A few short years ago nobody walked around here. The shop units were locked up and shuttered down and the street was little more than a thoroughfare of crumbling walls and broken windows. These were the walls that saw another era though (c.1830), a time when this was a passage just outside the old city limits where people came to drink and dance. Mr Denoyez owned a tavern here, just alongside another famous venue, the Ramponeau caberet. Whilst Paris struggled under high taxation, low prices here ensured that the venues were always full.
The new swimming pool behind the Cafe des Delices.
In recent times though this had become very much a street in decline. The Cafe des Delices was one of the only fountains of life, a place where Jewish Tunisian men have long gathered to drink coffee, play cards, or watch football matches on a flickering television screen. Alongside, no star hotels with rooms rented out on long term deals to families with no other options and shop units offering low cost long distance telephone lines. But then the artists started to arrive.
One at first, a sculptor or painter perhaps, squatting a disused shop unit. Others followed and soon they were painting the units in bright colours and pasting shells and tiles on the walls outside. In the heart of Belleville this was nothing exceptional, but curious locals began passing down here again, stopping from time to time to look in the windows. It wasn't until the grafitti artists arrived though that the street refound a name.
Grouped around the Frichez Nous La Paix collective, a huge wall at the top of the street has been given over to these artists. This wall is not just any wall though, but the side of the Aux Folies bar on the Rue de Belleville, a venue that has seen generations of artists visit the cafe and sun-trap terrace. The wall is a constantly evolving mural, with multi-coloured pictures and names now hundreds of sprayed layers deep. Even a tree, which has forced its way up through a crack, and dustbin find themselves incorporated into the creations.
The street from this point up has now become a succession of brightly coloured facades, giving the illusion of a souk. It's lively and friendly, but as I take a photo of one unit a man appears and tells me to come and look inside. In truth they are a little tired of the procession of photographers, people who click but don't stop. "This is the real Belleville" he tells me, pointing out a scruffy, dimly-lit interior of exposed wooden beams. The establishment seems to be a clandestine café, sparsely furnished with second-hand chairs and tables and with plastic bottles of Coca-Cola on the counter. I'm not sure what he means by the real Belleville though. Clearly the building is old, but is this any more representative of the district than the Café des Delices opposite?
In reality, this street has become all the Bellevilles. The Chinese community gather where it touches the Rue de Belleville, whilst African communities are centred more on the Ramponeau side of the street. Tunisians with both Jewish and Muslim ancestries have lived side by side here for 50 years in a quiet and mutual respect whilst more recently young artists and middle-class families have moved in. The beauty of the warren of streets that make up this district, the modern blocks and ancient houses is that none of them can claim to be the real Belleville.
*Denoyez sounds like 'the drowned' in French. A funny name for a street with a swimming pool!