Tourists visiting the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the magnificent snow-white cathedral towering over northern Paris, tend to descend the Butte Montmartre the way they came up. After visiting the church, they might make a stop at the Place du Tertre, the historic square of Montmartre encircled by restaurants promising authentic French cuisine at unauthentically French prices. They might admire the dozens of street artists churning out quick sketches of passers-by and peddling hastily made watercolors. They might even jostle to the edge of the square to sneak a final glance at the city from one of its highest points. But once they’ve had enough, they’ll most likely make their way down the south side of the hill, following the path of the funicular toward the recognizable sights of central Paris.
But if they stroll down the north or east side, a very different kind of city takes shape. At the bottom of the hill, the street traffic moves faster, and the storefronts bear the traces of the area’s immigrant population: All-service tech stores hawk cellphones, SIM cards and pay-by-the-minute internet connections; halal butcheries offer a dizzying display of just about every meat besides pork; corner stores sell everything from yams and palm oil to candy bars and cheap gin; and hole-in-the-wall eateries churn out greasy kebabs and fries until the early morning hours.
This Paris exists mostly outside the gaze of tourists, the whopping 12.7 million people who visited the area this summer. But with a little bit of time and patience, you can still find it. It’s alive in the bustling boulevards at the bottom of the Butte Montmartre, across the alleyways and the streets snaking around the northeast of the city, and in the public housing towers scattered around the periphery. These parts of the city can be loud, messy and, every once in a while, a bit dangerous. But they refuse to abide by the half-theme-park, half-museum ambience that prevails in much of central Paris. Unlike the ossified quarters downtown, long ago colonized by the wealthy and hordes of short-term visitors, these areas are full of life. Here, another Paris is alive and kicking.
At its heart is affordable housing. Consider the neighborhood of Belleville, a melting pot in the city’s northeast that has for decades welcomed waves of immigrants, initially from Eastern and Southern Europe and more recently from the Maghreb and China. To be sure, the area is experiencing gentrification, and rents on the open market can be quite high. Still, around 40 percent of Belleville’s housing stock is composed of what’s known as social housing — apartments managed by public authorities that guarantee below-market rates for residents with low to middle incomes. This type of housing allows residents and their families to stay in the area. Thankfully, many have chosen to do so.
Their presence has enabled certain facets of life in Belleville to carry on over the years: a willingness to embrace difference, a streak of rebelliousness and a recognition of the fact that multiple populations share this space — that this neighborhood has never belonged to any one group. In its multiplicity lies its charm. Older working-class residents, immigrant shop owners and younger artists have all forged the distinctive hybrid culture permeating Belleville’s streets, from the dive bars and Chinese restaurants to the halal butcheries and cafes specializing in off-track betting.
In a Paris transformed by gentrification, Belleville is something of an outlier. As Parisians know all too well, booming housing prices have reshaped the city: from 2000 to 2020, the average price of real estate per square meter tripled. But Belleville’s rambunctious spirit bears witness to a much deeper Parisian tradition. The battle for neighborhoods — over what space belongs to whom and what can be done in it — is embedded in the city’s DNA.
The French Revolution was propelled, in large part, by the gaping wealth divide in Paris, with the modest eastern quarters turning against their moneyed counterparts to the west. And throughout the early 19th century, Parisian masses revolted time and time again, waging street battles from barricades in their neighborhoods. Under Baron Haussmann’s massive renovation program — a form of gentrification avant la lettre — many of those low-income areas were targeted, their buildings razed and residents removed to reduce the risks of revolt. But he failed to fully achieve that goal. When laborers reclaimed the streets in 1871 and declared the short-lived Paris Commune, it marked the revenge of those who had been pushed out to the city’s periphery.
The revolution never quite arrived, but the power and influence of the Parisian working class did usher in a long period of affordable housing. Fearful of upsetting a delicate social peace, the French government repeatedly extended rent controls imposed during World War I through the end of World War II, giving Paris some of the cheapest big-city rents in all of Europe. And those low housing costs didn’t just benefit workers; they also played an underappreciated role in the city’s emergence as a global hub for the arts and the avant-garde, those glory years stretching from the birth of the Surrealists to the development of New Wave cinema.
Low rents are what paved the way for economically distressed creatives like James Joyce, Man Ray and George Orwell to soak up the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s. They’re also why, decades later, a then-unknown James Baldwin could show up with $40 in his pocket and find himself at the center of the Western literary world. It’s grimly ironic to consider how this artistic heritage, so contingent on inexpensive housing, has now become another piece of the city’s marketable lore, trotted out by real estate agents to lure in wealthy investors and fuel higher rents.
Yet while the gentrifiers may have the upper hand today, the battle is far from over. Housing activists are putting pressure on authorities to keep the city affordable, and city officials are already using some of the regulatory tools at their disposal. Part of the solution involves beefing up supply, something that, despite a lack of construction space in Paris, can partly be achieved through clamping down on Airbnb rentals and hiking the tax on secondary residences. But increasing supply isn’t a silver bullet. Parisian authorities should also continue to create subsidized housing, purchase more properties and impose rent controls.
There’s a more fundamental challenge. Since 2014, Paris has been losing about 12,000 inhabitants every year, many of the emigrants taking up residence in the sprawling, suburban mass that’s now much more inhabited than the city itself. According to the official figures, the Paris metropolitan area now has a whopping 11 million inhabitants, nearly nine million of whom live in the suburbs — the banlieues. Many of these residents often lack access to the public services, transportation, small businesses and cultural events that shape the capital.
Finding more egalitarian ways to treat the metropolitan area as a unified whole, tearing down the borders between the capital and banlieues once and for all, is the route to a profoundly better Paris. Because all Parisians deserve neighborhoods that offer the humanizing effects of rich, intricate street life so spectacularly on display at the bottom of Butte Montmartre.
Cole Stangler (@ColeStangler)is a journalist and the author of “Paris Is Not Dead: Surviving Hypergentrification in the City of Light,” from which this essay is adapted.
Source images by Ian.CuiYi, Francois Guillot, Tinieder and gresei/Getty Images.
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