Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Pigalle: the battle is lost, but who won the war?

According to the New York Times, the charm of the Pigalle district has been destroyed by a recent influx of American trendsetters. Pigalle may be defeated, but the guilty party is not fashions but instead simple economics.

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ article for the paper, ‘How hipsters ruined Paris’, is a smartly observed piece which managed to get under the skin of both Parisians and imported Americans – quite an achievement in itself. It is however let down by a glaring oversight. The writer laments the falling of one of the city’s bastions and yet seems completely unaware of the fact that he is a soldier in the invading army.
Chatterton Williams’ major gripe is the area’s ‘loss of grit and character’, which seemingly equates to pharmacies, dry cleaners and most importantly, the once ubiquitous bar à hôtesses. He has a point. Although the Pigalle district has never been anything other than transient and based around a fluctuating night-time economy, something a little different is happening today. What he is observing is the creeping hand of gentrification.

Unfortunately Chatterton Williams is not clear about his own role in the downfall. He wants the trappings of an urban middle-class lifestyle; a safe place for his family, a place to buy Pouilly-Fumé wine, but he also wants the exotic. Like the ‘hipsters’ he decries though, he only wants this as a visual, a sound or an odour.


A classic - and refreshingly ordinary - brasserie tabac in Pigalle, probably a prime location for a future installation.

His article can be read as a form of self-loathing, but the target he picks for his attack is not the right one. The ‘hipsters’ – let’s call them instead the educated middle-classes - are not to blame for the transformation of Paris. They are merely a symptom and not the cause of the disease.

As Social Geographer Anne Clerval points out in her recent book ‘Paris sans le peuple’, Paris is changing because the inhabitants of the city have changed. And this is not a new phenomenon.

The golden age of Paris according to Chatterton Williams was the 1920s, a time when people from “the well-heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided.” This fact was not born from fashions and the identity of a district but because of economics. Until the latter half of the 20th century  much of Paris was still affordable to the majority. Rents were controlled, social housing was encouraged, communities were built, unskilled jobs were widespread - all of which meant that residence in the city wasn’t necessarily linked to an individual’s income.

Indeed, as Anne Clerval pointed out in a recent interview, this situation continued up until the early 1980s. In 1982, 42% of all Parisians were from the lower classes. By 2008, this figure had dropped to 27%. Today even the middle classes are struggling to afford to live in the city. Most of this is directly due to key decisions taken at both national and local level.


Perhaps more than the sex shops and the bar à hôtesses, the decline of which is probably linked more to changes in consumption patterns, it is the closure of area's historic music shops which is more indicative of the economic factors at play. Rather tellingly, this one is alongside a Pigalle-branded bar.

There is an invisible battle in Pigalle and elsewhere, but it part of a class war that dare not speak its name. And yet there are some who are happy to turn it into a mere food fight. Revelling in the victory of bourgeois good taste, the Paris by Mouth website has compiled a list of spots in the district provided by the kinds of people Chatterton Williams was attacking. If the tongue of this particular mouth is firmly in its cheek, it is a perfect illustration of what has happened to the city.

The blindspot of this feature is not to see that gentrification – represented here by good food and well-mixed cocktails – cannot co-exist with more ‘populaire’ establishments. As Anne Clerval again points out in the same interview, “la mixité sociale à Paris est une notion hypocrite” (social diversity in Paris is a hypocritical concept). The Paris by Mouth article argues that this gentrification can only be a good thing – but as the new bars replace the bar à hôtesses, the dry-cleaners and long-distance telephone stores, so the desirability of the neighbourhood increases. This in turn means sharp rises in property values, and by definition, exclusion.

Where Chatterton Williams is strongest is when he points out the fundamental dishonesty of the most recent transformations in Pigalle – namely the absurd rebranding of the neighbourhood and the hijacking of the district’s symbols. ‘Pigalle’ has become a visual brand, with the Causses grocery store even adding ‘Sud Pigalle’ to its own-labelled goods (although this Pigalle seems to be a place without an Est, Ouest or Nord). The deceit reaches its apogee at Dirty Dick, a bar which has kept the identity of the neighbouring and fast disappearing bar à hôtesses. This is safe sleaze though, with book clubs replacing bondage.


