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Les Halles Sixty Years Later

Les Halles

In May, my visit to the Musée Carnavalet — the City of Paris’s museum of the history of Paris and its people — nurtured a growing curiosity about the evolving political, social and  economic factors that created today’s Paris. However, it was a walk in the Forum des Halles — the site of Paris’s central market until it was demolished in the 1970’s — that took me out of a museum of history and landed me smack down in a construction site: a noisy, smelly, vibrant lesson about the changes in Paris over the past sixty years. 

In 1956, sixty years ago, my father held my hand as we walked in circles around Les Halles, Paris’s central market since the 11th century, trying to find the restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon. As we dodged puddles tinged with the blood of animals being prepared and sold in the market, we almost lost my brother. Excited to be showing us his Paris, the Paris he had known as a child in the 1920’s and 30’s, Pop never stopped talking. I really didn’t listen, too mesmerized by the mess of stacked wooden boxes, discarded heads of lettuce, and the occasional smell of urine and rotting meat. 

It was dark, maybe dinnertime or maybe the passages were so narrow that they lacked daylight. Pop probably explained that the restaurant had been in business since World War II, that it was open 24 hours a day to feed the men and women working in the market at night, and that the house specialties were onion soup and pigs’ feet. Pigs’ feet? All I recall is being squished between two grownups and their damp coats on a banquet in a dark restaurant. I suspect that my brother and I, less adventurous eaters, had steak frites.

On a fall day in the 1980’s, almost thirty years after our family meal at Au Pied de Cochon, I exited from the Chatelet-Les Halles metro station in search of the Centre Georges Pompidou expecting to find myself in some variation of the market I had seen  and smelled. Instead, an escalator carried me through an underground shopping mall, fashioned after the malls in the States but designed in layers rather than spread out horizontally. Many of the shops were closed and boarded up. For the first time in all my wanderings around Paris, I was afraid. Disoriented and chilled by all the damp concrete, I finally found my way to the street.

On investigation, I learned that the market, which I remembered as built of ornate iron and fashioned after the Gare de l”Est, had been demolished in 1970. Only the church of St. Eustache, built in 1532 and restored in 1840, and the Bourse du Commerce (Commodities Exchange) remained. A major urban renewal project requiring collaboration between the government of Charles de Gaulle and the City of Paris, as well as municipal train and metro companies, had begun in the late 1960’s. Above ground, I found a park with no place to sit on the grass and few pedestrians enjoying the greenery.

The market vendors had moved to Rungis, outside of Paris. There, it is said, they would have a larger, more hygienic area to sell their wares. The Chatelet-Les Halles station now served five metro lines converging with three RER trains, the express trains that go through the city and into the suburbs. As I stood on the sidewalk all I could ask myself was, “What were they thinking?”

Forum des Halles
The Forum des Halles circa 2010. Photo by Pavel Krok

If I could have listened to the politicians, city fathers and railway men in the late 60’s and early 70’s as they planned the future of Les Halles, perhaps I would understand their intent. At the time Andre Malraux was De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. He was known for his convincing oratory, his progressive views about democratizing and revitalizing city space, as well as his desire to beautify city centers. Perhaps these were the goals, but walking around I would say that nobody really got what they wanted. Even the park was maze-like and uninviting.

Now, in 2016, the latest project to revitalize Les Halles is nearing completion. Eager to see the results, I walked down rue Montorgueil, a lively, semi-pedestrian street with cheese, produce, fish and meat markets open to the sidewalk, cafes on the sunny corners and numerous historic markers to bring history alive. At the end of the street, on the right stands the church of St. Eustache, its gothic facade facing the work underway. The Bourse du Commerce, a round, solid and reassuring building is to the west. Ahead lies a construction site with a fence and signs promising four hectares of garden to be called Le Jardin Nelson Mandela. Between the Bourse and the construction is a well-worn green space with cement benches surrounding vents from underground. People are eating, talking, reading and nuzzling. Others are hustling across the park. Two street musicians are competing with canned music from the Forum les Halles, which lies to the east.

The steel and yellow glass Canopy of the Forum les Halles undulates above the 2.5 hectare area that contains the mall complex, designed by Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziotti. Under the Canopy is a media library and recording studios, a hip-hop center – whatever that is – an auditorium, cinemas, gym and open spaces for events. As I walked around the complex looking into a Sephora store and a restaurant, people were gathering for a concert in an outdoor space to be given by Christophe Mae, a popular musician.

Les Halles
The new entrance to Forum des Halles under the Canopy.

Security guards stood at each of the escalators leading down to the trains, subways and more than 130 shops and 19 restaurants. After showing the contents of my shoulder bag to the guards, I set off down the escalators to see the shops. On the third mezzanine level below ground, but still exposed to the outside, there were signs of dampness on the concrete floors. Perhaps it was just the cement reacting to the damp weather Paris has been experiencing. Perhaps the panels of the canopy, which have been referred to as “piss yellow,” are leaking.

The trendy stores and coffee shops, such as H & M, Starbucks, McDonalds and Darty, are still surrounded by construction making it noisy and difficult to picture the finished space. Nonetheless, the desire to cater to all the people of Paris — not just the wealthy and middle-class who can afford to live in the city center — is apparent in the choice of stores and on the faces of the young people enjoying a day shopping. The complex has been designated an International Tourist Zone making it possible for the shops to remain open in Sundays. The city intends to complete construction on the entire complex in 2018, opening sections as they are ready. At a cost of $1 billion, I ask, “Was it worth it?”

As an individual with an emotional attachment to Paris, I celebrate the desire over the past 60 years to democratize the city, including its museums and central marketplace, especially since its population has become more and more diverse. I’m delighted that the underground shopping area and metro station of the 1970’s are being improved, but bemoan the loss of the iron marketplace, a touchstone with the past. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that the changes had been completed with a more faithful attention to this historic structure, while still creating accessible green space in the center of the city, encouraging venues for music and dance, and improving the space below ground.

I look forward to revisiting the finished Forum des Halles to see the final project before evolutionary change takes it in yet another direction.

Anne Daignault is a Massachusetts-based creative non-fiction writer who attended the May 2016 Paris Travel Writing Workshop

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