The situationist Guy Debord once spoke of undertaking “a static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station”, but it is murky zone outside the station perimeters that offers greater potential for a drift. Debord was interested in the exploration of a fixed spatial field, but the world of the train station bleeds out beyond its physical boundaries, having a profound influence on the architecture and activity of its surroundings.
To this end, it can be observed that station environments the world over are much the same. Step outside the entrance and you will see cheap hotels and fast food outlets, sex shops and taxi ranks. There will generally be no sign of any indigenous culture, and rarely will you see anything to lift the heart. Indeed, a friend's first experience when arriving in the Italian city of Naples was treading on a dead dog.
Stations are for arriving, departing and waiting - for some, a dance that is repeated every day. Outside is a zone that caters only for the itinerant. As bars and restaurants here have few regular clients they have no need to encourage customer loyalty, and therefore make little effort with quality, price or decoration. They are opportunists, feeding on those without the time necessary to make a carefully considered choice.
But why it is that there should be such a high number of sex shops in these locations? In Paris it can probably be linked to the fact that such commerces should be situated at least 200m from any school. More generally, it is probably always a good idea for these services to be positioned in an area with a high concentration of hotels.
With plenty of traveller trap restaurants, sex shops and seedy hotels, the zone between the Gare de l'Est and Gare du Nord is therefore fairly typical. It is not without points of interest though. The Rue d'Alsace that runs north/south alongside the Gare de l'Est is a good place to start. The station entrance here, in iron and glass, is almost art deco in form, and sits next to a rather charming twin staircase which leads towards the Gare du Nord.
At the top of the staircase, the road follows the curve of tracks and platforms, offering wide open skies and a pleasant perspective over the canopies to the city on the other side.
Whilst train stations are quickly rebranding themselves as leisure destinations (the Gare de l’Est has been transformed into an upmarket shopping centre, as has the Gare Saint Lazare), the zones outside remain hostile to the casual visitor. However, in cities that are becoming more and more sanitised, a walk in these territories can offer a vision of a different world and a previous time.