The Dirty Dick bar. I'm sure the are very happy that I accidently caught the reflection of a sex shop in one of the windows.

It is difficult to argue that a bar à hôtesses is better for a neighbourhood than an organic food shop, especially when you see that one such bar in the Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle has been closed down for 6 months for peddling prostitution. However, if the new ‘hipster’ bars, restaurants and shops have chosen this location it is because of the area’s vestiges of sleaziness - the ‘whiff of dirt and sex in the air’ as Chatterton Williams puts it. By merely existing though they are helping to kill off this identity.

For the Pigalle brand to work they need the neighbourhood to keep its edge. As the brand grows though it cleans up everything around it, leading to just one logical conclusion – it will eventually eat itself. This has already happened elsewhere in Paris – primarily on the left bank – the result being the creation of sterile and bourgeois districts.

In reality the battle in this neighbourhood was lost a long time ago, and is perhaps best summed up in the transformation of the Sans Souci bar. From the 1930s to 1960s, this was a centre of criminal activities in the area. In 1960, its owner, Georges Rapin, was even executed after being found guilty of murdering his mistress, a local stripper. Today the bar – still operating under the same name - is quiet and tastefully decorated, peopled not by strippers and gangsters but designers and architects.

When I first showed up, the only really good restaurant in the neighborhood was the lamentably now-gone Casa Olympe, but during the last few years, this patch of Paris has really shined up its gastronomic credentials” says Alex Lobrano in the Paris by Mouth feature. Perhaps it was difficult to find a decent meal in Pigalle in the past, but at least people could afford to live there.

14 comments:

mademoisella coquine. said...

Thank you so much for this. You make some excellent points. I have found some of the other rebuttals and responses to this NYT opinion piece to be so angry and fueled that it was difficult to enjoy an opposing argument.

Thank you for this intelligent and well-thought-out post, but mostly for not yelling your opinion at me. : )

I just discovered you through mutual friends. I look forward to more posts!

Stephen Barker said...

An interesting article with a number of valid points. All vibrant cities undergo changes with districts changing over time. It is false nostalgia to lament that things are not as they once were. I have not seen the NYT article but I wonder if the author really endorses the sex trade and would be keen to see it flourish as part of a district's character?

It is interesting that the Woody Allen film 'Midnight in Paris' and Martin Scorsese's film 'Hugo' both idealised Paris of the 1920's. Does this period have a special affinity for Americans?

Many of the points you make can equally be applied to London, where an influx of wealthy foreigners are ramping up property prices which is leading people to relocate around the city to find property that they can afford.

I enjoy your blog very much and it always makes me want to go down to St Pancras and get on Eurostar to Paris.

Adam said...

mademoisella coquine: Thank you for reading. I'll keep a closer eye on your blog too.

Stephen: Yes, this same process applies to many cities around the world. Coming back to Anne Clerval and her book 'Paris sans le Peuple' again, she explains that if anything it happens much quicker in other cities such as London and New York. It's difficult to say what the solution could be though, because even if there was affordable housing, the kinds of jobs done by the low paid are now also mostly situated out in the distant suburbs.

Cara Black said...

Thanks for a well-thought out piece, Adam. My first into to Pigalle was in Truffaut's 400 Blows where he films those streets he grew up in and Bob, the Gambler the noir black and white classic of the time you mention in the Sans Souci incident. My Bobo friends moved into the Pigalle area in the late 90's and by the early 2000's lots more Bobo's - finding large apartments, central location, just far enough away from Barbés to 'feel' safe. The area had been quite dead, apart from hostess bars, until then with insurance companies taking over the big buildings. People complained then about the Bobo's changing the landscape while others raved about the Rose bakery. My next book takes place in 1998 and yes, there's a murder in Pigalle...but I don't know, after all this furor, if I got it right :) Cara

Canedolia said...

