Creative Writing #5: Rue Saint Denis and Beyond

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.

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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:

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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. St Denis-09785

 

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.

Moving north on rue Saint Denis now, back to the arch and beyond, is the area known as “Faubourg-St Denis” or the area of St Denis “outside” the historic city walls marked by the Porte Saint Denis. St Denis-09833

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.

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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.

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But what about the Creative Writing group you ask? Our destination was a small Corsican Brasserie on Faubourg-St Denis: Terra Corsa. There we enjoyed some good Corsican wine, cheese and Chacuterie. St Denis-09827

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.

6 comments

  1. All in all, a very enjoyable reading. It looks like a very interesting area. My favorite sentence in the whole text is “This is Paris after all.” because it sums up what I believe is the general sentiment about prostitution in Europe. As long as they’re doing it of their own volition, it is as decent a job as any other and most people won’t take issue with it. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about two of the photos where it’s fairly easy to make out the faces of these street workers. They make me wonder how I would feel if someone came to my workplace to take pictures of me while I’m working.

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    • Thanks for reading and for your comments/feedback. It does seem to be true that people get less “worked up” about prostitution here than they do in North America. It’s an interesting cultural difference. I also respect your comments about the photos, although I counter with this thought: to go into a building and take pictures of you in your office is a completely different situation than simply taking photos of people on the street. It is a fascinating topic though and one that is very current given the fact that every person with a smart phone is a photographer and pictures of people are being taken and posted all the time. I’m not sure there’s any real consistency in what is and what’s not considered appropriate though. Would love to discuss in more detail sometime.

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      • Thanks! I can totally see your point. If I worked handing out flyers to passersby on Rue Saint-Denis, it would be impossible not to get photographed thousands of times every day. The question still remains as to whether I would just happen to be in those photographs or if they were taken to show me as an example of something on the internet. I understand that in either case I would have very little control over the situation, if any.

        I have a similar dilemma about pictures I took of a group of people who paraded their nude bodies covered in glitter during Madrid’s Gay Pride Parade this year. I really like the photos, but I haven’t posted them anywhere because it feels a little like it would be an invasion of their “privacy”. Anyway, thanks for the great post and participating in this exchange of ideas.

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      • Ooooo interesting dialogue. You’re right, there are soooo many issues out there. I can completely agree with you about your Gay Pride photos – not because they’re covered in glitter or because they’re in the Parade (people in parades should expect to find photos of themselves on-line) but because they’re nude. Even if you can’t tell exactly what’s what I would have the exact same problem as you – and not be posting them for the very same reason. As much as I’ve always thought I’d love to be an international journalist I’m not sure I could ever be as bold as necessary to get some of the photos of human tragedy that we see.

        I went to an interesting art exhibit here in Paris done by a young couple: Emilé Brouet and Maxime Marion (). This particular installation involved them setting themselves in public situations where others (tourists, etc) would be taking photos and then, later, to search for those photos on-line using only information such as date, time, location. It is quite a fascinating work and certainly makes you think about all of the issues we’ve been discussing. These are indeed very real issues in the world in which we now find ourselves. I only wish I had more and better answers! LOL

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  2. honestly Tracey, I think you should write for the tourism department there! You have a lovely way of bringing the neighbourhoods to life! and just by the way, your pictures “shooting from the hip” are still better than mine, when i set them up and take my time 🙂

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    • Thanks T. Well, not sure the tourism department is the right place for me. hahaha. Still trying to determine exactly where my niche is though. In the meantime, I’m having fun!

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