La Rue de Lappe

By Thirza Vallois

Paris Kiosque - March 2000 - Volume 7, Number 3
Copyright (c) 2000 Thirza Vallois - used with permission
Excerpted from "Around and About Paris"

Thirza Vallois, author of the internationally-acclaimed Around and About Paris series, continues the round of Paris's arrondissements, all taken from her books. This month's excerpt takes us to the rue de Lappe in the 11th, to be found in Around and About Paris, Volume 2. Rue de Lappe is now home to the young and the trendy, but it has a different story to tell about its past, an astonishing surprise, like all the many other surprises Paris reserves to the adventurous and Thirza Vallois to her readers. If you want the full picture of Paris, the better and the lesser known, turn to Around and About Paris. It's all there!

Rue de Lappe, with its cheap bars and dance halls, would later become a dingy, ramshackle substitute for the Boulevard du Temple. Frequented by defiant, troublemaking apaches in their bell-bottom trousers and shapeless caps, and by their female appendages, the gigolettes, this was the sort of place that attracted such people as Henry Miller and was romanticised by the likes of Léon-Paul Fargues. Inhabited by metal-workers in pre-Revolutionary days, it became in the 19th century the headquarters of the Auvergnat colony.

Back in the 18th century these heardy mountain people used to come to Paris by way of the Allier river and the Briare Canal to sell the coal of their native Brassac. Upon arrival they would saw up their barges, sell the wood as well as the coal and return home on foot. It was not long before they settled in Paris permanently, earning a living by salvaging and selling the scrap-iron that came their way around rue de Lappe. When water came to be in demand, they converted to the tough trade of water-carriers. Every morning they could be seen on the Boulevard du Temple in their traditional costume, two buckets of water dangling from a yoke on their shoulders, crying out, A l'eau! or Ao! Ai! or Oia!, the first syllable being voiced from the head, the second projected from the chest, so as to be heard on the top floors.

They had come up to Paris to improve their lot, and did so doggedly, step by step. Soon they added coal to water in the winter months, and when modernised Paris had been supplied with water, they substituted wine for water as their stock-in-trade. Beforelong the one-time hawkers set up shops selling coal and wine, which also served as rudimentary cafés, and the celebrated bougnat (from chabougnat, originally a collier or coalman) became no less of a Parisian institution than the bistro.

Not content with owning practically all the establishments - including cheap hotels - in the area, the resourceful, thrifty (some say parsimonious) Auvergnats now set about conquering the café industry of the entire capital, whcih is largely in their hands to this very day. Remonecq, Balzac's Auvergnat character in Le Cousin Pons, demonstrating the same dogged perserverence, started out selling scrap-iron and ended up a prosperous antique-dealer after a frugal life dedicated to work and piling up his savings.

In the dance halls of rue de Lappe, which were also frequented by members of the strong Italian community, who had arrived here via the nearby Gare de Lyon, they danced their native bourrée to the music of their traditional bagpipes known as musettes. In 1905 their fellow-countryman Monsier Bouscatel, the owner of Le Bouscat, joined forces with the Italian accordionist Peguri and invented what would become a world-renowned type of accordion music known as musette. It was in Le Bouscat, Monsier Bouscatel's bal-musette on rue de Lappe, that this popular music was performed for the first time. Thus, what came to be taken for a typically Parisian musical lore was in fact the joint invention of two members of the outside communities of the 11th and combined the Italian sense of melody with the Auvergnat sense of rhythm.

In 1976 the painter Dominique Thiolet settled in a new studio at 5 rue de Charonne, ushering in a new era for the 11th arrondissement. The arrival of other artists in the southern section of the arrondissement around the Bastille and the renovation of the area where the first step of an overall process of gentrification of eastern Paris. By 1985 the association Le Génie de la Bastille (called after the golden `spirit of liberty' which surmounts the Bastille column) boasted 40 participating studios and over 100 artists. A year later Jean-Pierre Lavigne, a major art-dealer on the contemporary Parisian scene, opened his spacious, three-storeyed gallery at 27 rue de Charonne and dazzled the neighbourhood with the first exhibition in Paris of Andy Warhol's silk screens. By now nearly 200 artists and writers have taken up residence in what has become the new trendy area of Paris, among them the Japanese fashion designer Kenzo. Brochures and leaflets speak in highfaluting terms of their spiritual or ideological motives when settling around the `place' (ie Place de la Bastille) `generating freedom and movement.'

In point of fact, they came here initially because they could not afford to settle in places like Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and, with the building of the new Opera well under way, it was rasonable for them to assume that the neighbourhood would soon become desirable. Furthermore, as old trades - metalworks, spinning mills - were dying out, many workshops became vacant and could be purchased at low prices and converted into `lofts.' It was in the Bastille area that the frenzied vogue for lofts, emulating Manhattan, began in the 1980s. These were located on the ground floor usually, because that was where the workshops were located, but in Parisian terminology they becamse `lofts' nonetheless. Kenzo too followed the trend when he converted the premises of a metal factory into a fabulous Japanese-style residence. Cafés, night clubs and restaurants followed, turning the Bastille into the new `in' neighbourhood of Paris.

There is no place here now for characters like the `white gypsy' Jo Privat, the `King' of the rue de Lappe, also known as `le Seigneur de la Bastille.' His accordion has long been silent. It was the instrument of the people, and nobody wants the people any more, so Jo Privat has taken to the bottle... In 1936 he played for the first time at the celebrated Balajo on rue de Lappe, a classier establishment than the average dance hall, frequented by slender pimps in their gaudy ties and pointed patent shoes. `Paris has buggered off,' he says today, `and we have not noticed it.'

The residents of the neighbourhood were less willing to throw in the sponge. In May 1992 having gathered 500 signatures, they succeeded in rescuing the 100-year-old grocery, Aux Produits d'Auvergne, at no. 6 rue de Lappe.

Thirza Vallois brings Paris to life in a way that enthralls her readers and provides them with a detailed knowledge of the city which exceeds that of most Parisians, while her fast moving style disguises a depth of historical fact that is normally only found in academic tomes. Writer William Boyd wrote in The Spectator: "I think we can safely toss all other Paris guidebooks aside....There can be no higher praise than when I say they come close to the world's greatest guidebook, J. Link's "Venice for Pleasure" and they should soon achieve similar legendary status." The French Ambassador to the UK wrote: "I am convinced that this guide will constitute from now on, for the British lovers of Paris, a reference book which will have the success it deserves." Around and About Paris may be ordered online here.

A long time resident of Paris, she currently lives just three hours outside of Paris in London, and may be contacted via