POV

How Hipsters Ruined Paris

Drifting through these streets, as they are scrubbed clean and homogenized before my eyes, my thoughts turn to Blaise Pascal…

By Thomas Chatterton Williams - Source: http://www.nytimes.com
Photo © Jean Jullien

Photo © Jean Jullien

PARIS — THE northern edge of Paris’s Ninth Arrondissement, near the Place Pigalle, was once known as “la Nouvelle-Athènes,” both for the neo-Classical flourishes of its most graceful blocks and for the creative geniuses who swept in to inhabit them.
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This was the original “gay Paree” on display in Edouard Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” a Bohemia of near-mythical proportions in which every tier of society — from the well heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided in the district’s cafes, theaters and cabarets. It was the Paris of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Moreau and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Paris has long been a palimpsest of different cities, each new iteration grafted on top of the still visible last, spanning the extremes of human excellence and beauty and, just as crucially, filth and squalor. The area around Pigalle in particular — which American G.I.’s aptly called “Pig Alley” — was always a mixture of both, its seediness informing the artistic production and spirit of numerous generations of inhabitants. You can see it in Edgar Degas’s brush strokes and hear it in Edith Piaf’s voice.

But it’s disappearing. Today, the neighborhood has been rechristened “South Pigalle” or, in a disheartening aping of New York, SoPi. Organic grocers, tasteful bistros and an influx of upscale American cocktail bars are quietly displacing the pharmacies, dry cleaners and scores of seedy bar à hôtesses that for decades have defined the neighborhood.

These “hostess bars,” marked by barely dressed women perched in the windows, are the direct descendants of the regulated brothels that thrived here from Napoleon’s time until the postwar purge of the 1940s. The French daily Libération reports that in 2005 there were 84 such establishments around Pigalle. Today there are fewer than 20. Their disappearance is a watermark of the quarter’s rapid loss of grit and character alike.

When my wife and I first moved here in 2011, I wasn’t sure what to make of living in the middle of a functioning red-light district. Our neighborhood, though safe and well on its way to gentrification, remained funky in the original sense of the term. In addition to cigarette smoke and baking bread, there was the whiff of dirt and sex in the air. It took a while for me to get used to the tap-tapping on windows — or hissing and tongue clicking from open doors — that greeted me as I passed the bars on my way to fill a prescription or buy a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé.

I have never quite gotten used to the transsexual hookers who traipse the Boulevard de Clichy outside the area’s various sex shops and with whom I must share the carnivalesque sidewalk on my way in and out of the post office. Frankly, they make me uncomfortable.

 

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Source: http://www.nytimes.com

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