils of men in black raincoats on many walls throughout eastern Paris. He also began wall-painting in the 1980s, when soul-less concrete towers had already replaced much of Old Belleville. His whimsical images of mysterious men with bicycles, kites, and red balloons (a reference to Albert Lamorisse’s movie) added bright poetic touches to the raw new cityscape. Wall art, which the richer quarters long deplored and opposed as defacing graffiti and a nuisance, was accepted early on as an embellishment of the cityscape of Belleville. A small portion of it is contracted by local authorities (notably, the colourful designs on the long wall outside the Pavillon Carré de Baudouin). Most of it, however, is the work of anonymous or little-known amateurs, spontaneously adding their personal artistic touches to the neighbourhood décor.

Anon. picture of Maurice Chevalier on a wall in the Place de Ménilmontant, near his boyhood home

So in several respects, Belleville, though becoming more like the rest of the city, remains a popular quartier par excellence. How and why has it maintained its own special character more than other quarters have? One fundamental reason is that, after its annexation just as before, it lies geographically removed from the city’s transportation hubs and the primary sphere of the chic and trendy. Further, it has long ranked on the lower levels of the socio-economic scale, and its inhabitants have responded defensively toward the higher-ups down in the centre. From the time it was annexed without its consent, Belleville commoners embraced a collective identity forged in opposition to those above – the “aristos,” the “bourgeois,” the capital’s elites and their norms and conventions.

The defiant self-identity of popular Paris in general was expressed most simply in a song of the mid-nineteenth century: “Je suis canaille” – “I am part of the rabble – commoners appropriating the denigrating term aimed at them by their “betters.” Now with a large population descended from twentieth-century immigration added into the historic Parisian population, the Bellevillois have further reason to assert their difference. In recent years, some locals have created signs renaming Belleville “Babel-ville.”

Yet, while globalising and gentrifying, Belleville sustains a particularly strong memory of its popular past. That memory, I maintain, is a distinguishing feature of Belleville. The evidence is on the walls – and in the famous cemetery. The street-art images of inimitable homegrown performers and mementoes such as the red balloon occupy a place in Belleville’s public space as nowhere else. They keep the local collective memory ever in public view. Political posters and graffiti do the same with references to the Commune. More generally, today’s wall messages carry on an anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois tradition of political contestation that has long been a characteristic of Belleville’s local culture. It manifests itself today in anti-capitalist, anti-(President) Macron, and anti-police posters along with feminist and pro-immigrant posters, the likes of which cannot be found in beaux quartiers such as Passy (16th arrondissement).

The frequently changing art wall by the Pavillon Carré de Baudouin on the Rue de Ménilmontant

After stressing how strong the memory of popular Belleville is, I must add one big qualification. When set against the full sweep of Belleville’s history, its collective memory is fragmented and lamentably incomplete. It is particularly inadequate in its representation of the many diverse immigrants who have become Bellevillois over more than a century – Polish and Russian Jews, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Greeks, Armenians, Italians, and Chinese, among others. The struggles and contributions of that globalised population are not memorialised by plaques and signs. And their experiences have not been integrated into official narratives  beyond bromides such as “Belleville has always been a terre d’accueil” (a welcoming place). The multicultural chapter of the quarter’s history is still barely even a rough draft.

Yet the multicultural quotidian is what is strikingly visible now. Anyone strolling main streets such as the Rue de Belleville and Rue des Pyrénées will see a multitude of eateries from all over the world: Chinese, Turk, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Thai, sub-Sahara African, Italian, and Japanese, not to mention American-chain pizzerias. Behind these diverse offerings is a large cast of nationalities with families that have added much more than their popular dishes to Belleville. They are the “neo-people” of Paris, as the most enthusiastic aficionado of the populo has noted.[6]

The ever-evolving category called the “people” of Paris is anything but homogenous or easy to sum up. Neither are the many quarters called “popular.” Still, that term as the French use it remains a useful category for characterising the large parts of the city that are not touristy or wealthy and are home to ordinary locals. Those parts contrast sharply with the Paris celebrated for elegance, luxury, monuments, and museums. They are distinctly apart from the Paris that, in the view of worried leaders since the 1990s, is turning into a museum city and is losing its creative edge and lustre.

