The Goutte-d’Or

Image A tiny patch of Africa transplanted to Paris, the Goutte-d’Or is one of the last remnants of genuine working-class village life in Paris.  Despite desperate struggles by local associations to rescue it from the hands of technocrats determined to “clean up” the area, demolition has already begun and the usual characterless buildings of our times are cropping up, notably the new police station, easily distinguishable by its tricolored flag.

Saturday morning is the best time to come here, when the local population is disproportionately inflated by streams of North Africans surging into the neighbourhood from all over the Paris area.The fun begins in the Métro station of Barbès-Rochechouart, or even before you get there, during the train ride itself. When the train pulls in at the station, you will be disgorged onto the platform and swept along with the human tide through the station’s long corridors, amid a jumble of stalls, vendors and goods; eventually you will be spilled out into the open air, where the ever-growing throng continues its inexorable advance.

A closer look will bring to your attention the many huge carrier bags  bearing the name Tati. Indeed, Tati is where most this multitude is heading, on a shopping expedition, for Tati is the main attraction of the intersection of the boulevards Barbès, de Rochechouart and La Chapelle, loosely referred to as Barbès.

This is the empire of junk clothing, and it has turned Barbès, both above and below ground, into one of the biggest bazaars in France, where total chaos prevails. Although this territory has in effect been entirely taken over by the hordes of pedestrians, motorists have not renounced their right to use the road and make brave attempts to pass through, only to end up in endless queues of cars and buses. It is nothing short of amazing that the RATP has not provided an alternative route for buses, at least on Saturdays.

Tati is not only the main clothes supplier for the poorer sections of Paris, it is also the main tourist destination for relatives from North Africa, who spend the better part of their visit to Paris burrowing among cheap goods piled up on innumerable counters. Middle-class French locals also shop at Tati occasionally, but not at Barbès (there are a couple of other shops in the city), and often for the fun of it – it is always exciting to find a bargain for the price of a cup of expresso, one which will look nice as long as it is new.

If you want a real taste of the atmosphere, join the crowds and arrive by Métro, but keep an eagle eye on your belongings. Once on the street, walk east into the boulevard de la Chapelle, where a colorful food market is held under the elevated railway tracks – a pretty sight, though the air is filled with the incessant clattering of passing trains.

Turn left into the rue des Islettes, where the famous washhouse of the Goutte-d’Or stood, a redbrick building reeking with steam. It is around this working-class hub that the life of Zola’s Gervaise rotated, and from here his Nana set out on her journey up the echelons of society. La Goulue, a creature of real flesh and blood, was also the daughter of a laundress from La Goutte d’Or – Zola’s characters are all true to life.

Turn right into the rue de la Goutte-d’Or, now predominantly North African. The first North Africans came here in the early years of the 20th century, but the big wave of immigrants arrived in the 1950s, often to work in the automobile industry. By the end of the decade the Goutte-d’Or was so heavily populated with Algerians that it became the headquarters of the FLN during the Algerian war. Today the street is lined with food stores and cafés. You will rarely see a woman among the customers, though some of the goods on display in the shops are clearly there for them, notably the candy-colored, heavily machine-embroidered fabrics suitable for bridal wear.

In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate at no. 42, is the Villa Poissonnière, an incongruous countrified alleyway sloping gently down towards you, decked with the same romantic street lamps as those that decorate the Butte Montmartre:  it seems to have been placed here by mistake. On either side stand charming old houses, some attractively embellished with ceramics, each with its exquisite, pocket-size garden filled with the twittering of birds.

The site is believed to have been the property of a winegrower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on its sunny slope rolling gently to the south. Indeed, in the Middle Ages the wine of the Goutte d’Or had attained such renown that during a European contest at the time of Saint Louis it shared third prize with the wines of Alicante and Laconia. The first prize went to Cyprus, the “Pope” of wines, and the second prize went to Malaga, the “Cardinal” of wines. The wine of the Goutte d’Or was crowned the “King” of wines, which also tells us something about the position of the royal authorities in the hierarchy of medieval Europe and their struggle to gain independence from Rome. It was customary at the time for the City of Paris to give the king with wine from the Goutte d’Or on his birthday.

The hubbub of present-day reality will hit you as soon as you step back into the rue de la Goutte-d’Or. Ahead, at the intersection of the rues de la Goutte-d’Or and Polonceau, is a pleasantly tree-shaded triangle where the local men meet socially on a sunny day, recreating the atmosphere of their North African homeland.

