11th arrondissement

11th arrondissement: a day in my old stomping grounds

I once lived in the 11th arrondissement before it became trendy. My first place was a 270 sq. foot studio I rented rue Alexandre Dumas, for almost two years. It was cramped, dark and damp (the only window faced north.) It had no proper kitchen. Like an afterthought,  a two-burner electric cooktop, small sink, and small fridge were tucked to the side of the short hallway connecting the front door to the main living area. A small bathroom with a narrow standing shower completed this attractive package. It was not much, but it was mine, as long as I came up with the rent money each month, my first taste of independence since I had lived on an American campus in Atlanta, GA, a few years earlier. I was already in my mid-20s then. It was not unusual for young Parisians to continue living at their parents’ because they couldn’t afford their own place. Things have not changed that much in the French capital I suspect. As an up-and-coming young executive working for American Express France, I loved my neighborhood, conveniently located near la place de la Nation, a public transportation hub, between two Metro stops, and a 10-minute walk away from a good friend’s apartment, rue de la Forge Royale. We worked together  and commuted to Rueil Malmaison daily. I look back fondly on these years, the friendships I made at work, the paycheck that came in every month and was enough to go out, catch a movie or two, and enjoy lively dinners at small local restaurants several times a week. Life was busy but good, and everything seemed possible. In April, while vacationing in Paris, I returned to my old neighborhood, in the heart of an arrondissement that is now part of the so-called “New Paris,”  to see what the fuss was about.

11th arrondissement
My street, rue Alexandre Dumas

11th arrondissement: Orientation

Bordered by three of the French capital’s most well-known places (squares,) place de la Bastille, place de la République, place de la Nation, the 11th arrondissement has always been one of the most densely populated areas in Paris. It boasts a tumultuous history and remains quintessentially French. The storming of la Bastille in 1789, the Revolution of 1848, and the Commune uprising in 1871 (the 11th was one of the last neighborhoods to fall at the end of la Semaine Sanglante, the Bloody Week,) are only a few chapters of the area’s eventful past. Barricades have traditionally been part of the urban landscape in that section of the Right Bank, and even today, as many unsuspecting tourists find out, la Bastille remains a favorite location for demonstrations and marches. In Chapter 1 of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo writes about le Faubourg Saint Antoine, the lifeline, “(…) the old faubourg is a hero.” From the start, the 11th arrondissement was un quartier populaire, a working class neighborhood where real people lived, socialized and worked. It benefited from a special status granted by French kings whereby small trades would be allowed to develop there, without paying taxes. As early as the 15th century, the 11th arrondissement attracted artisans and craftsmen. When Parisians were looking for quality wood furniture, ceramics, porcelain, wall paper, marble, tile floors, they would head to la rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine. The area thrived in the 19th century, and when I moved to Paris in the mid-1980s, the lively street was still a big draw for anyone interested in buying quality furniture. My parents are very proud of the dining room set they bought there 30 years ago.

11th arrondissement
Rue du Faubourg St Antoine with specialty shops (“Meubles,” “Tapissier.”)

11th arrondissement: a modern-day stroll

That day, I arrived at la Bastille with le Métro, and started walking down le Faubourg Saint Antoine, a couple of hours before I was scheduled to meet an old/new friend, American expat and author Lisa Anselmo. Was I going to recognize the neighborhood, or had it been taken over by Parisian hipsters, their cutesy stores, new wave coffee shops and bars churning out Mojitos and Spritz?

Many of the old furniture stores were gone. I spotted a Starbucks and a local bagel store with a sense of humor (“Le Bagel, c’est très Brooklyn!”) During my walk, I noticed the ubiquitous hamburger on many café and bistro menus. L’apéro time has turned into les Heures Joyeuses, Happy Hour(s,) and food, still served en terrasse, “must” be presented pre-sliced and on a board. Other than that, same old, same old. The street is still as busy and as diverse as it always was, with locals chatting at a street corner on their way to la boulangerie, or outside their favorite café.

