I Luv Paris (with exceptions) #2 – Tenements and Tents

According to Wikipedia two million people live within the twenty inner city arrondissements of Paris, twelve million live in the metropolitan area making Paris one of the largest population centres in Europe. I don’t know if these facts are correct but I do know that compared to other cities I have visited and a few I have lived in, Paris does seem to have a higher population living within the city. And because this is in an area that, up until recently, had a cap on building height most of the residents live in six and seven floor tenements pulling out of every rues, avenue and boulevards. It seems to work well. Our tiny one bedroom apartment is on the third floor of a traditional building six high. An old original wooden staircase spirals up an airy well, lined with an ornate window between each landing giving additional light for the steep ascent. Our heavy door opens into a postage stamp size hall giving little space between each room. The shower-room has been creatively fitted to ensure the porcelain jigsaws in place somewhere or other and the galley kitchen can hold only one person at a time, making the task of lifting a hot dish out of the oven a feat of physical agility I have had to learn.

Tenement Stairs  (image C Baird)

The bedroom has a mirrored robe which gives the room a feeling of great space. But it is the living room which gives the apartment its charm. This primrose yellow painted room is in fact two rooms knocked into one and again, with a large mirror positioned at one end, the room feels like a ballroom. Two full length windows, guarded by a Paris balcony, open out into the narrow street providing vast portions of light reflected off the concrete building across the road which even the heavy wooden furniture cannot absorb.

City of light – mirrors and concrete buildings

I lived briefly in a Glasgow tenement about seven years ago and had forgotten how liberating it was to live with few possessions around, little drying space for clothes, a kitchen cupboard with space for only a few ingredients to work with and the familiarity of the noises around – from the street and the building. Although I very rarely see my neighbours they are evident. The rattle of the wee boy upstairs as he races to school and he tries to beat his personal best in the seconds he takes from top to bottom. Each day I hold my breath convinced that today he must surely break his neck. Or the other footsteps down in the morning and wearily back up again at night. I occasionally meet the elderly monsieur on the second floor as he returns from the boulangerie and sometimes the oriental gentleman on the ground floor who takes responsibility for putting the bins out. Each ‘close’ share a dedicated bottle bank (needed for all those red wine bottles) and recycling bin that are emptied twice a week, there are two smaller bins for general waste. The stairs are cleaned by an outside contractor – Friday mornings the streets around here are plashed with the slops of the close cleaners. I reckon the most secure jobs in Paris are those of close cleaners, bakers and those guys that erect and dismantle the market stalls. It all works very well.

So what is the downside? The downside is that of all the large cities in Europe I have visited nowhere is the homeless more visible than in Paris. Maybe it is a good thing the problem is so visible, but I’m not so sure. The homeless seem to be accepted by the locals but does that mean responsibility is devolved? The homeless I have encountered tend to be very polite, non-aggressive white, middle aged men who spend their days either begging, sleeping or sitting around reading and chatting to each other. Residents give them food and drink and they live in tents erected on the pavement. When I first arrived and saw a tent on the pavement I thought it was a one off, but I soon discovered they can be found in little enclaves in most arrondissements. There is one new camp set up beside Montparnasse Cemetery flying the flag of Breton – they seem to be in for the long haul.

Homeless winter camp beside The Observatory

Of course it isn’t just in the inner city. In some of the poorer Banlieues (suburbs) where high rise living and social housing is normal, there are huge shantytowns sprawled over large areas of land. One can be seen from RER B. At first it looks like a landfill site with rubbish strewn everywhere, until you notice the smoke from the little crooked chimneys reaching out above the chaos. The site beside Stade de France has re-emerged again after it was dismantled for the Rugby World Cup.

I am only an observer and I admit to not having all the facts but I can’t help wondering why a city that boasts some of the most expensive couture in the world cannot help the poor man rolled up in a tartan blanket, asleep on the pavement, right outside a high class fashion outlet?

Keeping warm in November on Rue de Sèvres

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