Languages, like cities, are constantly suprising, particularly when compared with others. Where one may be barren, another may offer an unexpected flash of grace. In English, the Place Fréhel would be described as an empty plot or derelict land, but in French it is a 'dent creuse' - a missing or hollow tooth. And how true this seems. From a point near the Pyrénees Metro station, the fangs and molars on the Rue de Belleville lead the eye towards the Eiffel Tower far off in the distance, but half-way down, on the corner of the Rue Julien Lacroix, one (or more...) of these crooked teeth has indeed been pulled out.
On one side of this small, unintended cavity, a jumble of tables and chairs form the terrace of the Culture Rapide bar, the leading venue in the city for slam performance poetry. Above, an installation by the artist Ben informs us that "Il faut se méfier des mots." Words clearly have their importance in this rather unique location, but it is not easy to find the right ones to describe it.
It has always seemingly been a place without a purpose, a square peg in the city's round hole. It mostly functioned as a parking space for motor bikes and scooters, but has recently been converted into an urban nursery. Pear trees - heavy with fruit - stand in wooden boxes, their feet tickled by wild flowers, and there are even plants blossoming in old bath tubs! But why did this gap in the city's logic appear in the first place?
Begin at the beginning. Once, of course, there were buildings here (the parcellation plans dating from the second half of the 19th century that I found online suggest there were three - see below). The first sounds they heard were the hooves of the horses that trotted up and down the Belleville hill, but as soon as technology allowed it, these were replaced by the rattling of a funicular tramway. The tramway lasted for only around 30 years, before being replaced by the grumble of a motor bus, and then finally by the underground rumbling of the Metro. It was this final noise that would prove fatal.
Some time in the early 1930s - and it is not entirely clear when - the digging of the tunnel of the new line 11 sent vibrations and cracks up towards the foundations of the buildings. This must not have been sudden and catastrophic - there is no mention anywhere of any one particular incident - but slow and gradual. Whatever the case, the buildings were declared unsafe and pulled down, and the ground seemingly too treacherous for any replacement constructions.
The three missing buildings are 52 and 54 Rue de Belleville, and 105 Rue Julien Lacroix.
But why not a garden or proper square, a play area or outdoor market? Was it still expected that the ground would crack and open up once again, and why has it not affected any of the neighboring buildings?
For 50 years it remained a non-place until it was finally given an identity in the 1980s. Fréhel was taken from the stage name of the inter-war actress and singer Marguerite Boulc'h, a name she herself had borrowed from the region of Brittany from which she had originated. To give people something to look at and think about, four creations were added around the plot. Ben's dangling sign hanger and Jean Le Gac's more dated monumental detective are the most immediately obvious. More discreet is Marie Bourget's cone in one corner, and a square, by Jean-Luc Albert, that cuts across the walls and raises the ground level.
The tooth has slowly been filled, but traces of the original tissue matter still remain. The crude walls of neighbouring buildings that were never meant to be seen, a doorframe leading nowhere, mysterious twin markers on the ground, an orphaned post that still seems to wonder where its fellow supports went...
If the Place Fréhel has any kind of identity today - beyond the garden, which though attractive seems to have hijacked much of the space - it is as a street art hotspot. It seems that both nature - and street artists - abhor a vacuum...or missing teeth!
Note: This is one of the locations featured in my freely-downloadable street art walking tour.