This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl.
Confined to my small Brooklyn apartment, I often dream about Paris, about walking for hours in heeled sandals until the straps cut into my ankles. In Paris, I never feel discomfort, only the thrill of discovering new swaths of the city. My mind now wanders to its streets: the scent of rotisserie chicken wafting from a butcher shop, the Seine curving through the city and splitting it in half, the apartment buildings with their cast-iron balconies.
But alongside these familiar areas, I return to a view of the city’s skyline from a high perch in the 20th arrondissement, the top of Parc de Belleville. The altitude is a few meters below that of Sacré-Cœur, and I am removed from the humdrum of visitors, from the picturesque streets and iconic stairways made famous in Amélie and other films. The last time I was in Belleville, I spotted no tourists. No one pressed against the terrace railing for a photograph, and it is this uninterrupted view that I so miss. The winter fog had lifted to reveal a white sky. In the distance, I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Tour de Montparnasse, rising above all the other buildings.
My father is French, and I was born in Paris. I spent my early childhood away in Australia and came back to the suburbs of Paris for my adolescence. At 17 I left France a second time, for America, but I always found reasons to return—jobs and internships that pushed me to explore parts of the city I never thought to venture to as a high schooler.
I came across Parc de Belleville during one of those summers spent working in Paris, while in graduate school. I had met an American poet at a reading, a young man who wore button-down shirts and carried a battered leather briefcase. He was a fellow at a prestigious university. At first glance, he embodied the cliché of the American writer in Paris, and, yet, he spoke gently and without pretension. I liked him instantly. He was an attentive listener and a welcome companion for my long walks. I sought to impress him with my knowledge of a Paris that wasn’t saturated with tourists or English-speakers—a Paris I had found while traversing the streets in my spare time. Not Shakespeare & Co., nor the terrible cafés close to Île de la Cité that served us stale bread and pre-cut cheese.
I studied a map of Paris and looked for neighborhoods that were less familiar to me, closer to the outskirts. My eye was drawn to the small patch of greenery in the 20th arrondissement, not far from Buttes-Chaumont. This is how I chose Parc de Belleville, almost on a whim.
Miéville’s Surreal Weapons
From métro Pyrénées we walked along the rue de Belleville before turning left onto rue Piat, toward the upper entrance of the park. We almost missed the first entrance: a cluster of trees behind a low iron gate, flanked by two nondescript buildings. We entered through a narrow passage surrounded by thick vegetation and followed the path with the sensation that we had stumbled upon a secret garden. Later, I would learn about another entrance, a few meters farther ahead, one that leads to the Belvédère Willy Ronis, named after the photographer. The sand-colored pavilion has floor-to-ceiling windows on the lower level—it once housed a museum, now closed since 2013—and above is a cobblestoned terrace with tall concrete pillars. On these pillars, famous street artist Seth has painted colorful dreamlike murals of children floating up, their heads disappearing in the clouds.
Stand against the railing, between two pillars decorated with mosaics made by children from the neighborhood—they used found objects such as glass and broken ceramics—and you will find a panoramic view of Paris. While it wasn’t remarkably different from the one at Montmartre, it made me pause. I heard children splashing in the fountains, conversations among friends enjoying an apéro on the grass, wind stirring through the trees. It is rare, on a summer evening in Paris, to find this sort of quiet along with the spectacular sensation of having the city at your feet.
Parc de Belleville is a vertical park. It was built on a hillside, in 1988, as part of an effort to revitalize the neighborhood. Much of the neighborhood, deemed insalubrious at the time, was torn down and replaced with modern apartment buildings. Several of these are 10 to 15 stories high and can be seen from the terrace. The park’s elevation of 108 meters makes it one of the highest points in Paris. Narrow cobblestoned paths wind down the hillside, surrounded by lush canopies. Several flights of stairs connect to the bottom at rue des Couronnes. A long cascade made of shallow rectangular pools runs along the central pathway.
In warm weather, picnickers gather on the sloped strips of lawn, alongside an eclectic array of plants: wildflowers, weeds, heads of cabbage, clusters of bamboo. Or they sit on the steps above an open-air theater—a circular stage at the bottom of the shuttered museum. Here, we are far from the manicured gardens of the Luxembourg and the Tuileries and their wide gravel lanes. Parc de Belleville has curves and wild, lush greenery, but also trimmed hedges and a symmetrical rectangular fountain that runs from top to bottom. It feels both modern and a little old.
The poet and I lost our way walking the twisting paths up and down the hillside, before pausing at the Belvédère. It was almost dinnertime. The sun dipped low on the horizon, and parents gathered their children to leave the park. In this dim evening light, we looked at Paris, her contours blurred from summer pollution. We held our breaths. I couldn’t understand why there were so few of us.
I preferred the park at dusk, when the evening sun cast a pale golden light on the Belvédère, and the shallow pools reflected a hazy sky.
Belleville, in northeastern Paris, is a diverse and historically working-class neighborhood. During the Middle Ages, abbeys operated vineyards on its rich agricultural land. By the 1800s, Belleville was famous for its taverns and guinguettes—outdoor drinking establishments and small cabarets—where the wine, exempt from Paris taxes, was cheaper than within the city walls. (As a nod to this history, a small vineyard was planted in the park in 1992 and yields two varieties of grapes, chardonnay and pinot meunier.)
The town was absorbed into Paris in the 1860s, when Haussmann renovated the city center by building large avenues for the bourgeoisie, thus forcing the working class to relocate to the peripheries, such as Belleville. In the 20th century, Belleville became a destination for immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe, former colonies in Africa, and, more recently, Asia. It is known to have some of the best Chinese grocery stores in town.
The neighborhood is also marked by a history of rebellion and political activism. It was one of the last standing barricades for the revolutionaries during the 1871 Commune of Paris, a short-lived insurrection against the government of the Third Republic, and has retained its militant and bohemian spirit over the years. Just north of the park is the headquarters of the French Communist Party. More recently, signs of gentrification can be seen in the shifting demographic and hip new establishments, and, yet, the layers of cultures, its militant and bohemian spirit, and a thriving artist community are ever-present.
Although the poet and I didn’t go back to Belleville that summer, I would return on my own in the years to come. I preferred the park at dusk, when the evening sun cast a pale golden light on the Belvédère, and the shallow pools reflected a hazy sky.
As I write this now, the parks in Paris are closed to the public, though they may reopen in the next few weeks as the city loosens its restrictions. My parents no longer live in France, and I have spent my adult life in New York. And, yet, when I imagine home, it’s Paris I see. I know that, as is the case for many of us who long for our hometowns and cities, the Paris I remember no longer exists. But still, I wonder when I’ll be able to return. I know that when I do, I’ll make my way to Parc de Belleville, and lean against the terrace railing. From there, the outline of the city will reveal itself. Slated rooftops and uneven chimneys, tall monuments flaring into the horizon.
This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.