11th arrondissement
Bagelstein: “Since 1789”

11th arrondissement

Marché d’Aligre

This famous Parisian outdoor market is actually located in the 12th arrondissement, yet I could not miss it: It’s just a few minutes away from le Faubourg Saint Antoine. This is not to say the 11th arrondissement does not have its own outdoor markets (check out le marché de Belleville or le marché de Charonne.) The old village-like atmosphere once prevalent in the neighborhood is still palpable there, especially off-season. Things get much busier in the summer months. There are three sections to this down-to-earth, affordable market, la rue d’Aligre, where stalls and stalls are lined up, (with a few interesting shops along the way,) la brocante, located on a small square at the end of the street, and finally the covered Marché Beauvau, first built in the 18th century, with more food merchants. This may come as a surprise to visitors who faithfully return to la rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement, but there are très authentiques market streets in Paris in just about every neighborhood. Le Marché d’Aligre stands apart. Food author and blogger David Lebovitz explains why in this article.

11th arrondissement
Bienvenue rue d’Aligre

11th arrondissement

11th arrondissement
Café Aouba and street merchants, rue d’Aligre
11th arrondissement
La brocante: Livres d’occasion (used books)
11th arrondissement
Inside Marché Beauvau

11th arrondissement: In a French Girl’s footsteps

After I left le Marché d’Aligre, I returned to le Faubourg Saint-Antoine and headed towards la Nation. There was no rush in spite of the final destination, and I took the time to indulge in a very Parisian flânerie along the way, stopping for a few photos, some lèche-vitrine, and a walk around my friend and former colleague’s old neighborhood (she now lives in London.) I took a short detour via rue de la Forge Royale, where she used to live, on to square Louis Majorelle, one of these peaceful public gardens you find by chance at a street corner, usually empty. I found examples of the 11th arrondissement’s old trades rue Saint Bernard, with Produits d’Antan, a store specializing in supplies for cabinetmakers and stone masons.

11th arrondissement
I stood there for a few minutes, looking at all the details on that wall
11th arrondissement
Square Louis Majorelle, named after the famed furniture designer
“Products of Yesteryear”

11th arrondissement

I kept walking along boulevard Saint Antoine, passing many familiar sights, cafés and restaurants, some quite renowned, along the way, until I reached la place de la Nation, and spotted the café where my friends and I used to meet before we embarked on Parisian adventures together.

11th arrondissement

11th arrondissement

At that point, I headed down another major thoroughfare, le boulevard Voltaire. It would take me to my old street, rue Alexandre Dumas, where I was scheduled to meet my lunch date. From the looks of it, it had not changed one bit, with stately buildings, a few storefronts, more cafés and restaurants and their terrasses. 

11th arrondissement

11th arrondissement

After I watched school kids being picked up by their mothers for their daily two-hour lunch break, I decided to rest my feet and watched the world go by in this quartier I once called home.

11th arrondissement
Ecole Elémentaire Publique Alexandre Dumas

Finally, it was time to meet my American friend Lisa, and in my old street, what a treat! She introduced me to a wonderful little restaurant, specializing in French-Japanese fusion cuisine. Le Sot L’y Laisse, is highly rated and filled in quickly at lunch time with habitués (regulars.) Lisa will likely get upset with me for mentioning it here, as there was not a tourist in sight, with the exception of this French Girl. Pardon, Lisa. Conversation was lively (Lisa and I are two cities girls at heart who share a passion for New York and Paris.) The food, artfully presented, was fresh and delicious. For those of you who don’t know, le sot l’y laisse refers to a tender part of the chicken, located right outside its… derrière. You’re welcome.

11th arrondissement

11th arrondissement
L’entrée (first course) a light and fluffy fish mousse, garnished with vegetables.
11th arrondissement
Le dessert

Le Sot l’Y Laisse (la salle)

And so this day in my old stomping grounds (the section of the 11th arrondissement known as Sainte Marguerite,) wrapped up with a fun meal with a new Paris friend. She invited me to join her and other American expats at a meeting held in le Marais that afternoon. Right before we disappeared inside le Métro off boulevard Voltaire, I looked back quickly, and had a distinct feeling of déjà-vu.