Very interesting post! I haven't read the article yet but what you said about the gentrification of Paris in general certainly corresponds to my experience of its housing market. It never ceases to amaze me that areas that used to be hotbeds of working class revolt are now completely unaffordable for people on professional salaries, and I think that Paris will become a less interesting place because of it.

I found your point about this being due to "key decisions taken at local and national level" intriguing, because I had always assumed that it was more a case of market forces at work. Can you give more details?

cbisset2013 said...

Interesting piece and of course it highlights the evolution of all cities where 'the past' is so often lamented. I recall visiting a small village in the Dordogne and being horrified to see pinned up in the church a coffee rota, filled out with lots of English names. So much for the archetypal French village. While I would love to revisit the Paris I first visited in the late 1970s, cities must and do change.
This is a great blog - I really enjoy your writing.

Adam said...

Cara: I’m sure you got it spot on!
By rights, Pigalle should already be as bourgeois as neighbouring districts – Rue des Martyrs, Montmartre – and it is only the sex shops and hostess bars that have been keeping prices at lower levels. It seems that this is now over!

Adam said...

Canedolia: I don’t wish to keep harking on about this, but again, this is the whole thrust of Anne Clerval’s book. At national level, this might be policies that have encouraged the acquisition of property (France used to be a country that rented) and the deindustrialisation of Paris (the government is a major shareholder in many companies). At local level, Clerval cites the ‘cleaning up’ of the previously working class districts, and the creation of facilities (the 104, Maison des Metallos, Basin de la Villette) that are geared towards attracting the middle classes to these zones.

Adam said...

cbisset2013: thanks for your comment. This whole topic does throw up many questions. Is it wrong for an incomer to the city with a comfortable income to want to live in Belleville or La Villette? Is it any worse to create a 'hipster' identity than a 'chinatown', as has been the case with other parts of Paris? This applies to large cities and - as you point out - to small villages.

Frank Pleasants said...

Thanks for the interesting piece on Pigalle, my neighborhood for the last three decades. I find Chatterton Williams’ New York Times article fairly peculiar, and at the least in need of some sharp editing.
C.W. speaks of feeling a certain “discomfort” for the transvestite prostitutes he crosses on his way to the wine shop, whereas I don’t know of anyone else around here who much bothers one way or the other. People who elect to live in an area known for its darker side tend to accept it for what it is.
This being said, the gradual and apparently natural “cleaning up” of some of Pigalle’s sleazier aspects in recent years can only be welcomed as an improvement. As you say, who can fault the replacement of a hostess bar with a quality food shop.
One of the nicer, more unique aspects of many Parisian neighborhoods in my experience is their rather unique talent for cohabitation –a melding of the rich and the poor, the young and old, and the hip and the unhip, all on the same streets … even in the same buildings. Paris’ special architectural contribution, the top floor maid’s room, always encouraged a class mixture within the same building, particularly in recent decades when live-in domestic help has become virtually extinct.
Unlike your observation, I hadn’t noticed a decline in music/guitar stores, and they certainly still abound and dominate the neighborhood, presumably more than anywhere else in Paris. If they are diminishing, I suspect it has more to do with the new digital economy, and not so much connection with the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Ditto for the sex shops. They do seem to be dwindling, and I am quite sure they are (along with so many other businesses) the victim of the internet. I shed no tears for the profession, and surely the more clever of the sex shop entrepreneurs have long since transferred their business to the computer screen anyway.
P.S. I think it is wonderful to now find exceptional restaurants all over the Pigalle landscape, and this certainly doesn’t mean more expensive menus. Just more empassioned and talented creators.

Adam said...

Frank: I think the Pigalle district is a bit of an exception in Paris. It's difficult to say that people have ruined a district which has never had any kind of community as such. There are no schools or parks or churches or other convenient meeting places. This is not somewhere that has seen the eviction of whole ethnic or social groups, but its identity is now clearly changing.
This identity though is not something that was created by the local community and not something that served the needs of the local community. I have no problem with smart new restaurants and shops, particularly if they are adopted by the locals. What does irritate me though is this rebranding of Pigalle. At least when the large chains move in they are honest with their desire to impose their own identities.

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