Just under a year ago, I went over to Paris to meet Tim Gore, Director of the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), housed in the British Council premises near Invalides in the 7th arrondissement. ULIP is a specialised institute that gives students the opportunity to study for a University of London degree (BA and MA), but in Paris. It was an exploratory trip to find out what academic and research interests we might share, given my own strong Paris connections, and to think of ways we could exchange and possibly collaborate. On that trip I met Anna-Louise Milne, Director of Graduate Studies and Research at ULIP and we quickly realised that there were many exciting possibilities, loosely centred around comparative urban studies. Anna-Louise’s new book, “75” (the number for the Greater Paris administrative district), is a mix of fact and fiction, describing the social impacts of loss of a neighbourhood in a poor part of northern Paris, near to where she lives.
What followed over the next months was a series of email exchanges, phone calls and brief meetings, both in London and Paris, when we gradually circled the prey, trying to tie it down to something tangible. We finally agreed on a 3-day weekend workshop, combining a seminar/talk by me on my Paris Traces work on abandoned objects and everyday urban practices, as well as a couple of walks centred on urban transformations and social change. We decided on dates in May and, with some coaxing on both sides, CUCR found some money lurking in a corner to help make it happen, while ULIP paid for my Eurostar ticket and offered the ULIP facilities.
Having found the dates, the venue and the subject, all we needed were people to attend – ideally MA students from PUC and their ULIP counterparts on the Paris Studies MA. As is happened, things panned out slightly differently, with an enthusiastic influx of 20 sociology MA students from the Sorbonne (Paris V), brought along by Carolina Sanchez, a lecturer brimming with enthusiasm and keen to link with Goldsmiths. Carolina is a friend and colleague of Anne Zeitz, an artist-photographer with a PhD, and lecturer in multimedia at the University of Paris VIII. Anne and I have known each other since she first arrived in Paris in 2000 and she and Carolina are collaborating on Cartographies of Fear, a project looking at the life stories of illegal migrants and refugees in Paris.
Paul Halliday, who accompanied me on the trip, has written a personal account of the three days illustrated with some photographs taken on our walk on Saturday. The weekend was a great success, and has left behind a new cross-Channel network, keen to collaborate, linking Goldsmiths with ULIP and two Paris universities.
Peter Coles is Visiting Fellow at Centre for Urban and Community Research.
We had been discussing a Paris trip since I celebrated a very, ahem, significant birthday in the City of Lights several years ago. Last time I visited Paris with Peter Coles and Caroline Knowles from the CUCR, and we stayed in the retro-styled Hotel Eldorado located in the rue des Dames, about as far as one could get from the rapidly expanding corporate hotel chains spreading across Europe’s capital cities like uncontrolled wildfire.
We returned to the Eldorado this time, and I took the early morning Eurostar in order to benefit from the discount, but also to have the opportunity to walk around Paris in the morning light. That turned out to be a good decision, as there was a sense of the city not having quite woken up. What struck me first was how the locality around the Gare du Nord train station had changed so much even within the five-year period since I had last been there.
For a start, the presence of what appeared, or what I assumed to be, migrant and displaced people begging on the street had taken on a different set of proportions, and on arriving it felt like an interpersonal membrane constituting two cities had to be negotiated and navigated through. The presence of police seemed low-key, which after the recent Paris attacks surprised me somewhat. I was, perhaps expecting a profoundly militarized zone, but the arrangements seemed to be anything but.
Later, I met with Peter and went to ULIP (University of London Institute in Paris), an impressive building with a lovely library and good teaching spaces. Here we met with the co-organizers Anna-Louise Milne (Director of Graduate Studies and Research at ULIP), and Carolina Sanchez (lecturer in sociology at the Sorbonne) and the space started to fill up with students arriving from ULIP, the Sorbonne, Goldsmiths and Brighton Urban Photographers. Peter introduced his evocative photographic projects, focusing on the themes of materiality, urban nature and the built environment; all in preparation for what we were here to do – walk. And then walk some more.
So, the next day, after a good breakfast where in truth, I probably ate too many croissants and drank far too much coffee (well it was Paris), we met at the Place d’Italie, walked over the Butte aux Cailles quarter, on a hill overlooking the Bièvre valley. Then through the Gobelins textile and former tannery district. We walked at a steady pace, and it was good to see that many of the discussions, or what the sociologically inclined observer might describe as ‘field conversations’, focused on how the city had changed and adapted, not just recently, but within its architectural and geographic contexts.
I think many of the walkers were inspired by Peter’s earlier presentation at ULIP, as many of those photographing focused their lenses on the minutia and detritus of the streets. Peter had discussed how rolled-up carpets were used by the street cleaners to block up the drains, and every time any of the walkers found something resembling such a material, there was a frisson of excitement and a flurry of cameras as the banal became epic.
Later we had a well-deserved lunch in the 5th arrondissement near Censier, then on to the Gare d’Austerlitz, where the Bièvre river once entered the Seine. There was a purpose to all of the walking. We were following the route of a subterranean river that in previous epochs had been an important and vital part of the Paris industrial landscape; something Peter pointed out when we encountered gaps in the architecture where the river had previously flowed without physical inhibition. Occasionally, there would be brass plaques embedded in the pavement that would provide the observant walker with an indicator of notional urban cartographies involving both presence and absence. And along the way, the story of landscape started to unfold as those that had walked the route many times, shared their knowledge with spatial neophytes such as myself, strangers to Paris, indeed, most of the students who, whilst resident in the city, were not familiar with the architectural and oral histories of its underground waterways.
That evening, after drinking some rather delicious and colourful cocktails (well it was Paris), we went to the “104” for Anna-Louise’s book launch, near Porte de la Chapelle, and later on took part in the all-night vigil of Nuits Debout (“Up all night”) at Place de la République. We left Carolina at the vigil around midnight, and learned the next day that she had gone through to dawn. And this is where things started to get a bit legendary, as she then turned up on Sunday morning sans sleep to lead a walk with the artist and urbanist Anne Zeitz. We wound our way through back streets around the Gare du Nord and the walk leaders managed to gain access to a small, gated area which resembled a past, pre-modern, rural even, manifestation of the city.
We walked around La Chapelle and had coffee near the St Bernard church, then said our goodbyes as Peter was taking the mid-day train back to London. I had booked a ticket on the last train back, and so had the rest of the day to continue walking. I had a discussion with Pei, from the MA PUC at Goldsmiths, about visiting the Natural History Museum, and that was a very good decision as there is nothing that quite prepares one for the sheer surrealism of the exhibits, or the layout of the surrounding gardens.
And then back to London. Fortunately, I arrived early to pass through customs and board the train. The queue was huge. It reminded me of how Paris is so intimately connected to London; people commuting from a part of Europe that a couple of decades ago was considered distant, now thought of as close, achievable and connected. It reminded me of the Northern Line on a Friday evening.
Paul Halliday is course leader in the MA in Photography and Urban Cultures.