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September 2001 - Paris' Hidden Treasure - The 20th Arrondissement (Part 1)

The 20th arrondissement is one of Paris' largest districts. It contains some alluring secrets - tiny enclaves of individual homes, neighborhood restaurants known primarily to the locals, and many patches of greenery. This arrondissement is also home to numerous associations devoted to the promotion of the arts, particularly theatrical and plastic arts. This month's Paris Insights presents the first of a 2-part series on the 20th, and will explore the southern end of this historically working class area.

The predominant attraction in this section of the arrondissement is the Père Lachaise cemetery. Named after the Jesuit priest François d'Aix-de-la-Chaise (the confessor of Louis XIV), this patch of land serves as a prestigious resting place for several famous people, both French and foreign. The crest of the hill in the center of the cemetery provides a beautiful and tranquil spot to stop, relax and contemplate the passage of time. Despite the destruction sustained during the storm of December 1999, plenty of shade trees remain. Flowers are abundant, and much of the funerary art on the grounds is magnificent. Thus, the cemetery is worth a visit its for natural and manmade beauty.

Nearby, the Quartier Saint-Blaise is an alluring, if tiny, remnant of village life in the area once known as Charonne. The 13th century parish church, Saint-Germain de Charonne, stands over the quarter. It has been extensively remodeled, so that only one small medieval tower remains of the original construction. But it maintains its charm, with a wonderful rectory next door and a small cemetery at the rear. The doors of the church look out over rue Saint-Blaise, formerly the main street of the village. Part of this cobblestone street has been blocked off from automobile traffic. The upper part is the home of several small businesses and restaurants offering sidewalk dining. One can quite easily imagine that he/she is in a small village while dallying over a meal or an espresso here.

Farther down rue Saint-Blaise lie a couple of theaters, the Théâtre aux Mains Nues and the Théâtre des Quarts d'Heure. These are tucked away in a commercial center on top of which are high-rise apartments, and provide yet another example of the promotion of the arts in this arrondissement. The Théâtre aux Mains Nues recently held a three-week workshop for those interested in learning how to become puppeteers (marionnettistes), one of the classic forms of performance art in France.

The street on which Saint-Germain de Charonne lies is home to two café-théâtres, La Flèche d'Or and Le Condor. Both have brightly colored exteriors that echo the vibrant interactions that take place inside their walls. La Flèche d'Or is a true artistic community café. Reggae, salsa and techno concerts are held there regularly, and on Tuesdays, five minutes at the microphone are accorded to anyone who wishes to give a performance. The Flèche is also host to several groups: the Café Psycho, where people are encouraged to air their problems in a forum moderated by a psychotherapist; a group of comic strip connoisseurs who meet every Saturday; a bartering group called SEL; and associations that specialize in video and short films.

The Fleche d'Or is located in what was once the Gare de Charonne. Across the street, you can see a short stretch of the Petite Ceinture, the railway that was used for transport of both freight and passengers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is much talk of revitalizing the Petite Ceinture, but debate is fierce regarding the function of the rails. Most of it has been reclaimed by natural flora, and the slopes in certain areas have been planted by enthusiastic citizens. Politicians are considering re-establishing rail traffic, to the chagrin of those who prefer a more recreational use for this unique thoroughfare.

Le Condor has taken over the site once occupied by L'Abadidon, another café-théâtre. Across the street from it lies a nondescript modern building that houses several ateliers for artists. The artists benefit from low rents subsidized by the city of Paris in support of the arts. Portes ouvertes, or open houses, are held semi-annually to annually to welcome the public to observe and purchase the artists' works.

The Pavillion de l'Ermitage and the gardens that now belong to the Hospice Debrousse are not far from here. These are the only remnants of the Château de Bagnolet, owned by the Duchess of Orléans in the 18th century. The intense greenery of the well kept lawns is punctuated by the brilliance of colorful flowers. In one corner of the garden is a play area for young children, while the majority of the space is enjoyed by casual passersby and the elderly inhabitants of the hospice and their visitors.

Most of the original architecture of the former village of Charonne has disappeared, due to urban redevelopment that can dubiously be called progress. But a few original structures (like the Pavillon de l'Ermitage and the old Gare de Charonne) remain, and some of the modern construction is to be appreciated as well. Upon viewing the number of new construction sites in this area, one can only hope that the planners of the new edifices have taken into consideration the aesthetics of the neighborhoods in which they are building, so that the 20th arrondissement does not become yet another concrete jungle.

The northern part of the 20th is vast, with more varied geography than that of the southern part. It has many villas and cités where residents enjoy private dwellings, a large number of theaters, and the best boulangerie in Paris. More on this will follow in a future issue of Paris Insights.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2001