Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The area’s reputation for untidiness is long-standing, but change may be afoot.
Visit Chateau Rouge Market in Paris on an average evening and you could be forgiven for assuming a riot had just taken place. Packing cases litter the sidewalks, old produce squelches under foot and you may even spot the occasional scuffle between traders. Such is the unchangingly shabby state of this corner of Northeast Paris on market days that locals are now taking legal action against their own city.
This spring, residents are suing the city of Paris for “breach of equality”—the cleanliness of their area is so below normal Parisian standards, they insist, that municipal neglect is turning them into second-class citizens. They want €20,000 worth of damages, admittedly a flea bite for a city of this size and wealth. The damage to Paris’s reputation may be less easy to manage, however. For a city that this winter vowed to become a “model of cleanliness” for all of Europe, the upcoming court case is embarrassing to say the least.
But aren’t street markets with all their noise and muddle supposed to be one of Paris’s chief pleasures, you might ask? They certainly are, but the one at Chateau Rouge strays a little from the usual postcard favorites. This isn’t one of those impossibly well-groomed Parisian farmers’ markets where you get plump pedigree hens butchered after a life of daily massages, or hand-polished asparagus spears for a Euro a stem. It’s a lively, untidy place that thrives on low prices, selling affordable produce to a still working-class neighborhood. It certainly has its picturesque side. With many traders hailing originally from West Africa, the market’s stalls are piled high with mango, yam and okra, while the sidewalks around them are invariably packed with just about every type of person who calls Paris home.
Too packed, alas. The market is also home to traders who try to dodge the fees levied for renting a proper space, displaying such wares as bootleg designer bags on makeshift boxes dumped on the roadway. Police inspections are supposed to control such activity, but they actually seem to make things worse. As word gets round that inspections are beginning, rogue traders scatter through the crowd, knocking people over and leaving a trail of debris before setting up again a few hundred yards down the road. Arguments commonly break out between the official and unofficial traders, making the whole area a bit of a scrum.
Is it possible that the market is being singled out unfairly? Before inner Paris started its slow progress to gentrified museum-style showcase, this type of low-grade disorder was surely more common. The lawsuit could also be portrayed as an attack by gentrifiers on the services on which their poorer neighbors rely. It could be portrayed that way, that is, until you actually see the state the area’s streets are left in following a busy day’s trading. Photos like the one below, from a resident’s Facebook page, look like a backdrop to the barricade scenes in Les Misérables.
In truth, Chateau Rouge is only the worst example of a general filth problem across Paris. A survey last year from the newspaper Le Parisien found that over 90 percent of respondents found Paris’s streets dirty. Photographic evidence, such as this Instagram account documenting the extremely sordid state of the city’s Canal Saint Martin, backs the survey up. Much of the city is still pretty well-groomed, but trash problems can even encroach on tourist hotspots. In 2014, the area around the Louvre witnessed a rat infestation, although the film Ratatouille apparently softened visitor attitudes to the rodents.
Parisians themselves could do much to improve their city’s state by changing their habits, but it seems naïve to think that recent moves such as raising fines for dropping cigarette butts will achieve a great deal on their own. The mess, meanwhile, could be putting off visitors. This year, London surpassed Paris as Europe’s number one tourist destination, and there’s a worry that the city’s dirt is a contributing factor. In a recent survey of Chinese tourists, cited in the article linked to above, 61 percent said they were shocked at the general state of Paris.
Some changes are at last afoot, however. This year, the Canal Saint Martin itself was fully dredged of trash, revealing an incredible variety of debris beneath its murky waters. At the same time, Paris has just pledged €25 million to a new campaign to tidy the city, increasing maintenance staff, opening up more trash collection centers and equipping the city with 30,000 more trashcans. The city is also setting its sights on markets like Chateau Rouge. A plan launched today to revamp the popular flea market at the Porte de Vanves, allowing more space for street artists and clearing out illegal traders. Moves like these should help the city improve eventually—but for residents around Chateau Rouge Market, the change clearly isn’t coming fast enough.