Wednesday 13 May 2009

On The Other Side

I briefly mentioned the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad in my previous post, site of the Rotonde and Bassin de la Villette, and how the area which has seen so much of the city's history somehow remains unchanged. What interests me most today about this area though are the recent attempts to clean it up and integrate it into the rest of the city. What have we been able to learn from these attempts and how much responsibility should we assume for the environments in which we live?

Recently installed on the Place, the 25° Est bar and restaurant (photo above) seemingly offers an idyllic spot in the city. The two-levelled terrace is situated alongside a small basin of water, and gives views across the larger Bassin and back across the Place towards the Rotonde. After the installations of the two multiplex MK2 cinemas on either side of canal, it is another successful attempt to bring life back to this corner of Paris.

This most recent renovation though nearly did not take place. It should be noted that most of what is visible today was only put in place in the late 1980s, so was a complete overhaul already a necissity? The secondary problem was the fact that the architect of these changes, Bernard Huet, had died in 2001, and his family and friends were fighting to preserve his creation. It was a creation though that was seemingly in the wrong place and simply did not work.

At the beginning of this century, Stalingrad had an abysmal reputation in the city. Huet's creation had become a large empty space, a zone where people did not dare walk after dark, with its endless quiet corners and dimly lit tunnels. Crack dealers and addicts moved in and took over, and the Place was close to becoming lawless. It was the residents of the area though who fought back, organising protests and even policing the zone themselves, and who eventually forced the city to rethink the site. Despite protests from the Huet followers, significant changes were made, notably the closure of the tunnels and a decision to bring life back to the Place. The 25° Est moved in and the Rotonde will be changed from offices (therefore devoid of life in the evening) to a restaurant. And yet for all that, this is the view that clients at the 25° Est have today.

Huet provided benches alongside the canal, divided up into individual walled boxes, and these have been taken over by a community of homeless people. Who can blame them? Further along the Line 2 Metro route I had seen a bed under the rattling railway line which was just a wooden pallet and a blanket, and in comparison these units are almost luxurious. Who should assume most responsibility for this situation though - the architect for creating something that could be transformed in this manner and which probably wasn't a wise project for the location, or the politicians who do little to change a society in which so many people are forced to make any use they can of the city furniture?

Many of us sit a little awkwardly and guiltily today, trying to make the most of our leisure time and yet constantly aware of the misery around us, but why is it though that areas that try to make a difference in the city are the ones that suffer this misery the most? Why has this canal seen so many problems whilst the Seine in front of the Assemblée Nationale remains spotless for tourists? Why has the popular Square Villemin park in the 10th arrondissement become almost a refugee camp and not the Parc Monceau? Again, only our politicians have the answers!

Note: Having written this, it is now very interesting for me to see that the organisation fighting for more social housing, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, has just set up a camp more or less opposite the Assemblée Nationale! I wonder though whether they will be allowed to stay there for as long as they did at the less noticeable Canal St Martin two years ago! (


Peter (the other) said...

"Many of us sit a little awkwardly and guiltily today, trying to make the most of our leisure time and yet constantly aware of the misery around us... "

How well said (as your posts are always a joy for the eyes and internal ears). It can't help but make me think... my bourgeois indignation at the difference in money spent between the Senate's own Luxembourg, and my neighborhood's Jardin des Plantes etc. Yet it seems to me that the root to these problems lie in the insidious population growth of the planet, now twice as much as when I was a boy (I know, Paris' population seems to officially stay kind of static). All of us, including the politicians (who after all, are not known to be that much smarter then the rest of us :-) ) are slipping into a brave new world where things will never be the same as they were, and the solutions will be something we can't even imagine today.

Harriet said...

It takes an architect with vision to know if his creation will "work" so that people will feel comfortable in the "created space". Also, the developers/the city hold some of the power as they dictate certain facts about how the space can be/will be utilized.

You have tackled an important issue with this post.

Starman said...

In your first picture, the restaurant seems to be very popular. What happened that it was abandoned and became home to the homeless? I think Peter (the other) may have a clue. The population keeps increasing and those who can least afford children are the ones who are having the most. They give no thought to how those children are to be housed or fed or clothed or schooled. Just thousands more people using what few resources remain. As much as I dislike the thought of interfering with people's rights, something must be done to control the birth rate. Also, there are hundreds of buildings that have no occupants, wouldn't it make sense to house the homeless in these places? Make them responsible for the maintenance of the buildings, thus instilling the feeling of pride in themselves. It doesn't take long as a homeless person to lose that feeling of self-worth which then leads to carelessness about oneself and one's place in the world.

PeterParis said...

The eastern parts of Paris have until now obviously been more neglected than the western, traditionally more fashionable. This is also valid for the noisy overground metro (of course also in the 15th), the perepherique... With soon all of Paris getting fashionable, this may also change?

What happens at the Vilette makes me think also of what happens with Les Halles. A need to rethink the whole thing after only two decades!

I wonder what our new Clichy-Batignolles area will look like two or three decades after its creation?

However, if I look back on the 35 years I have lived in Paris, I think that quite a lot has been done to make the city even nicer, including the parks which in general are better maintained.

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