Friday 2 January 2009

A Rocher and a Hard Place

(Rue du Rocher, 75008)
"Ajoutez deux lettres à Paris, c’est le Paradis". The French author and Parisophile, Jules Renard, penned this famous hommage to the city in his “Journal”, but it would be a difficult job to find traces of paradise in the footsteps Renard left in the city. He lived in apparent happiness at number 44, Rue du Rocher in the 8th Arrondissement, but today the land on which he dwelled is covered with a block of massive concrete brutalism. The city is sometimes harsh on those that have loved her the most.

Slicing upwards from the Gare St Lazare on an ancient route towards Argenteuil, the Rue de Rocher is no stairway to heaven, but is rather testament to the fact that the most nondescript parts of a city can often hide the most fascinating stories. Take each street as an urban adventure playground and you will undoubtedly unearth the muddy jewells, historic diamonds and bizarre architectural nuggets that at first glance seem to be disguised as scratched plexiglass.

Today the Rue de Rocher seems to lack a number 44, with the office block situated in this plot taking the pencilled out spaces of at least three previous structures. Such brutalist buildings are a rare sight in the centre of Paris, but they almost invariably house offices of government or state industries. This one is home to the Gaz de France, and if truth be told, this imposing building is not without interest. However, what draws me in to look more closely is a sign announcing a Bains Douches (public baths). Why was such a feature added to a comparitively recent building and just where is it situated? I eventually find the entrance, but it seems that it is only accessible by taking a chance along a pavementless service road under the building. At the end of this road, the doorway into the Bains Douches is distinctly unwelcoming, with twisting barbed wire spiralling across the fences surrounding the entrance. You’d need to be in a desperate situation to find the motivation to use this most unfriendly structure.

Immediately next door, dwarfed by the neighbouring structure, a pointed rooftop can be seen peeking over a high wall. A solid wooden door bars access to the building, and the slide-across peephole is firmly shut, but a sign on the door gives some clues to what lays behind. It indicates a link to the Congrégation des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Bon Secours, a community of nursing Nuns, who were surely very useful contemporary neighbours to Renard and his family. Alongside the public baths next door, Renard would be comforted to know that his neighbourhood still offers assistance to the most needy in this wealthy part of the city, but for how long will this continue? Strips of packaging tape now cover over the services offered by this community, and the buildings seem to be abandoned. Looking later, I discover that this plot too is earmarked for development, a demolition and rebuild that should already have started according to this link

Thinking perhaps of his legacy, Renard also noted in his Journal that "on vieillit peut-être
plus vite quand on est mort" (we age perhaps more quickly when we are dead), but this is a street refusing to die through perpetual evolution. Continue upwards though, across a viaduct that flies above the ground and streets below, and it sinks down to become a monument to the dead, a place that marked history then made sure it could never be found again.

Stretching across what today forms the Boulevard Malesherbes, the Rue Monceau, the Rue de Miromesnil and the Rue de Rocher was the Cimetière des Erancis, a hastily constructed cemetery which had a gruesome role to play in the French revolution. The cemetery was placed in the shadow of the ancient city limits, but the first visible object - a sign which read simply “Dormir, enfin” (Sleep, at last) - gave little notice as to the horrors that lay behind. Beyond this point was a communal burial pit, where the headless corpses of the Robespierristes, including Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre himself, were dumped. The bodies were then covered over with quick lime to ensure that they could never be dug up in the future and identified. In 1840, 30 years after the cemetery had been shut down, an attempt was made by subsequent robespierristes to recover the remains, but time and chemisty had done their job. Today this plot is covered by a forest of buildings, seemingly little aware of the stories that lay beneath.

Shortly after this, I arrive at the top of the street, and look back on the route taken. Am I now in paradise? No, just Paris.


PeterParis said...

Arrived on the top, perehaps not in Paradise but on Boulevard de Courcelles and on the border to the 17th!

Once again I'm amazed by your energy to look for details in what at a first sight may look as a rather "normal" street. But, you are right, almost all streets in Paris hide some treasures! I look forward to many more of your posts in 2009!!

ArtSparker said...

It's amusing that a place in which people are naked and vulnerable is surrounded by barbed wire. I suppose we are all prickly at times.

People from India have told me that they feel the ground is very solid here, and they feel free, I believe because we do not have dense history buried underneath in the U.S.

CarolineLD said...

Fascinating stuff - I'm really happy to have come across this blog and look forward to reading regularly!

Anonymous said...

La rue du Rocher ou comment suivre le chemin de l'inspiration et de l'histoire... Un bien joli chapitre de ton blog, toujours aussi étonnant !

(excuse my French for once!)

Cergie said...

A Paris on tutoie l'histoire, mais en Californie aussi (Stevenson, Steinbeck..)
Je ne suis pas persuadée que Paris soit le paradis, mais la France oui, comme la Californie. Tout simplement parce que toutes deux sont situées à l'ouest d'un continent, là où le climat est le plus clément et où poussent les vignes. (Il fait bien plus froid en Sibérie et à NYC)
J'aime bien ta photo du haut qui donne une bonne image de mondes cachés : il s'en passe des choses derrière les façades ou les murs sur rue, des immeubles ou des jardins derrière insoupçonnés.

Sarah Towle said...

Great tidbit about Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins!

Thanks for sharing the real rue du Rocher with us.

Great post!

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