Are quarters like Belleville therefore the authentic Paris of our time? I would answer that the case can be made for others, qualifying as authentic in their own way. The question of authenticity is a subject for more discussion, but in another piece.[7] Here I will mention just one complicating issue: the phenomenon of “staged authenticity” in this era of mass tourism. For example, an accordionist singing favourite chansons in a street market could be considered staged and inauthentic – that is, a commercial “attraction,” a show reenacting an old-time popular amusement. Categorising it that way – as spurious – seems to me tenable if the accordionist or singer chooses to perform in a touristic area like the Butte Montmartre or on a bridge across the Seine. But if the musician appears in a Belleville street market (along the Rue des Pyrénées, for example), it seems to me more authentic, primarily because it is for local Parisians, some of whom are likely to have a personal memory of such musicians as part of neighbourhood life.

Of course, none of the popular neighbourhoods is closed off from the rest of the city or the outside world. But some of them have retained more local historic character than others. A consciousness of that character is also stronger in some. To get a sense of such a neighbourhood in the Parisian metropolis of today, I know of no place better than Belleville. Located on one of Paris’s most scenic hillsides, it harbours an extraordinary mix of the “neo-people” from afar, old-stock Parisians, and migrants from the provinces. Although much of the area’s past has disappeared–deemed not worth preserving – the attentive visitor will encounter many memory traces of Belleville quartier populaire. Cumulatively, they make a strong case for its historical importance. What makes them most exceptional is not the miscellany of official plaques, but the anonymous memorials, enshrining popular-memory fragments of a unique heritage. You won’t find anything like my commentary in the Michelin guidebook to Paris, but the classic Michelin phrases can be applied here: “the richness of the visit” makes Belleville “worth the trip” (“vaut le voyage“).

Piaf and one of her beloved songs – portrayed on a corner wall of the Rue de Ménilmontant and the Rue du Retrait. Street art by Sébastien Dufour, SE BD pour l’Association du Ratrait

About the Author

Charles Rearick is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of Beyond the Enlightenment: Historians and Folklore in Nineteenth-Century France (1974), Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France (1985), and The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in France in the Era of the World Wars (1997). His most recent work is Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique.


[1] The first chapter of my book Paris Dreams, Paris Memories (Stanford University Press, 2011) examines the centuries-old praises of Paris and the renewal operations of the Second Empire. The overarching tradition has been to generalise about the city with the historic core in mind.

[2] The classic study is Louis Chevalier’s Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth  Century, trans. Frank Jellinek (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973). Also pertinent are works by Dominique Kalifa, such as his article “Crime Scenes: Criminal Topography and Social Imaginary in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” French Historical Studies, vol. 27, n° 1, 2004, 175-194. Also Kalifa’s Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western World Invented the Underworld (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[3] Clément Lépidis’s nostalgic memoirs include Belleville, mon village (Suivi de Histoire de Belleville, par Emmanuel Jacomin) (Henry Veyrier, 1975); Belleville au cœur (Vermet, 1980); Des Dimanches à Belleville, recit (ACE, 1984); and Je me souviens du 20e arrondissement (Parigramme, 1997).

[4] The experience of Parisians under the German occupation is the subject of a couple of good recent books: Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (London: John Murray, 2014) and David Drake’s Paris at War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[5] On that theme: John Merriman’s Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2014).

[6] Claude Dubois, Je me souviens de Paris. Visages, Façons, Histoire et historiettes du Paris populaire. Parigramme, 2007), 452.

[7] A helpful treatment of the subject: Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).


All photographs are the author’s own.

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