Friday, January 8, 2010

The Passages of Paris - Communities

Although glass-roofed shopping arcades were popular in Paris in the 19th century, not all of the arcades were high end. Among Walter Benjamin's notes in his massive manuscript "Passegenwerk" or "The Arcades Project" is a description he quotes from an 1836 novel describing one of the more modest Passages popular with immigrants from the south of France:

It was a narrow corridor decorated with pilasters supporting a ridged glass roof, which was littered with garbage thrown from neighboring houses. At the entrance, a signboard – a tin salmon indicating the main characteristic of the place: the air was filled with the smell of fish….and also the smell of garlic. It was here, above all, that those arriving in Paris from the south of France would arrange to meet….through the doors of the shops one spied dusky alcoves where sometimes a piece of mahogany furniture, the classic furniture of the period, would manage to catch a ray of light. Further on, a small bar, hazy with the smoke of tobacco pipes; a shop selling products from the colonies and emitting a curious fragrance of exotic plants, spices and fruits....

This summer, we visited the Passage Brady off Faubourg St. Denis, and this description could have been written the very day we were there. The passage is still an immigrant meeting place, not for those of the south of France, but from South Asia.

We sat at tables in the passageway, sipping a Kingfisher beer at the Passage de Pondicherry, a South Indian restaurant. The air is filled with the smells of spicy food, incense, and the acetone and ammonia of beauty shops. Grocers' stands are piled with fruit. Across the passage from the cafe seating are shops displaying colorful muslin kurtas and cheap T-shirts printed with Buddha's likeness. Garlands and bright colors abound. As we sat waiting for our dosas to be served, a deliveryman slowly made his way down the passage, nudging shoppers out of the way, with a pallet-jack balancing a side of mutton.

Built in 1828, Passage Brady was a little farther north than the fashionable passages of the theatre district, and was never quite so popular or high-end. It hasn't attracted the interests of preservationists today, as have the more elegant Galeries. Above the shops, the ornately carved windows of the upper story are a bit shabby. These were the rooms that once may have housed gambling dens or art studios or brothels - or tailors and dry cleaners.

Benjamin writes that at number 32 Passage Brady there was once a dry-cleaning establishment, where one could see through the windows the workers toiling away in the upper story, hanging linens to dry.

In the 1890s Passage Brady was where a group of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists calling themselves Les Nabis liked to hang out. Painters Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard were part of this group, that drank here and argued about modern art, including the newest style called Art Nouveau, and interesting new influences from Japan and Asia.

It's funny - back in 1799, the whole idea of the passages originated with an Orientalist fantasy of Arabian and Persian bazaars. Both French and British fashion and architecture were influenced by imports from Indian. Struggling with Britain over colonial domination in India, Napoleon attempted to establish French interest in the Middle East, and all of France was fascinated by all things Moorish, Turkish, and Indian in style.

Bonaparte in Cairo 1798 - engraving from the Bibliotheque Nationale

In fact the very first arcade built in Paris, the Passage du Caire, was inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, and featured such exotic decor as sphinx figures and goddess-theme bas reliefs.

Fast forward sometime in the 1970s, Indian and Pakistani immigrants started to open up shops and restaurants in this neighborhood between the Porte St. Denis and the Gare du Nord. Now the Passage Brady is home to a thriving community of South Asian immigrants, with shops and restaurants and businesses. How odd that after almost 200 years, the fantasy of a bustling Asian bazaar has come to be almost true.


Blondie's Journal said...

I read this post with mounting interest. How lucky you were to visit the passage! The conclusion is fascinating!!


Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I could feel myself cringe at the thought of smoke, fish, garbage...I'm one of those people that is very "smell sensitive" and even the smells you described as current would get to me. When I smell incense I am a) transported back to my college days and b) hold my breath...hate that smell!