A bientôt.

Note:

I carefully stayed away from les coins branchés (hip areas) in the 11th arrondissement, around la Bastille or Oberkampf. If you are interested in those, here’s further reading here and here 

Join a stroll around le marché d’Aligre, here.

11th arrondissement

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14 Comments

  • What an insightful trip around your old neighborhood. I love the way you weave together past and present–isn’t that what makes Paris so special–being trendy while also steeped in tradition?
    One of the famed makers of marquetry, Ecole Boulle, is right near Nation, though it’s in the 12th. Marquetry is out of fashion, but I have quite a bit and love it. I find it amazing how they “painted” pictures with different kinds of wood.

    • “Trendy while also steeped in tradition:” very well put. That’s exactly how I feel these days when I walk around the French capital. You are correct, that’s is probably what keeps Paris interesting and even intriguing, as you never know what side of her personality she is going to reveal. Thank you, as always, for your visit.

  • Was excited to see your post on this area. My husband & I rented our apartment at 170 Bis Rue du Faubourg St Antoine for the month we were there. I loved the area and the closeness to all the other arrondissements of Paris (mostly). By the time we had to leave we knew many of the local shop owners and miss them.
    Thanks again for sharing your adventures in Paris.

    • Merci de votre visite DiAnn. I would definitely consider staying in the 11th arrondissement to see a more low-key, authentic side of Paris when I visit. I would definitely consider moving back there as well, or at least to some sections, when I relocate in Europe. I am glad you enjoyed the area too! A bientôt !

  • “I once lived in the 11th arrondissement before it became trendy. ”

    Ha! I can one-up you on that. I lived in the 10th (around Canal St Martin) long before it became seriously branché , alas, long after I had left. It’s so long ago that I can’t claim to be in the first wave of hipsters.

    You are correct about the density of the arrondissement. At 152,500 residents in only 3.7 km2 it is 41,600/km2. Not only is it the densest of Paris’ 20 arrondissements, it is one of the densest urban areas in the world. There may be small pockets/quarters in Asia that are higher but even Hong Kong works out at an average of 35,700/km². For comparison, within Paris the biggest arrondissement, the 15th (that includes Gare de Montparnasse) has 232,000 (2005) in 8.5 km2 for 27,300/km2. I did work out that my other “home” in Paris, Ile St Louis with 4,453 residents on ≈100,800 m2 is 44,530/km2.

    These two places are very high density for the same reason: almost entirely residential with little in the way of (big) parks or governmental buildings etc. And no famous monuments which is why visitors or tourists are largely unaware of it (alas, they may be aware of something for unfortunate reasons: the Bataclan concert hall where the terrorist massacre happened).

    Excuse the nerdy detail but as an (amateur) urbanist I use the 11th as an example of what relatively low-rise (6 to max 8 floors) can achieve, to counter those who erroneously believe you have to build hi-rise to achieve hi-density. Hi-rise has to reach serious extremes to exceed this, and no where in the world does a hi-rise area extend over anything like the same area.
    The average for all of Paris (20 arrondissements, calculation excludes the two big bois): 2,241,346 (2014) on 87 km2 for 25,800/km2. This is about the same as the island of Manhattan, by far the densest zone in the US. The second densest is the City of San Francisco: 852,469 on 122km2 for a density of 7,022/km2.

