“What neighborhood do you live in?” I’d often ask, and it seemed, at the time, to be the perfect icebreaker. Hell, it’s THE most common question New Yorkers pose – well perhaps just behind “How much do you make?” But in Paris, what I got in return were often fairly lame and vague responses, as if those I were asking were afraid I was planning to drop by unannounced. “I live in the 17th,” they’d reply. Or “on the Left Bank,” or “Issey-Les-Moulineaux” – my face always staring back blank. “It’s in the suburbs John,” they’d add with a snort, annoyed perhaps they had to cough up details they’d rather not admit.
Coming from New York where neighborhoods like SoHo and NoLita and TriBeCA are all part of the vernacular, and where your geographical location IS the name, I was left wanting more. For example, if someone tells you they live in SoHo (South of Houston), you not only immediately know where they live, but you know who their neighbors are. NoHo (North of Houston) to the North, NoLita (North of Little Italy) to the East, TriBeCA (Triangle Below Canal) to the South – all within 20 streets of one another and you don’t even need google earth to find them.
More importantly, a neighborhood says a lot about a person, and with the New York system, I was always able to categorize the people I met fairly quickly – simply by learning their neighborhood acronym. For example, if someone tells you they’re from SoHo you can assume they’re on a second marriage, they work on Wall Street, but want “to live as an artist,” and that the previous owner who sold them their million dollar loft now probably lives in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where “artists with money” now live. DUMBO residents have replaced those who’ve since moved to SoBRO (South of Bronx) – one of the last affordable New York neighborhoods to live in –that is if you’re “just an artist.”
Paris needed a similar system, or at least, I needed this system while living in Paris if only to give me a better idea of where my friends lived, and how I could better judge them.
But was it even possible? Paris wasn’t like New York, on a grid with numbered streets running North-South and numbered avenues running East-West. It already had its arrondissement system that coiled like a snail, its windy streets, its random places and hard to find rives. But I did have one major joker card in my favor. Paris was in a real estate boom and everybody was obsessed, it seemed, with the price of “metre carrés,” (square meters) which unlike New York, adhered very strictly to the exact location of one’s apartment. There was a thirst for more information – driven by real estate’s two primary forces: greed (wanting to buy in the quartier branché) and fear (fear of missing the chance to buy in the quartier branché). The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
My testing ground turned out to be a somewhat non-descript area in the ninth arrondissement, where my friend had recently reopened a bar. Like the bar, the neighborhood had slowly been transforming itself from a once sleepy residential off-shoot of Pigalle to a full fledged hipster scene, full of galleries, ad agencies, kitted out hotels and souped up restos, all geared towards the bobo elite who’d flocked to the cheaper metre carré north of Paris, all looking for….the next quartier branch. And where again was it? Well, it wasn’t Pigalle and it wasn’t really Grand Boulevards either. It was south of Pigalle, it was… and voila the epiphany- SoPi(South of Pigalle). SoPi lit like a grease fire, aided in large part by my friend who used it in promoting his bar to the press – “The neighborhood’s got a Pigalle edge, but a bit more clean. It’s soapy man,” he said. SoPi and its soon to be named half-brother NoPi (North of Pigalle), generated an enthusiasm I hadn’t quite anticipated. Soon a strange balkanization took hold where friends were identifying with SoPi others with NoPi, claiming strict cultural difference, as if the two previously unnamed neighborhoods didn’t used to be the same. “Ok, sure NoPi’s edgier than gentrified Abbesses, but it’s definitely not nearly as showbiz as SoPi,” one would say. “True,” another countered, “But nor is it the tourist/ hoody sex shop haven that is PiPi (Full Pigalle).”
As the buzz grew, like any good American, I immediately eyed profit. Perhaps a t-shirt line through American Apparel? Maybe a book like A Year in Provence – A Year in SoPi? The sky was the limit, but what was most satisfying were how the friends who’d once snubbed me at their dinners with their vague outlines of where they lived, were now begging me to name their own little Parisian fief. “We’re at the bottom of the tenth, not really Sentier, not really Gare de L’Est either. Can you help us, John?”
“You’re MoCA.” I’d say firmly as if I were some guru with the power to heal- “Magenta Ouest of Canal” – leaving them to giggle into their herbal tea.
The names spread and so did our invitations for dinner, but I stayed modest, and like any cult leader, I always reminded my followers that the power to name was inside each of us – just as long as one followed the three cardinal principles of neighborhood naming; principles I followed myself when baptizing my own quartier, SoVELIB.
1) The acronym had to properly describe the location. (Stalingrad OVEr LouIsBlanc)
2) The acronym had to mean or sound like something. (The Velib system of bike rentals.)
