JOHN VON SOTHEN reveals why Paris’s most diverse and hipster arrondissement has become France’s Ground Zero.
The sneaky secret for those living in the tenth is there’s a beautiful and convenient park nobody knows about, probably because you can’t see it. It’s inside the walls of the Hôpital Saint Louis, the large hospital for the west part of the arrondissement; its entrance right off rue Bichat and steps away from Le Carillon and le Petit Cambodge, places that will remain forever etched now in French minds the way Shanksville and One World Trade Center do for Americans.
Friends of ours had told us about this park a few years back, and if the weather’s right, you can bring a blanket with a bottle of wine, and picnic all day if you want while your kids play and kick the ball amidst patients in hospital gowns and IV drips taking smoking breaks à la Française.
Our “secret garden” as I call it, sums up a lot of how I feel about the neighborhood I’ve lived in now for the past fourteen years, since I left New York a few months following 9/11. It’s funky, improbable, definitely mixed up, and after last week, now blood ridden.
Since the attacks, my inbox and phone have been filled daily with emails and texts from well-wishers letting me know our family and the beautiful city we live in are in their thoughts. But if you live in the tenth, you don’t really think of Paris as beautiful, well at least not in the esthetic sense we’re used to. Nor are you someone who considers himself super lucky to live in Paris. You complain a lot about the tenth actually. You complain about the garbage tossed in the Canal St. Martin (the artery that cuts north/south through the tenth) or the dog crap that’s everywhere along its banks. You complain about the constant traffic and air quality, the dealers who hang out on the corners and pee on the walls or the partiers on the weekend who make tons of noise and litter the canal with broken bottles. You complain about the homeless who’ve burned all the bushes along the canal with make-do stoves and tents that block your way when you want to walk your dog.
I’ve learned it’s normal to complain if you’re Parisien, and for a real whiner like me, the tenth is fertile ground, simply because it’s a confluence of so much of the improbable. It’s a place where real estate prices continue to rise, yet people stand nightly at a soup kitchen steps from the metro at Gare de l’Est. A wine store sells artisanal beer and farm to table goat cheese directly across from a tent city that housed Sudanese refugees a few months back. Bobos and hipsters rub up against hoodied hard rocks with pitbulls, and vegans open coffee houses next to halal butchers. The population itself is over 100,000 spread over roughly 1.5 square miles and features over 80 nationalities making the tenth the most diverse arrondissement in the most diverse city in Europe. It’s actually the social experiment urban planners always dreamed of pulling off but never could, and it’s for that very reason terrorists continue to choose this place as a stage to wage their bloody war.
Sure there were others places they could have hit. Touristy locations like Saint Michel or the Pompidou Center, denser populations like the Marais, symbolic places like the Louvre or the Tour Eiffel, but instead they chose the 10th, or what the terrorists have referred to as a zone grises (Grey Zone) an abominable place apparently where Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist on a daily basis.
Just last month, my nine year old came home from a friend’s house announcing he’d joined the family in a Muslim afternoon prayer, kneeling on their rugs like everyone else. I asked if he remembered what he said during the prayer. He wasn’t sure, but thought it was kind of cool.
Every weekday morning, two of his classmates buzz our apartment at 8:20 AM to pick him up for school. All three walk together down the sidewalk to Ecole l’Aqueduc, 100 yards from our house, a public school each has been attending since kindergarten. Both boys live across the street from us in a housing project built a few years back after the city bought the land instead of a real estate developer who wanted to develop condos and sell them to people like me.
I was living in New York on 9/11. I remember heading downtown the night of the attacks and sitting at an outdoor café in Chelsea watching the ash covered trucks and jeeps heading down 9th avenue. Everybody in the bar café sipped their beer silently, the TV blared, and the bewilderment and wondering what would happen next hung in the air. At that moment I had the sinking feeling something had just died in New York, and during the years following, when I returned to the city as a visitor, I noticed the little changes, perhaps more than my friends who lived there could. And I’m not talking about the customs at JFK or the amped up security or the flags at baseball games, more the quicker dinners, the louder music in the restaurants so you couldn’t really talk, the earlier evenings, the less smoking, people wishing me to have a safe trip instead of just saying good bye, a cleaner New York, a richer New York. It was as if the city had grown up and put away its childish past, and ironically, the pre 9/11 New York which I had left turned out to be the tenth I was currently living in.
Because living in the tenth gave you the impression you could dilate adulthood a bit. It was cheaper and easier to have kids. Day care and health care was a given. All those books on French child raising came from areas like mine, where hipster parents had drinks and improvised dinners in outdoor cafes and dilated the night just like they were dilating their youth, the drift into adulthood moving so slowly and with such grace you missed you were getting old; which also, I’m learning, is a long standing Parisian custom.
