We live in a very eclectic neighbourhood. I’ve described it previously using words such as “vivant” and “up and coming”, however in doing so I was mostly talking about the area south and east of us – the area towards the Seine. This time I want to talk about the area north and west of us – the area away from the Seine. Not only is this area a little more in its, shall we say, “transitioning” phase it’s also in the vicinity of where my Creative Writing group recently met.
A stone’s throw from our balcony is Rue St Denis, one of the oldest streets in Paris: it dates from the 1st century when it was laid out by the Romans and then extended north in the Middle Ages. In the mid-1600’s Louis XIV (you’re never far from one of the Louis’ in Paris) had yet another “triumphal” arch – Porte Saint Denis – built at the top end of St Denis to honour his great military victories. This explains its strong resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe.
The route into Paris through Porte Saint Denis was the way for Royals and victorious armies to enter when returning from the north. It was also the route that led people from Paris north to the Abbey of Saint Denis where French royalty were buried. However, before I talk anymore about Porte Sainte Denis and what lies beyond, I want to spend a bit more time on Rue St Denis.
One evening, during our early days in Paris, Gary and I were walking home from the theatre and decided we should change up our route a bit. Although we didn’t realize its historical significance at the time, as we approached the Porte Saint Denis we both recognized the street name “Rue Saint Denis” as running parallel to our street, Sébastopol. The street seemed fairly well lit and we could see people walking in both directions so…down we went. We hadn’t gone very far when I felt myself slowly reaching for Gary’s hand. Yes there were lights on the street but in between those lights were the shadows of doorways and, in those shadows, I realized were prostitutes. The neon lights of sex shops and one-hour “love hotels” were further clues to the area we had stumbled into. Trying to act cool, we didn’t hurry our pace, however I did stay close to Gary, not because I was nervous of course, but so that those lurking ladies would know he’s taken.
Since that evening I’ve walked up and down Rue Saint Denis numerous times on my own, during daylight hours. I mean the street is only a block from us and I’m a curious sort. I now know that, historically, this is one of the main areas for the sex trade in Paris. And, although the solicitation of customers for prostitution is now illegal, the act of prostitution is not: technically speaking you can give it out but you just can’t advertise. To that end, the prostitutes on Saint Denis are out in force pretty well all day, every day. They balance on stilettos or platform heels either alone or huddled together in small groups smoking, talking and presumably waiting for their johns. Most look as though their best years are well behind them. In fact, quite a few look older than me! There are rarely any gendarmes in sight. I’ve started working on trying to get pictures of some of the colourful characters however this requires “shooting from the hip” as taking photos is a big no-no (as you can imagine). Here are some of my early attempts:
On closer inspection, Rue Saint Denis seems to be in the early stages of gentrification. Small boutiques and trendy restaurants now dot the street as neighbours to the sex shops and seedy looking bars.
Store owners stand in the doorways encouraging passers-by to come in for a look while elegantly dressed women in fur or cashmere stroll casually past the prostitutes whose bodies are squeezed into leather mini skirts, prominently exposed silicone breasts protruding. Neither group seems to mind or take notice of the other. This is Paris after all.
Traditionally this was a high class, wealthy area lined with jewellery shops and textile merchants. It was, after all, part of the King’s processional route. During the 1980’s the area was largely Turkish but today, Faubourg-St Denis is a melting pot of cultures, exotic sounds and delicious smells. It’s multicultural and dynamic: Africans, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, even Syrians and Kurds have added themselves to the Turkish mix.
There are small bars and restaurants, spice shops and specialty food stores. There are even a few typical French “institutions” such as the restaurant “Julien” with its Art Nouveau building that’s listed as an historical monument. Little India (well, Little Pakistan is probably more accurate) resides down one of the “rabbit hole” passageways called Passage Brady that I will definitely go exploring one of these days.
In recent years Faubourg-Saint Denis has become a trendy destination and, as such, is undergoing its own gentrification. Hipster cashmere-clad 30-something’s can be spotted sipping Espresso while taking advantage of free WIFI in newly renovated coffee shops that now dot the street. With its relaxed and trendy atmosphere Faubourg-Saint Denis has also become the official “rue de soif” or “bar street” of the 10th Arrondissement, a status pushing further development and change.
While this little gem is certainly worthy of my further attention in another post, in all honesty the real excitement of this particular evening for me was the opportunity to have my eyes opened to this dynamic multi-cultural area so close to where I live. Okay…I also enjoyed having another chance to walk up a more seedy part of St Denis to get there.