3) The acronym had to reflect, in some way, the neighborhood it represented. (Picture annoying hipsters renting velibs all day, and me pissed off that there’s never one available.)
SoVELIB would be my magnum opus, my crowning achievement. It was so New York, yet so French, and so, may I say, au courant. In its honor, I organized a dinner to announce it to my flock, but right around cocktails, I realized something had gone horribly wrong.
“Have you heard John? Your neighborhood’s has a name now. They’re calling it NoCA (North of Canal).” I was stunned.
“Are you sure?” I asked.“Yup, I’ve heard it from a few people already. Really funny.”
It’s not funny!” I shot back. “It sucks.”
The mood in the room quickly changed.
“For your info, we live east of Canal, not north. I live in SoVELIB. Not NoCa!”
I gulped my glass as those around me drifted towards the kitchen to help with dinner.
“NoCA? It doesn’t even mean anything! At a minimum, they could have at least named it COCA (Carrefour Over Canal) and made reference (Cardinal principle #3!) to the fucking cocaine sold here!”
In my anger, I hadn’t realized the fact I was alone now in the salon talking to myself. My avant premiere had been upstaged by a counterfeit, and no one seemed to care! As you might guess, herbal wasn’t offered that night.
I was determined to find the person behind NoCa and let them know the neighborhood was only big enough for one name – mine. “The worst part is that he or she probably doesn’t even live in this neighborhood,” I whined to my ten-month-old. And then it dawned on me. Maybe others felt the same about me? Taking the liberty to name their neighborhood as if I lived there myself. An American on top of it! I was so ashamed. Here I was thinking I’d made a grand contribution to French life, but in reality, I was nothing but another American cultural imperialist, trying to force New York on to Paris.
So I stopped.
But as weeks passed, the monster I’d created was already out of control. Magazines like L’Express ran a piece on NoPi vs. SoPi. Everywhere I went, people asked me for names. “Come on John. I noticed you haven’t named our neighborhood yet. “Why not?” they’d needle. “Not cool enough for you?” The low point came when I was asked to create an acronym, just so it could fit the name of someone’s newborn baby. Excuse me? “Yeah John, we thought it would be great for the announcements, you know if we could write something like. “Meet Lou and Co. from LouCo. Ha Ha Ha!” I smiled through the pain and sipped my herbal tea.
Just the other day, we were invited to a friend’s house, in a suburb named Joinville Le Pont, only to be greeted by yet another annoying host, a friend of my wife’s, wanting me, of course, to name his neighborhood. “Sorry, I don’t do that anymore” I politely declined,” but added with a dig, “Plus I never do neighborhoods outside of Paris.”
But he wouldn’t let up, and all night I was hounded and subtly reminded of why I was probably invited in the first place.
“Oh come on,” he urged. “You gave Jerome and Cecile a name.”
“But that was before I realized people should name their own neighborhoods.”
I tried to change topics. “Have you guys tried the Velibs?”
“You can’t give us one name?” he persisted. “I mean it’s not like I’m asking you to name my kid. Putain merd John.”
Just then something clicked, and I cracked.
“Ok, you want a name? I’ll give you a name. We’re in the bainlieu right?”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t sure where I was going.
“It’s a neighborhood you have to take the RER to get to right?”
“It’s a bit dangerous at night and there’re no real stores nearby.”
“Oh, I got it. How about Joinville… Le Con (the asshole)?”
“Because you have to be a CON to…
“Yeah John, we got it. Thanks.”
As you can imagine, herbal teas were skipped, and we left fairly quickly, endlessly searching for a taxi. When we finally waved one down, the driver, once he heard the word Stalingrad, refused to take us. “It’s full of crack there,” he said as his window rolled up, the car starting to roll.
“Please,” I begged, swallowing my pride. “It’s just north of….. the canal.”
“Canal St. Martin?” he perked up.
“Well, technically it’s called SoVELIB, but…”
“Oui, monsieur exactement,” my wife interrupted and pushed me into the car.
On our way home, and perhaps in retribution for missing her tea, my wife pointed out to the driver that the destination in question had recently been dubbed NoCa, and she gladly explained why. I quickly countered that my wife had been drinking and was perhaps confused. “Our neighborhood dear, is SoVELIB,” and gave him the address to prove it. The driver didn’t seem to care either way. He stared ahead, admitting loudly over his NRJ broadcast that the only reason he took us in the first place was because were on his route home.
“Oh?” I leaned forward to the front seat, my curiosity suddenly peaking, my wife trying to hold me back – both of us knowing exactly where this conversation was headed.
“And what neighborhood is that?”