When friends from New York stayed with us, I’d watch them from across our kitchen bar, their eyes glowing not just from the wine, but from a sense of weird freedom they wouldn’t let themselves enjoy back at home. Friends who said they’d quit smoking where suddenly lighting up. Friends who usually put their kids down early were letting them stay up late. The long cocktail that turned into a dinner that turned into nights of discussions and laughing and listening to music on the patio for me was kind of mundane, but for my friends, it was exotic and enchanted, and it made me proud, almost down to a guttural national level.
Because I was proud to tell my friends we didn’t have a Patriot Act here, proud when Dominique de Villepin and his perma-coiff made his speech in the UN. I remember being interviewed by Fox News and was proud I told the host John Gibson that the Iraq invasion was folly. Deep down I felt France hadn’t been attacked because we hadn’t taken the bait and as Kipling had said, “hadn’t lost our heads when all the world was losing theirs.”
But now since Friday night, I feel I may have been naïve; naïve into thinking the horrible wind that swept through New York couldn’t change directions and blow black here. Prime Minister Manuel Valls sounds like John Ashcroft. Daesh is bin Laden, and the words of guerre and vengeance are on the covers of French newspapers daily just like they were on the NY Post. Now the candles and the flowers and the printed out photos of the victims are at the Place de la Republique, not down on Wall Street, and the Empire State building is lit with French colors the same way an American flag was laid out at Trocadero following 9/11.
Perhaps the tenth is joining the ranks of places like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or London in the 70’s now, places where the cafes and the bars remain open, but a fear of terror overhangs along with the gas lamps. Or maybe it’ll follow the Shock Doctrine template. People will simply leave, the money will eventually pour in, and the Parisian tenth will become more like a Tribeca or SoHO, beautiful neighborhoods sure, but washed clean of everything that we consider nuisances in urban living.
And don’t think I haven’t considered leaving. The problem is it’s easier to leave a place in your late 20’s, harder to leave when you’re in your mid 40’s, when you have a family, work, and things like school, friends, neighbors and habits mean more. And honestly where would I go anyway?
New Yorkers historically say they can’t survive outside New York, but I’m thinking that’s less true now. For me, New York has become more American in a way and has made moving from NY to LA or NY to San Fran or NY to Boston easier for a New Yorker. Paris, on the other hand, is still difficult to replicate, especially inside France. I have friends who left recently, and already they want to come back. The problems that make up Parisian life, which drove them away in the first place and which serves as the fodder for all my complaining, ultimately harkens them back in the end. Perhaps it’s just the proximity to people, the spontaneity that comes from stopping and getting a drink at le Carillon or picking up a take out from Petit Cambodge, the beauty of the tenth you don’t appreciate until it’s gone.
The Monday following the attacks, schools were open, and as my son and his friends left our house, I scrambled to the window like any crazy fearful parent, craning my neck out on the street to make sure everything was ok. I watched as three scrawny boys, one white and two black, all from immigrant parents, all Parisian, headed off towards school, each speaking in slang with Arabic and English words laced into their young French, each a new face of France, each oblivious to the police sirens in the distance, and each, thankfully, talking not about the attacks, but the soccer match and how France had beaten Germany 2-0. Watching them head off, I couldn’t help but wonder if the dream I had when I came here is over now. That it’s Paris’s turn to put away its childish ways and wake up to the howling wind blowing through the door, which the tenth, because it was so inclusive and never suspicious and a bit ditsy, had always left open.
As you leave the park of Hôpital Saint Louis, you’ll most likely walk towards the canal, where if you live north like I do, you’ll take a right and pass the Comptoir General, an African bar/restaurant/dance hall with its own secret entrance as well. There you can order a cheap local meal like Akkra on a paper plate at a counter called Le Snack Local and listen to Yellowman albums blaring on the speakers while your kids oggle over a museum display of voodoo artifacts.
Fifty meters later, you’ll want to cross the canal over a low bridge and head up the left side towards the pink and bright green painted Antoine and Lilly, the Amelie Poulain type souvenir/clothing store, just so the setting sun can warm your back. You’ll see the partiers setting up their six packs along the bank playing bad acoustic Cat Stevens then you’ll pass tattooed tough guys in PSG tracksuits doing topless pull ups on a jungle gym, their rap music pumping through a jerry rigged iPhone and speaker. Soon after, you’ll spot the improvised dog park along the water that doubles sometimes as a tent city for refugees, who now I’m told can’t be trusted as much as we thought. And all along this way, you’ll discuss important things like who will buy the salad and who will get the entrecote, and who should we call for an improvised dinner at home.
If you’re lucky enough to make this walk, you’ll marvel at the wacky beauty that you and November 13th’s attackers secretly knew existed all along, and that the rest of the world is just catching on to. It’s the mixed up, naïve, improbably beautiful caliphate of the tenth arrondissement, Paris’s secret garden, the place I call home, and which now, unfortunately, has become France’s Ground Zero.