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American-born travel journalist and guidebook author Heather Stimmler-Hall created the Secrets of Paris in 1999 to share the hidden side of the City of Light. Discover what you've been missing:

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Calendar of Paris Events

Book NOW for September 5-6
The American Church of Paris is hosting A Prarie Home Companion radion show with Garrison Keillor for two dates, September 5th at 8pm and September 6th at 4pm. Tickets are €31, book as soon as possible, space is limited.

July 3
My favorite English book store, Abbey Bookshop (29 rue de la pArchiminerie, 5th), is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a street party featuring authors Stephen Clarke (Year in the Merde and his new book Dirtie Bertie) and Heather Stimmler-Hall (with the first new copies of Naughty Paris!) today from 7pm until we run out of sangria. Free entry. RSVP on Facebook.

June 25 -July 29
Les Soldes! The annual summer sales take place this year for five weeks throughout France, primarily in clothing stores, but pretty much everything is on sale now. 

Through August 31
Between the Lines and the Trenches, a very intimate collection of personal letters, notebooks and photos from the trenches, many never published before. At the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (222 Boulevard Saint-Germain), through August 31st, entry €7.

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« Beneath Your Feet at Notre Dame Cathedral | Main | N'Importe Quoi Photo of the Week »
Tuesday
Oct182011

N'Importe Quoi Photo of the Week

During the city's last gasp of Indian Summer earlier this month, I was strolling down the Rue Montorgueil enjoying a scoop of gelato when I came upon a lovely site. The enormous green and yellow construction barricades can't hide the gradual destruction of one of the city's ugliest monuments, the Foum des Halles.

For many centuries (a phrase you strangely get used to saying when you live here) Les Halles was home to the city's central food market. Emile Zola called it The Belly of Paris. Under Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris during the Second Empire (1850-1870) the market was modernized with the addition of ten glass and iron Pavillons de Baltard, each one devoted to a different market product: grains, fruits & vegetables, meat, fish, etc.

But by 1969 this wholesale market in the center of town was overcrowded, unhygenic according to modern standards, and simply not big enough to handle the city's needs. The market was moved to the suburb of Rungis (near Orly airport), and the pavillions were torn down. 

The 1970s, in my humble opinion, was a decade of general architectural stupidity in Paris. Former Mayor Chirac and Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d'Estaing can be thanked for approving some of the more atrocious changes to the city such as the express-ways along the Seine and the high-rise housing developments on the outer edges of the city, but the Forum des Halles -- right in the center of the 1st arrondissement -- takes the cake as the biggest eyesore in town.

The market was replaced by a 1970s shopping mall that descends four levels below ground, and a public transport hub at Châtelet-Les Halles for five metro lines and three RER train lines that goes two levels deeper. This "trou", or hole, took almost a decade to construct. The parts that appeared above ground looked like some sort of bizarre retro vision of the future (does R2D2 live here?)...or a bit like Minneapolis-St Paul Airport.

I must admit it wasn't all completely bad. They spared the beautiful late-Gothic/early-Renaissance St-Eustache church (above) and the circular Bourse du Commerce (Commodities Exchange, now home to the Paris Chamber of Commerce), which both gave the neighborhood a bit of historic character. They also covered much of the mall with a public garden, playgrounds, and lawns that were actually quite nice on sunny days.

Unfortunately, like the never-ending tunnels of the Châtelet-Les Halles station, they were also a dangerous place to be wandering around alone after dark. In my student days I actually worked as the night manager of an Irish bar in Les Halles (no longer open), and would borrow the owner's big dog when making the trek through the park to Quigley's Point (another Irish bar, still going strong).

The central location of the mall, its cinemas, its cheap teen clothing shops and fast-food chains have always been a popular meeting place for Parisians and those coming in on the suburban trains for the weekends. I've always thought of Les Halles as a place for skateboarding teenagers and the occasional band of disgruntled youth looking for trouble, a place to be avoided for its ugliness during the day and its shadowy alleys after dark. I would stick to the Montorgueil district just to the north of Les Halles (the old meatpacking district) or the Châtlet area between Les Halles and the Seine.

Unsavory reputation aside, the buildings themselves have aged badly (both physically and aesthetically), and despite many attempts to "modernize" the Forum des Halles without completely demolishing it, Parisians generally still hated it. When Bertrand Delanoë was elected mayor in 2001, one of the first things the people asked for was to tear down Chirac's mall. Since then there have been many different plans rejected, approved, rewritten, replanned. "We want to build something that won't have to be torn down in 25 years," says Delanoë. How very forward thinking.

And so the deconstruction has begun to make way for a light, airy, modern, safe and efficient mall and transport hub that won't scare off the locals or traumatize the locals who got lost on the way from the Louvre to the Pompidou Center. The trees and gardens came down first (they'll be replaced, supposedly), and now the last of the white metal and glass structures are under the wrecking ball. The project will take about five years to complete. See some "before" and "during construction" photos of the buildings and surrounding gardens on the official Projet les Halles website. You can also visit the free exhibition on what the future will hold at Les Halles (and the rest of Paris, for that matter) at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal.

And here's a video from a French news channel showing images of what the area will look like when done, what it looks like now, and what it used to look like back when it was a market pre-1970 (all in French, images start at 23 second mark):

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Reader Comments (7)

I saw some of the destruction when I was there last month. I'm so happy to see this ugly mall go down! I wish they hadn't torn down the original market, but eh, things must change, n'est-ce pas?
October 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia Morris
Very interesting! The new structure is beautiful, in my opinion. I just hope the underground is laid out in a more sensible form.
October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan
One of the old Pavilions Baltard survived the wrecking ball in 1972 -- the former poultry building was dismantled and reconstructed in Nogent-sur-Marne, where it now serves as an exhibition hall and tv studio. (I almost yelled NO! at my computer when the video showed those lovely old pavilions being razed...at least one survived.)

http://www.pavillonbaltard.fr/index.html
October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSunny
I don't see that the new layout is that much better.
October 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie
Thank goodness they spared St. Eustache! It breaks my heart to see heritage structures getting torn down...they just don't make them anymore like they do centuries ago...
October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTracy
I also hope the lay-out is improved! St. Eustache and the mini-plaza that surrounds it is so beautiful and then it ends at the mall.

I think 1970's architecture around the world was a complete waste of time!

Thanks for sharing...
October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiane
I never saw the old Les Halles market, but it couldn't have been any worse than the eyesore that followed. Agree totally with other commenters about St. Eustache, It's a lovely place, and I'm glad it has survived
October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

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