Mad About Paris, Much more than a guide
Here in Paris you can find everything what you’ve already have everywhere else: McDonalds, Zara, Body Shop, you name it. Globalisation has changed our city centres and made them look all the same. Still, it’s so easy to get off the beaten track and discover the other face of the French capital.
No English guidebook will ever talk about the passage du Chantier. Why should it be mentioned? There is so much to see in Paris that is of greater importance. In this passage, there’s no museum, no attraction on this tiny cobbled road. Still, the guide writers are wrong: le passage du Chantier is purely Parisian and, running into it by chance, just feels like riding a time machine. Where do you strand? At the beginning of the 20th century? Or does it feel like the 19th?
As it is not mentioned in the guidebooks, how would you find it? Well, just walk to Place de la Bastille and walk down the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. You will notice the agglomeration of furniture shops. Historically, this is the neighbourhood of craftsmanship. After Louis XI licensed the establishment of craftsmen in the fifteenth century, the Faubourg Saint Antoine became the principal working-class quartier of Paris – and the cradle of later revolutions. Eric Hazan, an authority when it comes to the Red History of Paris, describes this in all details in his book The invention of Paris.
Right through to today, furniture has been present here – and a lot of related trades such as polishers, stainers and inlayers. When walking down rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, you will mainly see the showrooms of big companies like Roche-Bobois, Ligne Roset and Steiner. But open your eyes: there are also windows with quite awfully designed dining rooms, glittery imitations of antique French furniture style Louis Quatorze, Louis Quinze or Empire. In other words: furniture for African despots, Russian parvenus and other nouveaux riches. (Don’t get me wrong: nothing against the taste of Africans, but a lot against the showy taste of their despots spending the money of their people.) After all, the shops gathered here prove that craftsmen are still alive and thriving – you can’t copy a Louis XVI chair in an industrial way.
On your right hand side you’ll soon discover some small streets leading into courtyards. Take the third one, coming from Bastille. This is le passage du chantier which literally means “construction zone”. It was actually right here that the workers used to burn their shavings and wood shipings.
And here you are, in the middle of another film: forget about Ikea. Here are the active craftsmen, furniture makers, upholsterers you don’t usually find anymore in our brave new Chinese times. Recently, the neighbourhood attracted a very exclusive kitchen manufacturer from Belgium. Seems that there are still some corners of the world spared from globalisation. Seems that quite a few of these corners are to be found in Paris. Call it lucky.