There’s someone living in the basement” was the first thing my wife heard as we moved our surplus furniture into our cave, the storage area beneath homes where Parisians put the bits of their lives that do not fit anywhere else.
It was our first trip down to the lowest level of the basement, where iron sconces covered in cobwebs give the impression of travelling back in time rather than down 10 pitted stone steps.
At 6am on a weekday morning, we had to pause — wardrobe in hand — to smile awkwardly at the man sitting on a rumpled mattress at the end of a poorly lit, earth-floored corridor.
He seemed as startled as we were, and immediately offered to help — and, we think, reassure us he was not a threat — explaining in broken French that he left every morning about this time and would not return until midnight.
Our flat is in the 18th arrondissement, in the north of Paris, one of the less absurdly expensive parts of the French capital. The 18th stretches from Montmartre (fancy) to where we live (slightly less fancy).
With more than 200,000 residents, its most southerly point is near the touristy Moulin Rouge; its most northerly point was until very recently known as the Colline du Crack, or Crack Hill. There, drug addicts had set up camp in the green spaces between a motorway, having been pushed ever northwards by authorities unsure how to deal with the city’s drug problems.
It is also where Emile Zola set L’Assommoir, his 19th-century tale of alcoholism and poverty on what was then the very edge of Paris, his characters crowded into tiny tenements.
The limits of the city have now shifted northwards to the périphérique — the ill-conceived ring road near the Colline, which was built from the 1950s and which notionally separates the city from the suburbs — but the landscape of Zola’s novel is still recognisable today.
The streets of the Goutte d’Or, named after a wine that used to be made there and where Zola’s heroine Gervaise used to wander, are now filled with immigrants from Maghreb countries and west Africa, who started moving to France in the first half of the 20th century.
Every Saturday, I walk to the public library through street markets flecked with traditional African clothes. People buy plantains and yams and butchers sell cuts of meat unknown in many other parts of Paris; one person’s foie gras is another’s sheep’s head.
A little further south is a Tamil area selling Indian food. It’s not quite the subcontinent but you can find a good dosa or thali.
After four years in Mumbai as a correspondent for FT Alphaville, I found myself in the 18th partly because my wife’s job made the north of the city more practical. But we also stumbled into an area which, had we spent a year researching rather than relying on blind luck, we would have chosen anyway.
There is a name for the sense of disappointment some tourists feel when they are faced with the gritty reality of Paris as a working capital city, rather than a dreamscape where every view is of the Eiffel Tower: it is called Paris Syndrome.
My wife and I experienced the opposite when we arrived. We were thrown by the calm, near museum-like quality of central Paris. The 8th arrondissement, which houses the FT’s office, banks, law firms and the Elysée Palace — making it a perfect staging post for a Paris correspondent — empties once the office crowd goes home. By contrast, the first area we lived in, Bastille, seemed geared for nightlife rather than real life.
The 18th was an antidote of sorts. We began by renting on the Square de Clignancourt, a pretty swish corner of the neighbourhood where our flat faced a small park, in which a choir practised in a gazebo on Sunday mornings.
We were right next to trendy bars, restaurants, excellent cheese shops and one of the best bakeries in town — appropriately named the Boulangerie du Square — which opened shortly after we moved in. Café Pimpin, behind the town hall of the 18th, is a regular haunt.
Then, lured by low interest rates, we decided to buy. The price of real estate in central Paris rivals London for its lunacy. A rule of thumb is that an average sq m costs €10,000. That meant the place we were renting (thanks to rent controls) would have cost us close to €1m to buy, which explains why we decided on something cosier. Our flat has been rendered even cosier by the one-month old who now shares it with us.
Our new place is also in the 18th, but in a cheaper corner, further north than where we first landed. Now, we live near Marcadet-Poissonniers metro station, off one of the last boulevards before the périphérique, 1km north of Montmartre, about 900m north-west of the Goutte d’Or, and about 1km south-west of that hill of crack.
Our street is heavily Serbian, with restaurants, an orthodox church and a bar below our building that fills up every Sunday after service for karaoke — which consists of a man on keyboard accompanying a women with a microphone singing very loud folk songs.
This bit of the 18th is changing too, in part due to people like us who buy just beyond the line of gentrification, awkwardly pushing that line ever further outwards as we do.
Trendier bars, bakeries and restaurants are creeping ever closer and doing battle with the grittier spots — one of which, beside the Simplon metro, will switch on Liverpool games whenever I ask, and whose regulars playing cards at the bar occasionally invite me home for dinner. I have yet to take up their offer.
The neighbourhood is also home to a co-operative supermarket called La Louve, modelled on the Park Slope co-op in Brooklyn and run by an American called Tom Boothe, who set it up a few years back.
In order to have the right to shop there, I work 6am shifts at La Louve on a Saturday once every four weeks, stacking shelves and taking in deliveries.
On my first morning, a small group of us stood around drinking coffee and discussing why the shop remained largely the preserve of middle-class white people. That not everyone could afford to factor ideology into their shopping was identified as culprit number one, with the hope that the shop could become deliberately more inclusive over time.
At my first meeting of our building’s management committee, a neighbour described the changes under way in the area: before they installed the second security door, I was told, a sex worker used to work in the sixth-floor corridor. According to local rumour, she had requested the code to the new door so she could continue to operate as usual, and had been affronted by the refusal.
At the same meeting, and much to my wife’s amusement, I was voted on to the building’s three-person management committee, giving me limited powers to push for bike racks and make decisions about repairs.
One thing I ended up not having to deal with was the squatter in the cellar. The man left voluntarily once he was discovered, leaving behind a mattress, pillows and blankets stacked beside a pile of clothes, some candles and a plastic seat.
If you believe some people in my building, he was taking drugs down there. Others say he was someone who thought living in a cellar with no ventilation was better than anything else that was available. There are all too many homeless, mostly recent immigrants, living along the tram lines and périphérique in the 18th.
Some of those people have now been moved on as part of a broader crackdown on immigration by the government, which plays well with rightwing voters threatening president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party.
The Colline du Crack has also been cleared. I ran past it recently and saw only bare earth where there had recently been ranks of tents.
Having recently watched a man prepare his crack pipe with a razor blade on the metro, and having routinely witnessed the metro platform at Marcadet-Poissonniers crowded with people taking drugs, I am not squeamish about the issue.
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But I do not think clearing the Colline will solve the problem of drug-taking in Paris. It won’t even fully solve the problem in the 18th: on the way home from my run recently, I swerved around a man sitting between two cars smoking crack.
One of the odd things about Paris is how self-contained each of its areas can be. Even within the 18th, micro-communities exist every few hundred metres, often separated just by train tracks or boulevards. It means, despite the odd incursion, that the Colline du Crack seemed further away than it was and that, we’ve been told, change happens slowly and then all at once.
My wife and I often joke about how we can’t wait for the first hipster café to show up on our street, proving we were right to bet on this area. But then we almost always add that it will be a pity when it does.
It’s a tension that we will probably never resolve: that we bought into an area we loved, hoping it would change.
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