Storming the Bastille

Discovering the 11th district   In 1976 the painter Dominique Thiolet settled in a new studio at 5 rue de Charonne, ushering in a new era for the 11th arrondissement. The arrival of other artists in the southern section of the arrondissement around the Bastille and the renovation of the area were the first step of an overall process of gentrification of eastern Paris.

By 1985 the association of Le Génie de la Bastille (called after the golden “spirit of liberty” which surmounts the Bastille column), boasted 40 participating studios and over 100 artists. A year later Jean-Pierre Lavigne, a prominent art-dealer on the contemporary Parisian scene, opened his spacious, three-storeyed gallery at 27 rue de Charonne and dazzled the neighbourhood with the first exhibition in Paris of Andy Warhol’s silk screens.

Brochures and leaflets adorn their move to the Bastille with a highfaluting ideological motivation, such as a place ‘generating freedom and movement’, where some 200 artists and the likes have taken up residence by now.

In point of fact, they came here initially because they could not afford to settle in places like Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and with the building of the new Opera well under way, it was reasonable for them to assume that the neighbourhood would soon become desirable. Furthermore, as old trades – metalworks, spinning mills – were dying out, many workshops became vacant and could be purchased at low prices and converted into ‘lofts’. It was in the Bastille area that the frenzied vogue for lofts, emulating Manhattan, began in the 1980s.  Kenzo was among the early residents and converted a metal factory into a fabulous Japanese-style residence.

Architects, computer designers followed suit, making this the up-and-coming area of Paris, drawing the young to its cafés, night clubs and restaurants, as you will notice, for example,  on the corner of the ‘place” and rue de la Roquette, and on rue de Lappe come night time.  Most of the rickety houses on rue de Lappe have, miraculously, not as yet been torn down, only renovated, but the accordions and bals-musette have long been silenced. The Balajo at no. 9 is now a fashionable nightclub, quite different from the place visited by Edith Piaf. Le Bouscat, at no. 13, has regrettably disappeared,  as has the one-storeyed house where it stood before being turned into a garage.

A sorry disappearance, for this was the birthplace of the bal-musette, introduced by Antoine Bouscatel in 1905. Before then one danced the cabrette, accompanied by the Auvergnat bagpipe. The despicable accordion brought over by the ‘Ritals’ (Italians) was absolutely taboo – but not for long. In 1904 Charles Peguri braced himself, walked over to rue de Lappe with his accordion and ended up by persuading Bouscatel that it was not such a bad instrument after all. The marriage between the two cultures was sealed the following year, to be followed in 1913 by the real-life wedding of Charles Peguri to Monsieur Bouscatel’s daughter.

At no. 8 stood La Boule Rouge, the haunt of apaches or julots who would swagger in accompanied by their girls, les gonzesses. They had to watch their step, however, for the massive boss of the place would stand no nonsense. He had an imposing walrus moustache and always wore a basque beret and he made short shrift of troublemakers. Today the Cactus Blue, a clinically sleek American establisment stands in its place, shining with stainless-steel trimmings and equipped with a TV set over the bar, offering a more update kind of music, to lyrics in English rather than French.

Trendy eating places and cafés  overspill into rue de la Roquette too, a very old rural road which Haussmann managed to intergrate skillfully  into his modern street network, by making it run through the present Place Léon Blum, more or less at right angles with the Boulevard Voltaire, but which he did not lay out. In the 19th century rue de la Roquette became “the sinister way” taken by the hearse and the funeral processions heading for the new cemetery of Père Lachaise in eastern Paris, jolting uphill towards Boulevard Ménilmontant. In Paris Vécu  Léon Daudet described it as “the principal sorrowful way of Paris, the road of funerals.” He was speaking from personal experience, having accompanied the body of his father, Alphonse Daudet, along this route in December 1897, “à pas lents, mon chapeau à la main.” (“At a slow pace, hat in hand”).

The Dreyfus Case had only just begun, which explains why both Emile Zola, later to write the famous article J’accuse, in defence of Dreyfus, and Drumont, author of the rabidly anti-Semitic La France juive, attended the funeral, each holding one of the cordons of the catafalque; Zola, however, was on the left, Drumont on the right. It is unlikely they would have been seen together a while later. Léon Daudet espoused Drumont’s theories and became one of the founders of L’Action Française, the fanatically anti-Semitic movement that led logically to the persecution of the Jews during World War II. For the time being, he was absorbed with the death of his Father and with the funeral, writing, “As to the participation and emotion of an immense multitude, no funeral, not even that of Victor Hugo, surpassed the funeral of Alphonse Daudet.” (history, however, remember Victor Hugo’s funeral as ranking top). In November 1923 he passed along the same morbid route beside the coffin of his son Philippe, who had been involved with the Anarchists and died in mysterious circumstances.

At that time, two ghastly prisons stood on opposite sides of the street, a little further up the women’s  prison, La Petite-Roquette, built in 1836 on the site of the present no. 143, and the men’s prison, La Grande-Roquette, erected the following year on the site of no. 168. Every now and then the guillotine would make an ephemeral appearance in front of the men’s prison – 41 times between 1840 and 1880. Jules Vallès, one of the heroes of the 1871 civil war of the Commune, gave a spine-chilling description of the last moments of the prisoner: “The big door of the prison rolls on its hinges. This is the terrible moment.  It is at this moment that La Pommeraye, who up until now has been impassive, pale: his eyes are glazed, his legs sag. The scaffold is standing,  twenty steps ahead, on the square.”

Another Contemporary who was present at one of these public executions described the vociferous delight of the “teeming, screaming, drunk, revolting” mob.

Unlike Alphonse Daudet, all that the wretched guillotined prisoners received by way of homage was the discreet mention on their death certificates, “died on rue de la Roquette, no. 168”. Among them were also a couple of women from across the street, the last of whom was executed on the snowy dawn of 6 February 1946. The men’s prison was torn down in 1900, but the women’s only in the 1970s.  An attractive garden now replaces it, a welcome patch of greenery in a busy neighbourhood, oblivious to the misery of the past. But the massive door that guarded the death cell at La Grande-Roquette can still be seen at the Police Museum  off place Maubert, at no. 4 rue Sainte-Geneviève, in the 5th arrondissement.

 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: