Would we find the next Van Gogh in Paris’s Belleville?
When most people think of Paris, they picture the arrondisements closest to the Seine, the single-digit, high-rent, beautified haute couture picture-postcard City of Light. But, there are many sides to Paris, and the Belleville neighbourhood around the 19th and 20th arrondisements stands in messy, defiant contrast to the soignée side of Paris.
Belleville is the immigrant, artist, left-wing, east end, non-conformist part of Paris. It is where the dispossessed, the ones fleeing persecution in their homelands in Africa, the Middle East and Asia come to settle and make a new start. It is the Paris of Edith Piaf before she became famous.
Because Belleville was on the fringes of Paris (it was only annexed in 1860) it was spared the Haussmann gentrification. So Belleville’s small crooked streets stayed, its warehouse buildings tucked into back alley ways attracting musicians and artists who set up lofts with cheap rents.
It was the artist side of Belleville that attracted us. We saw posters advertising three days of artist open houses – over 300 studios to tour – and so we had to have a look.
Would we discover the next Van Gogh, Gauguin or Toulouse Lautrec here in Belleville just east of Montmartre? Well, as you can imagine, seeing so many studios and galleries quickly gets overwhelming. There were many interesting pieces, but we weren’t there to shop or figure out how to get art back to Canada.
This was a funky side of Paris that we really enjoyed. Every kind of art you could imagine, from traditional painting to photography, sculpture, electronic and so on. Out in the street, massive graffiti walls, left-wing protest scrawls, casual cafés and street food.
It’s interesting to talk to Parisians who live downtown about areas like Belleville. They look at you funny, turn their noses up. Who would want to go there? It’s so far away (it’s seven Metro stops with no changes from the Belleville station to Chatelet, which is the heart of the right bank). You wouldn’t want to live there…. you can figure out the sub-text. Seven stops on the Metro, yet a million miles away. And so it goes.