Friday 1 June 2012

L'entre deux gares

Visit almost any major city in the world and you can be sure that the sleaziest part of town will be the streets around the train station. When two train stations are situated in close proximity, this twilight zone becomes almost a minor city by itself. This is the case in the grisly arteries between the Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord.

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.  

Although largely identical, the invisible zones around the two stations can be differentiated in other ways. The names of certain streets, cafés and restaurants tell you to which station they are connected. Around the Gare de l'Est are pointers to Strasbourg, Alsace, Verdun and Germany (I couldn't resist a picture of the hotel above). However, you know you have stepped across the line towards the Gare du Nord when you see references to Dunkerque, Amiens and Belgium.

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. 


Michael Rowland said...

Great photos , thanks for sharing, looks like old poloroids,,,M

Unknown said...

Cool, thanks for the tour.

The Clever Pup said...

I hear you loud and clear. In 1992 we were traveling on a Eurail pass and missed our connection to Cherbourg and had to cool our heels for 4 hours between Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est. We did check our bags and visit Sacre Coeur. Montmarte was downright creepy. And the stations smell like pee. No one in Canada pees in the stations. What's up with that?

PeterParis said...

You are right in many aspects, but this is hardly true today around the Saint Lazare, Gare de Lyon, Gare de Montparnasse... and around Gare d'Austerlitz a lot of new development takes place. I believe that the problem may be more pronounced in certain other big cities, worldwide, and then often linked to bus stations. The kind of environment you describe in Paris is in my mind today not a typical rail station issue ... but can as easily be found also elsewhere. Or...?

Anonymous said...


Cardinham | Killgrew said...

wonderful photos...the imagery of the darker side is wonderful.

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