    Again, please excuse the urbanista proselytising but sometimes we in the Anglosphere don’t quite grasp why we find Paris to be so “beautiful” and pleasant to live in and promenade around (as FGIS is so good at revealing). To be sure, the famous bits, monuments and grand boulevards etc do play a role but actually an area such as the 11th without any of that is still fabulous in a way in which no areas in our “home” cities are. (You step outside your apartment and there is a boulangerie (with real bread baked on the premises!), cafes, brasseries and restaurants in spitting distance, and wonderfully interesting streets and sometimes treed-avenues to walk along, beautiful small squares etc etc) And worse, the modernisers are trying to densify by simply building hi-rise ugliness. Of course it is not that one should aim for such super-high densities–and such “270 sq. foot studios” like you lived in (me too) won’t get built (no longer in Paris or France where they simply are a lucky legacy of the past)–but one can easily achieve ≈20,000/km2 with larger apartments and all the other utilities (schools, parks, government offices etc) that Paris has.
    ……………………..
    FYI, Jeffrey Iverson, of France Today magazine, a year ago wrote on the artisanal section of Saint-Antoine that you mentioned:

    https://www.francetoday.com/travel/paris/parisian-walkways-faubourg-saint-antoine-the-heart-of-fine-french-cabinet-making/
    Parisian Walkways: Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the Heart of Fine French Cabinet-Making
    The historic heart of French cabinet making, Faubourg Saint-Antoine was also a hotbed of revolution.
    By Jeffrey T Iverson – June 29, 2017

  • Bonjour mon cher Michael! Here’s another one of your informative comments. I believe my favorite part was: “(…) Sometimes we in the Anglosphere don’t quite grasp why we find Paris to be so ‘beautiful’ and pleasant to live in and promenade around (as FGIS is so good at revealing). To be sure, the famous bits, monuments and grand boulevards etc do play a role but actually an area such as the 11th without any of that is still fabulous in a way in which no areas in our ‘home’ cities are. (You step outside your apartment and there is a boulangerie (with real bread baked on the premises!), cafes, brasseries and restaurants in spitting distance, and wonderfully interesting streets and sometimes treed-avenues to walk along, beautiful small squares etc etc)” — I agree. Paris can be so appealing in more authentic neighborhoods, with fewer famous buildings and landmarks. Still, for those who are not always city lovers (or “urbanistas,”) getting to know Paris necessarily goes through these famous buildings and landmarks. The rest of us are quite happy walking among anonymous Parisians in less “popular” neighborhoods, or observing them from a café terrace. A bientôt Michael!

  • Fantastic! I so enjoyed reading this. Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoy reading about the everyday things and recommendations. What a fun and nostalgic visit that must have been. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • If I’m just walking around, how do I know what arrondissement I’m in, or if I’ve crossed into another if there are no famous landmarks around?
    Sheila in Port Townsend

    • Bonjour Sheila. It is not that important to know what arrondissement you are in once you are walking around. When I still taught Paris travel workshops in the Seattle area, I would discuss neighborhoods instead of arrondissements (sometimes two arrondissements straddle the same neighborhood, and things can get confusing.) To answer your question more accurately, however, I can tell you that a sure thing is to look up at the traditional Parisian street names plaques (made of blue enamel) at a street corner. They always mention the arrondissement on top of the actual street name. Hope this helps !

  • Loved this visit to an area of Paris not completely familiar to me. Thank you again for keeping Paris alive for me and awakening memories of my many visits to my favorite city in the world.

  • Faubourg Saint Antoine is where we bought our “table demi lune” (half moon table with extensions) en merisier (cherry wood) many many moons ago. It hardly takes up any space which is very convenient in small appartments, but can be extended to seat around 12, or more, when we squeeze a bit! Very handy to have around for Sunday lunch gatherings with extended family. My husband’s grand-father worked in the area too, as tapissier and his brother was a doreur. So, definitely some roots there.
    Although I live in the banlieue now, I pay a visit to marché d’Aligre every now and then. Love the hustle and bustle and the variety of ware on offer.
    Thanks for posting! Hugs.

    • Merci de votre témoignage Miss Bougie. Merisier is the wood my parents chose as well when they ordered their dining set rue du Faubourg St Antoine. I had not visited le marché d’Aligre for quite a while when I stopped by in April. Glad I did. It has not changed that much, which is comforting. A bientôt.

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