Turn left into the rue Pierre-l’Ermite. The church of Saint-Bernard de La Chapelle at the end of the street is a 19th century copy of a 15th century style. Most Parisians had never heard of the church until the summer of 1996, when it made the headlines as a stronghold of resistance to energetic measures of expulsion taken by the government against African workers devoid of work permits. A group of workers occupied the church and engaged in a long hunger strike, supported by the media and by a substantial portion of the public and humanitarian organizations, members of which joined them in the church.  Early on the morning of August 23, the “sans papiers” were taken by surprise when the police stormed the church and rounded up the workers.

The sculptured bourgeois facade at no. 3 is evidence that well-to-do people – successful shopkeepers and suppliers of other services to the poor – lived close to the slums. In the courtyard of no. 4 a climbing vine is a reminder of the time when the Goutte-d’Or was a hamlet of vine growers.

Turn right into the rue Saint-Luc. A pleasant compound built around a pretty courtyard is to be seen at no. 11.

The rue Cavé, on your right, honours François Cavé, an important figure in the industrial development of 19th-century France, and bread-provider to nearly 1,000 inhabitants of the Goutte-d’Or. The son of a poor farmer from Picardie, he had come to Paris on foot, without a penny to his name. He built a marine steam engine that increased the speed on the Calais to Dover run to 13 knots, an exceptional achievement for those days.

Other pioneering industries were set up here, notably François Calla’s foundry, where a good number of Paris’ street-lamps and monuments were melted down, including the pillars of Sainte-Geneviève’s university library in the Latin Quarter, some of the fountains of the Champs-Elysées and Visconti’s lovely fountain at the Place Louvois in the 2nd arrondissement. There was also a plant founded by Antoine Pauwel, elected mayor of La Chapelle in 1845. In 1856 a young unknown engineer was picked out by the firm to build a railway bridge in Bordeaux. His name was Gustave Eiffel.

A sign reading Hôtel Familial at no. 32 underlines the fact that this is a territory of uprooted migrants and has been since the reign of Louis-Philippe, when the neighborhood’s population shot up from 2,000 to 11,000. The few cottages, notably the one concealed behind a huge tree and overflowing with rambling ivy at no. 26, are further reminders of a pastoral past.

Turn right into the rue Saint-Jérôme and left into the rue Saint-Mathieu, running north of the church. The pleasant Square Saint-Bernard in front of the church enhances the small-town drowsy atmosphere. Beyond is the railway bridge, a gruesome landscape of steel and iron.  Somehow, even in this unlikely Dickensian landscape a bright green vine has found itself a place in the sun.

Retrace your steps and walk north along the rue Stephenson. From the corner of the rue Cavé you will get an excellent view of Sacré-Coeur and the eastern slope of Montmartre.            Turn left into the rue Myrrah, gateway to black Africa. This is no Place du Tertre but a genuine neighborhood catering for genuine locals, who have their traditional African costumes made to measure, for example at no. 25. Here slender African women walk down the street in traditional headdresses and robes, often with a baby tied to their backs.  West Indians have also moved in here and have opened a fast-food restaurant, Mac Doudou, at no. 42, which serves ethnic food. There is also a Bulgarian restaurant at no. 57, as well as kosher butchers.

Turn left into the rue des Poissoniers, where the Marché Dejean is held, a dazzling feast for the eye. Black Africa, the West Indies and Haiti all converge here, offering a riot of choice sea produce and exciting fruit, that cannot be found anywhere else in Paris. (Some of the stores, however, are owned by Asians, and the African fabrics are usually made in Holland.) There is also a travel agent at no. 14 rue des Poissonniers, advertising package pilgrimages to Mecca:  the neighborhood is predominantly Muslim. Espace Kata on your right is an extraordinary old-time cinema turned into a penny shoe bazaar, where the entire African population of the Paris area seems to be supplied with footwear for as little as 3E a pair.

Turn left into the rue Polonceau, the borderline between the black African and North African neighborhoods and the social hub of the Goutte-d’Or. Here stand a mosque and Koranic school, at no. 53, and also a youth club. A Buddhist temple occupies a rustic old house at no. 38. The rue Polonceau runs into the rue Jessaint, a wholesale centre for North African food, which supplies restaurants and embassies with meat, spices, chick peas and semolina, with which they concoct delicious couscous and tajines.

Retrace your steps and continue downhill along the rue de la Charbonnière diagonally to the right. It will lead you back to the boulevard de la Chapelle, where this walk ends. The street has been dubbed the “thieves’ market,” as stolen goods are rumored to be disposed of here, but only those with inside knowledge or flair are aware of the fact.

Thirza Vallois is 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: