Paris’ 18th district

Montrmartre, Pigalle and la Chapelle —Crime and the passion of social ideas; anarchists and artists; sex, drugs, rock ‘n’roll and working class heroes … Paris’ 18th arrondissement has seen it all. Its history tells the tale of some of the major social forces shaping life in this city.

From the Paris Commune to the struggles of Paris’ 19th century working class to the more recent “sans papiers” occupation of the district’s Saint-Bernard church, the18th has been a crucible of political, social and artistic ferment. When in 1868 Jean-Baptiste Clément wrote his famous song “Le Temps des Cerises,” little did he imagine that three years later he would be elected mayor of Montmartre and that his song would become the hymn of the commune. The enthusiastic support of the people of the 18th arrondissement for the Commune can be accounted for only by the social changes that had taken place there in the course of the 19th century.

When the Industrial Revolution was beginning to hit northeast Paris, the gateway to the big mining and industrial areas of the north and of the east, this section of Paris was doomed. Poor people thronged to these outlying faubourgs from the provinces, providing the necessary workforce for the new industries and servants for the privileged bourgeoisie, comfortably accommodated within the city toll walls, the “Mur de l’Octroi.”

To the east of the Butte Montmartre lay the village of the Goutte-d’Or, renowned for the quality of its wine, as its name indicates, and the village of La Chapelle, no less noteworthy for its beautiful roses.
But now a Dickensian landscape had swallowed them up, shut off from Paris by the toll wall. It was a desolate wasteland covered with networks of railway tracks and ominous chimney stacks belching their black smoke into a leaden sky. In “L’Assommoir” Emile Zola describes with photographic precision the life and environment of the 18th arrondissement. It was his intention, he said, “to paint the fatal degeneration of a working class family in the foul environments of our faubourgs.”

In 1860 the walls were pulled down and the outer faubourgs were incorporated into Paris; the Goutte-d’Or, La Chapelle and the Butte Montmartre became its 18th arrondissement. Like the Grands Boulevards, which had replaced the city walls at the time of Louis XIV, the boulevards extérieurs became a new pleasure-ground, catering to the masses. Some adventurous bourgeois liked to come here at night to rub shoulders with the riff-raff. The boulevards that girdle the 18th to the south became the thrilling meeting place of the rabble and the middle classes. Here, for the moment, they could secretly transcend all social taboos.

Paris society had always thrived on new thrills and Tout-Paris thronged to the opening of a new cabaret, the Chat Noir, in 1880. The Chat Noir was next to today’s Elysée-Montmartre on the boulevard de Rochechouart. This was lower-class territory. If a bourgeois wished to come here, he had better keep a low profile. Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized Aristide Bruant (a performer at Le Chat Noir) dressed in his black, wide-brimmed felt hat and red neck scarf.

The opening of the Moulin Rouge in 1889 made Montmartre a mecca of pleasure and entertainment the world over. The Moulin Rouge was a sensation from the very start, and its opening was a no less historic event than the completion and inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. Both were timed to coincide with the 1889 World’s Fair, a key date since it also commemorated the centenial of the French Revolution.

The Moulin Rouge offered “Gay Paris” what it really wanted,  not social protest, but glitter, flash and a display of female flesh, with frilled thighs furiously beating out a provocative French cancan or chahut.

The boulevards outside the Moulin Rouge, with their flashy electric lights, were where scandalous luxury mingled with utmost misery.  It was a place where sex and crime offered easy money and  where many a wealthy, foolish gentleman, washed by champagne and wheedled by a coquette, found his hotel broken into within the next few days.

An international community of anarchists moved about in this underworld, feeling at one with the population that had ignited the Commune. Indignant at the shrieking social injustice that stared them in the face, they were determined to bring about the fall of the corrupt society that permitted it by blowing up as many of its institutions as possible.

Although their initial motivation was noble, it was not always easy to distinguish between them and common criminals, nor between them and the poverty stricken artist community of Montmartre. Thus Picasso’s “band” was put on the file by the police, and the Cubist painter Juan Gris was arrested when he was mistaken for one of the daring bank robbers on the rue Ordener.

The environment of the 18th arrondissement favored crime and dirty dealings: warehouses stood empty beside railway tracks, stretches of wasteland covered the east of the arrondissement, and in the west there was the steep maze of narrow streets of the Butte Montmartre. The Butte also provided ample hiding space in its quarries and caves, which had been the den of bandits and runaways throughout history. Political opponents had also sought refuge here, among them Marat, when for a while the tide of the French Revolution turned against him. As a result Montmartre was even renamed Mont Marat for a time.

Although thugs and ruffians scoured the hill, making use of its nooks and recesses and causing disturbances at the Moulin de la Galette, the Butte Montmarte preserved the contrified, homely simplicity that had appealed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. When in the first half of the 19th century the brilliant society of finance and the arts settled in and around the newly opened Nouvelle Athènes quarter at the southern foot of the hill, the Butte Montmartre exerted an appeal on those in search of a secluded getaway.

At the turn of the century a wave of artists flooded the hill, drawn as much by the cheap housing as the pleasant environment and the genial, classless population. While the poet Gérard de Nerval stayed on the Butte for only a year, Hector Berlioz made it his permanent home. Later Degas liked to walk up the hill and observe the laundresses, who loathed the man and called him a dirty old voyeur.

In 1920 a bunch of genial, free-spirited, somewhat eccentric villagers of Montmartre declared the hill a free commune, to be headed by a democratically elected Mayor. Their old artist friends, by now residing in Montparnasse, were called upon to participate in the elections. Several electoral lists were made up, among them the Cubist list with Picasso, Max Jacob and Alexandre Archipenko. The Dadaist list was led by Francis Picabia, André Breton and Tristan Tzara. On their program were the following steps to be taken: “to remove, to wipe out, to destroy, to wreck, to eliminate.” The Cubists wanted skyscrapers but the traditional locals- Suzanne Valadon, Francisque Poulbot- opposed them and suggested instead canceling the months of December, January and February, and installing an escalator uphill, a chute downhill and a conveyor from one bistro to another. Their party obtained 57,835  votes. They also wanted to put an end to the tourist invasion by restricting the number of visitors allowed into the Place du Tertre to 100,000 at any one time.

The tourist invasion had in fact taken on alarming proportions. The trouble began in 1919 with the completion of the gigantic, meringue-like Sacré-Coeur. This national shrine was meant to expiate the crimes of the Commune; the locals retaliated by simply ignoring it and continuing to worship in their old parish church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, one of the three oldest churches of Paris (1134). But the rest of France supported the project, funded through national subscription. Since the “conservationists,” led by Clemenceau, failed to defeat the bill in the National Assembly, Montmartre was clearly doomed to eternal punishment.

But visitors have always liked the shrine. Postcards bearing its picture top the sales list among Paris monuments. They also don’t seem to mind being penned into the kitschy Place du Tertre, perhaps because they are unaware that just around the corner lies a village of pastoral charm, inhabited by genial locals and discerning outsiders, often from the world of the arts. Olivier Messiaen and Arthur Rubinstein were once among them. It is also one of the rare spots in Paris relatively safe from the covetous designs of building companies – the danger of landslides as a result of the unrestrained exploitation of its quarries in the past preserves it from excessive construction.

Down the hill, traditions have also been maintained. The bright red sails of the Moulin Rouge still rotate slowly every night, though today they lure busloads of gray-suited Japanese rather than Anglo-Saxons or Russian dukes. The sex industry flourishes conspicuously along the boulevards, whose central island is periodically occupied by fairground stalls, a hangover from the early years of the century when Picasso used to come down the hill to the celebrated Medrano Circus, next to which lion tamers, boxers and wrestlers displayed their muscular bodies.

The cabaret Les Deux-Anes maintains the witty old chansonnier tradition of Montmartre, whereas the Elysée-Montmartre and La Cigale, further east, offer pop concerts. The music shops of Pigalle sell electric guitars and drum kits to suit modern tastes. A century ago a “musicians” market was held here, where conductors would recruit players for their orchestras.

Petty and serious crime still abound here too – from pick-pocketing and the sale of stolen goods on the “thieves’ market” of the Goutte-d’Or to the more sophisticated forging of identity papers, carried out at the back of some cafés, not to mention drug dealing.

Above all, this has remained a neighborhood of a floating, migrant population, as can be deduced from the incredible array of cheap luggage on sale along the boulevards. No fewer than 30 nationalities live in the Goutte-d’Or, at present predominantly from Black Africa. With their colorful costumes, and the multitudes of traditional fabrics piled up in their shops or dangling from street stalls, they have added a new touch to the overwhelmingly rich palette of Paris. However, like the rest of Paris, which is in the process of gentrification, the Goutte-d’Or is intended for demolition. Another “village” is to be wiped off the map of Paris in the name of safety, hygiene and social fumigation.

Thirza Valloisis the author of  Around and About Paris, Volume I, II, III published by Iliad Books (UK)  and  Romantic Paris, co-published by Interlink (US) and Arris Books (UK).  To find out more and order Thirza Vallois’s books, visit her website: