Text and photos by Omid Tavallai The first time I set foot in Paris, it was at Les Halles. As a bewildered young backpacker without much of a clue, I'd exited the RER B out of Châtelet-Les Halles station and – turned around as one gets in said station – immediately went in the wrong direction in search of a hostel. I ended up on nearby Rue Saint-Denis, passing all the well-past-their-prime ladies of the night hawking their wares on the cobblestone street. Along the way, there were many jeunes banlieusards, the suburban youth who resembled American inner city youth, or as I liked calling them in my own California vernacular, "wannabe gangstas," attempting to look tough. I snaked my way around the area, eventually finding myself on an unlit street near a towering, gothic church, a throng of unkempt, dirty-looking clochards circling it as if seeking salvation. It was not the Paris I expected, and when I finally did check into my hostel – barely meters away – I circled the area on the map I was handed by the front desk and wrote in big capital letters: AVOID.
Years later, I came back to the area as a slightly more affluent tourist with a real hotel room, in search of the famed meat-oriented restaurants "in the Les Halles tradition." All I knew by then was that the old market used to be there where the shopping mall is now, and that it was torn down and moved to the suburbs in the 1970's for hygenic purposes. What really interested me was that as a remnant of the old butcher culture of late shifts and early mornings, there were places I could get a gigantic steak at any hour of the night. The history was a side dish.
Today, I live in this hub of Paris and like many other gastronomes who've found their way here, I revel in its sometimes downtrodden nature as a romantic link to the past. I often carry with me a well-thumbed copy of Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris, which chronicles one man's re-entry into the quartier after a lifetime of political exile, and I occasionally spend a few moments taking in the laboriously descriptive passages recounting a simple charcuterie or fromagerie in sensual detail.
Reading about the way the main food market used to be – on location – is to me an antidote to witnessing the modern Parisian way of food acquisition, whether it be overpriced restaurants with mediocre meals, palettes of frozen appetizers from Picard, or barquettes of industrial who-knows-what from Franprix. Even a passage about a simple carrot or a head of cabbage sends the foodie imagination soaring.
And while reading Zola's rich descriptions is as much a feast for the mind as the goods once flowing out of the, well, halls of Les Halles must have been to the stomach, it's a revelation to see for oneself what it actually looked like around that time.
Alas, until time travel is invented and subsequently perfected, the exhibit Baltard, Les Halles de Paris currently running at the nearby Louvre des Antiquaires is the best way to catch such a glimpse. It provides a rarely seen photographic overview of Les Halles in its heyday through its destruction, with a focus on the Baltard pavilions, the giant glass-and-steel hangars that have come to epitomize French market architecture. (To see one in real life, you'll have to go to the Cité de la Musique at the Parc de la Villette – a fully intact pavilion is a remnant of the secondary market that once stood there.)
Throughout the exhibit, one can see Les Halles as it looked at the turn of the 20th century, with each cluster of photos topically accompanied by a passage from The Belly of Paris to provide literary context. One also learns the history of the Baltard pavilion architecture – including the odd fact that Baltard himself was not fond of the glass-and-steel style named after him.
The exhibit itself is very small, and as a photography or historical piece in and of itself may come across as underwhelming, to be quite frank. That said, to those who have any connection to Les Halles, who feel a kinship or longing or desire for the food market, or who simply want to see what the heart of Paris looked like before it was turned into a shopping mall, Baltard, Les Halles de Paris provides a tiny window into a grand part of the city's history. Les Halles not only nourished its denizens, but served as a social center for all who otherwise didn't have a place.
As it turns out, Les Halles, in addition to being the belly of Paris, was also its libido, its heart, and its id for centuries. Rue Saint-Denis and its offshoot streets have always been home to those selling some facsimile of love. The beautiful gothic Eglise Saint-Eustache was not only where kings were once crowned, but where the less fortunate have been fed. (There's even, to this day, a tribute to the working class market people inside the church.) And the same streets and alleyways around the mall now were known for muggings and pickpocketing, even in the 16th century.
So what I witnessed when I got out of the RER on that first fateful trip truly was the real Paris. Or, at least, the part that I've fallen in love with. The central market may be long gone and the late-night meat haunts may be full of guidebook-clutching tourists, but, believe it or not, the soul of the city center is still alive and kicking in the characters who continue to loiter around it. The neighborhood drunks. The charitable people who run the soup kitchen at Saint-Eustache. The "mustache mafia" (my wife's unofficial term) of hirsute men who work the old-school butcher shops and meat-first restaurants of the area, and who all seem to know each other. The French bulldogs running around in the de-facto off-leash area in the park. They're all here.
In the meantime, you can see the ever-changing landscape of Les Halles (a controversial six-year renovation project has just kicked off) captured at its peak in stark black and white.
After savoring this small appetizer of an exhibit, you'll likely want more. Simply grab a worn copy of The Belly of Paris and wander the streets around Les Halles, many of which still bear the same name as they did in the book. Read a passage, and let your imagination fill in the rest.
Baltard, Les Halles de Paris 1853-1973
On display at Le Louvre des Antiquaires
2, place du Palais Royal, 75001 Paris
Exhibit runs 11am – 7pm Tues-Sat until 31 July, 2010
Admission: Free, paperback book of the exhibit available for €14.90
Nearest Metro: Palais Royale-Musée du Louvre