Published on December 5th, 2019 | by Pascal Ordonneau0
The District of America: the district of America is located in the nineteenth “arrondissement,” North-East of Paris between the Buttes-Chaumont Park (the Chaumont Hill Park) and the Chapeau Rouge Park (Red Hat park)
Wandering Parisian’s encounter streets with American names and history that sometimes lead us to unexpected places.
Paris is full of surprises. Remember that the Passage Dieu (God Path) is two steps away from the Impasse Satan (Evil Deadlock)! Do you think I’m joking to get your attention? You’ll have to get used to this: in Paris there are many surprises. Another example? There is a street now called “blue,” as in the color. Formerly, it was called “rue d’Enfer (Evil street).” As it goes along, It becomes another street, bearing the beautiful name of Paradise (rue de Paradis)!!! That name remains, but not “rue d’enfer,” which became “rue bleue.” So, in Paris when “we come out of the blue” it is to go to Paradise.
Why so much anticipation before approaching the « district of the Americas?» You will discover why while strolling the streets and houses of this charming sector of Paris. First surprise: We could expect to give the name “Americas” to a very modern sector of Paris, in the style of Manhattan. The district of La Défense with its strikingly modern architecture, the height of its towers and the monument unique in the world called the “cube” would have deserved to be called “American.” You would have thought so, but in fact, it’s exactly the opposite!
The district of America is located in the nineteenth “arrondissement,” north-east of Paris between the Buttes-Chaumont Park (the Chaumont Hill Park) and the Chapeau Rouge Park (Red Hat park).
Urbanized during the nineteenth century, the “district of America” is crisscrossed with small streets, alleys, passages, and features pavilions and small houses. It contains all the social hierarchy that is expressed in buildings, houses and villas. A whole part of the district above the street of Mouzaïa contains small houses. They were intended for a population of workers. All around, prospered companies of all kinds. A worker district, a district of revolts, it is known for the Commune of Paris in 1871. Nowadays, the factories and workshops were relocated outside Paris and the district of the Americas was rehabilitated by the famous “bobos,” bourgeois-bohemians. The small houses once “poor and modest” have become dapper and a little flashy.
Further along the streets of the Republican trilogy, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, more “bourgeois” facades are exposed. Their style is a composite as the French often like. It is true that there are so many designs of all ages that we are spoiled by variety and no one is surprised when a modern house looks like a small Renaissance manor or a Norman farm with its thatched roof or even a mountain chalet. Finally, in another part of this small district there are true “mansions,” which are also called “townhouses.” They demonstrate that you can live in Paris in a house and not in an apartment if you are rich enough. Many of them are clustered in the “Danube Hamlet.”
To get some fresh air and enjoy a magnificent view of the Paris area, people go with their families to the Parc du Chapeau Rouge, which owes its name to a “guinguette” where you sample wine produced on the hills of Paris.
A magnificent church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi dominates the whole district. More modestly, we find the church of “Antoinists,” place of the Feasts. It serves the members of a sect who believe that death does not exist.
The district is very green, because, in Paris, when one says “townhouses” or “workers’ houses,” one says gardens, lilacs, ivy, climbing flowers, small parcels of grass, flowerbeds. It is a delightful maze of small streets that overflow with greenery, lit by traditional Parisian street lamps. Some guides talk about “Labyrinth.” It’s an exaggeration! You cannot get lost, most streets and passages form a sort of checkerboard. It is necessary to walk slowly and to slip into passages which are less than three meters of width. No cars, no motorcycles, nothing rolling, one’s going by foot. The branches overflow and filter the sun. In the spring, on a beautiful sunny day, it’s a delight. Are we still in Paris? Aren’t we in one of those “villages” that resist change? They campaign against the progress of the city, contrasting the charms of the small houses to the coldness of the large buildings.
We dream a little, we walk in very modest streets that bear beautiful names, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Progress, Providence, Solidarity; don’t ask me why in Paris, big ideas have small streets! Great men too: Verlaine and Rimbaud have their streets, two steps away from each other.
We were in Paris without seeming to be there. We were in the district of America. But, by the way, why “the district of America?” And why these small streets and these charming houses while in most of Paris the construction of apartments was mandatory accommodate the incessant increase in the population?
Let’s take the problems one after the other: the reason for these smaller buildings is in the basements where plaster and gypsum quarries ran. They were exploited throughout the 19th century until the 1880s, mostly underground, making surface soils particularly fragile. It was impossible to build multi-story buildings. The district of the Americas is not the sole Parisian district to be suspended above the void! Paris owes its beautiful houses “in stone” and its plaster-coated buildings to its geological resources.
Finally, we must come to the very question: why is this district called “America?”
Before it had been given this name, it got the nickname “Quarry of America.” Nobody knows for sure why the gypsum quarries would have been American! It seems to be the fruit of an “economic” legend: the gypsum quarries of the district possessed exceptional aesthetic and mechanical qualities. So exceptional that part of the production of the quarries was shipped to the United States for the construction of many buildings on the East Coast! Parisian Plaster would have been used to build the White House in Washington. But also, across the United States where tall buildings required good material. And France produced it.
Nice story isn’t it… but it’s just a theory!