Not just a lot of hot air: Residents of Paris’s historic Belleville district, seen here protesting on a recent Sunday up top the parc Belleville outside the shuttered Maison d’Air, are worried that the mayor of Paris wants to sell the space to a private concessionaire who will turn it into another BoBo bistro. Images courtesy Collectif for the Maison d’Air for Residents.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
PARIS — Yesterday afternoon in a courtyard atelier on the rue Tourtille — not far from where on May 28, 1871 the Paris Commune made its last stand and where at 3 a.m. on November 14, 2015, when I was living in the same building, a distant car alarm awoke me to the news of the massacres — a group of artists and activists was busy making signs for an ambulatory protest Sunday against the ongoing privatization of Belleville, specifically talk of plans by the mayor of Paris to sell off the closed site of the Maison de l’air up top the parc Belleville just below the belvedere (offering one of the most spectacular views of the city, including the Eiffel tower) to a private concessionaire who will no doubt lease it to yet another restaurant (because G-d knows if there’s one thing we need in Belleville, it’s more restaurants). Or, as the collective “Convergence Belleville” put it when news of the mayor’s intentions first surfaced in 2017, ‘Yet another BoBo bar-resto in a working-class neighborhood where the residents have other needs,” one of the group’s recent suggestions being to make the site into a municipal museum for the 20th arrondissement. The arrondissment’s longtime Socialist party mayor, Frédérique Calandra, has countered — in a 2017 interview with the Parisian newspaper — that rehabilitating the building, in particular getting rid of the asbestos, would not be “cost-effective” for the municipality to undertake and that “the creation of a new place of activity in upper-Belleville will also allow us to re-enforce security in the sector,” which she said is mined by drug trafficking, begging the question of why retaining the site as a public forum (say, for activities serving the young people the drug dealers prey on) would not do this better than a privately held restaurant in a public space where you have to pay to enter. And Danielle Simonnet, Calandra’s opponent from the France Insoumis party in the last municipal elections, insisted, in an interview with the same newspaper, that “this project will only re-enforce the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood.” Or, as another artist-activist and long-time Belleville resident put it to me recently, “They want to turn Paris into one big restaurant.”
Poster for the ongoing opposition to possible plans by the City of Paris to sell the space now occupied by the Maison d’Air up top the parc de Belleville to a private concessionaire, who residents fear would turn the now public space into a private restaurant.
I’ve seen this happen before first-hand, in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and in San Francisco’s Mission District. First the Yuppies / BoBos/”Hipsters” are content to just alight in the neighborhood to eat, then they want to live there (which drives housing prices up and indigenous artist and ethnic populations out), then, as opposed to the truly ethnic restaurants and foodstuffs stores (Latino in the Mission, Polish in Greenpoint, Chinese and Algerian or Moroccan in Belleville), the generic BoBo / Yuppie / Hipster-geared restaurants move in, with their faux-hip (or faux-ethnic, in other words ethnic food made by white people) menus, often interchangeable. The restaurant “Thank God for broccoli” — that’s not my translation, it’s in English on the marquee — might sound to you like it should be in Brooklyn but in fact it sprouted up on the rue Piat down the street from the belvedere of the parc Belleville.
If rising housing prices not just in Belleville but across Eastern Paris indicate that it’s already too late, Versailles — er, the BoBos — has won (Bellevilloise artist friends tell me that a 60 square meter apartment off the rue Cascades recently sold for over 700,000 Euros or $820,00), in my own ramble late yesterday afternoon up the rue Fontaine du roi terminating on the Boulevard Belleville, before heading up the rue Belleville to Tourtille I found signs that food may actually save the neighborhood…. as well as the exact corner where, according to lettering on a bench outside the “Cantine de Babelville” situated there, the marriage between Belleville, then the second largest community outside Paris, and Lutèce was consummated in 1860. Although “consummated” is probably gilding the lilly. As Christiane Demeulenaere-Douyère observed, in “The ‘annexation’ as seen by Eastern Paris: Worries, hopes, and dissatisfactions” (Editions de la Sorbonne), reflecting community unease — including fear that food prices would go up! — with the planned annexation, the municipal council of Belleville actually voted against it in 1859, an expression of popular will the city of Paris promptly ignored, not only gobbling up the neighborhood but dividing it.
If the bad news is that like the rues Jean-Pierre Timbaud and Oberkampf which lead up to the boulevard Belleville before turning into the rues Couronnes and Menilmentont, the rue Fontaine du roi is littered with still more faux ethnic restaurants, crowned by a meta-bar / resto / “hostel” whose title is the only thing about it exclusively in French (the menu being dominated by Yankee English), the good news late yesterday afternoon, food and working-class ethnic populations-wise, came first in the Algerian and Moroccan French restaurants and bakeries setting their cakes, omelettes, savory and honey-sticky pastries, olives, and various peppery salads and condiments out on the sidewalks for the end-of-day Ramadan break-fast, and then at “The Paris Store,” my source for all num-nums Chinese and where, browsing the Ramen noodles racks for dinner (I’d walked all the way from the Meridian on the Left Bank after a long pause in front of the Fountain of the Four Corners of the World and was too tired to cook), I noted that certain flavors, predominantly fish and crustacean, had been highlighted with “Good for Hallal” signs…. Meaning the Chinese grocery store wasn’t marketing just to its own, but was taking into account the religious/dietary needs of its French Arab clientel for Ramadan. (I’d later pour my soup over day-old “Viking Bread” — I wanted to test out the fortitude of the new choppers — from the bakery at the corner of Tourtille and the rue Belleville which sells both Arab and non-Arab French breads and pastries.)
In other words, what may save Belleville is that more than I’ve seen in Greenpoint and the other ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and even in San Francisco’s Mission District, these communities aren’t just catering to their own (and to the BoBos) but to each other. There’s not the inter-ethnic strife I’ve seen or heard of in other cities, e.g. between the Korean- and Black-Americans in South Central Los Angeles or even Greenwich Village. And the mayor should get some credit for this: When French Chinese commerce threatened to encroach on French Arab groceries, boulangeries, restaurants and butchers several years ago, she put a stop to it, in the name of preserving the neighborhood’s diversity.
This is also what I love about the twice-weekly outdoor market on the Boulevard Belleville: Squeezing through the crowds of French Arabs, French Africans, French Asians, and even a few BoBos, 99 percent of the time politely moving forward despite the crush, negotiating with the largely French-Arab fruit, vegetable, olive, date, pepper-filled crepes, cheese, fish, fresh mint, and merguez vendors — okay, le bouffe est aussi pour quelque-chose, the food may have something to do with it.
And it’s for the Maison d’Air site’s potential as a place of more inter-community exchanges — not another bistro — that the various militant organizations will be de-ambulating throughout the streets of Belleville and Menilmontant Sunday, beginning at 4 p.m. on the Place Gambetta. Or, as the Collectif for the Maison d’Air for residents puts it on its manifesto (see above): “We dreamed of this place, and we will not renounce… we will not abandon our dreams. We want this place to be a place of sharing, of invention, of culture, of invention, of debates and fetes for the quartier.”