A portrait of the loud, vibrant neighborhood around the Marché d'Aligre, from graffitied trucks to sidewalk cafes
Beauveau, the market pavilion at the intersection of the Rue d'Aligre and Rue Théophile Roussel. Lauren Goldenberg
"Paris has no energy," a stranger complained to me recently. We were sitting across from the Luxembourg Gardens at neighboring tables in the Rostand café, a room of marble surfaces and wicker chairs frequented by the chic, the well-heeled, and imposters like me who'll stake the elevated price of a coffee every so often to pretend. Foreigners who have opted to live in Paris for sheer love of the city can draw out a particular strain of nostalgic self-deprecation in its natives—this guy, a professor at the Sorbonne, went whole hog and invoked Sartre and today's indifferent youth—but I could see what he meant about energy and the lack of it.
Earlier in the week, taking the bus from the airport, I had entered the city by Boulevard Malesherbes and was struck by its supreme silence: all those facades indisputably gorgeous and, taken together, unbroken by any sign of human life, as inert as a plaster cast. Taboo as it may be to admit that you can easily become overfull of grand Paris, when you do, something must be done. For my part, I leave the Rostand and gravitate east, past Notre Dame, past the Louvre and the boutique-clogged Marais, to the 12th arrondissement's marché d'Aligre, old Paris's last great daily market.
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The ruckus is the first clue that you've safely escaped the lethargy of the haute bourgeoisie: sellers crying the daily price of eggplants and tomatoes with the strange affection of circus barkers crying their freaks, a juggler singing as he throws his bowling pins over the small black fish swimming in the jug balanced on his head, the buyers' voices calling through the crush. On any given morning from Tuesday to Sunday, the street is lined with stalls of produce going for impossibly low prices: a kilo of apples for a euro, two kilos of carrots for a euro 50, bundles of thyme, coriander, mint, and parsley for pocket change. Fish, meat, cheese, and specialty goods from Auvergnat sausages to anchovy-wrapped olives and Cajun colombo de porc are lodged together in Beauveau, the covered pavilion that stands at the intersection of the Rue d'Aligre and Rue Théophile Roussel, shielded by thick stone walls from the frenzied scene outside.
The second clue that this is no Malesherbes is the language that much of the produce-pushing is done in. Before the area was part of Paris, when it was still the suburb of Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the market dealt in hay; later, vendors sold cheap clothes to the poor, and in the 19th century, when the Gare de Lyon train station opened a few streets away, the neighborhood, with its mix of craftsmen and laborers, became home to North African immigrants, maghrébins, travelling by train up from Marseille. Most of today's vendors are third- or fourth-generation maghrébins who have followed their parents and grandparents in the family trade, the stalls and the permits that go with them passed down from father to son. Their particular blend of Arabic and French strikes me as being as true to the spirit of Aligre as the arguing and cajoling and joking, the flirting over bananas and zucchinis.
The best time to go is, of course, a matter of opinion. If you choose a weekday morning, you'll have a fair amount of elbowroom. "Fewer people," said a vendor when I asked him about the biggest change that the market had undergone during the three generations his family has spent at the same stall. "Women work now and don't have time to shop for groceries. And then," he said, gesturing to the Franprix supermarket half camouflaged by the bustle across the street, "there's that, too." I doubted that Aligre could have once fit more people than it does now on its busiest days until I came across a postcard of the street from 1901: a mass of faces looking up at the camera, packed in so tightly I wondered how they could move at all, and the solid block of Beauveau hovering inscrutable as ever in the background.
There's a beauty in the peace of the late afternoon and early evening, when the tide of the market has gone out in brightly graffitied trucks and the things hidden by the stalls come into view: the Aouba café with its brass coffee grinders and the smell of the grounds heavy in the air; the Algerian pastries in the Amira boulangerie; a host of halal butchers tucked into the dissonant crescent of high-rises at the Place down the street. And, a few steps beyond, the Commune d'Aligre, a collective space that hosts film screenings and political discussions along with a café associatif where volunteers cook meals made with the market's ingredients for anyone who feels like dropping by. Just before the onset of the blue light signaling dusk, you may feel yourself pulled past Aligre and onto the Rue de Charenton and Rue Abel in the direction of the Promenade Plantée, the elevated train tracks converted 10 years before New York's High Line into a lengthy stretch of park.
But there's a beauty, too, in the rush and hum of Sunday mornings, when Paris's usual church-day rigor mortis seems nothing more than the mood of a remote country, and people flow from the market into the neighboring Théophile Roussel and Rue de Cotte to have a stroll and eat fresh oysters at the Baron Rouge wine bar. The place becomes so full by noon that customers who can't get a spot inside balance their plates on the curb's recycling bins and the hoods of parked cars. The people who can't manage pass to the candy-colored tables of the K'FE café across the street, or to any one of the Rue de Cotte's many restaurants, the pack led by La Gazzetta and its 16-euro fixed-price lunch. Rue de Cotte, unassuming as it is in the shadow of Aligre, is a less obvious jumble than its neighbor but a worthy jumble all the same. Newer bobo establishments like the vintage and used clothing store Le 18 à la Cotte and the architecture bookshop Le Cabanon stand shoulder to shoulder with the entrenched hair parlors and furniture makers of an earlier time.
On the last Sunday of February, I stopped by the Commune d'Aligre for dinner. There on the counter was a petition to stop the prices of renting a stall space at the market from being hiked up by 200 percent, a measure that could drive many of the vendors out of business. If the energy of the Aligre neighborhood is rooted in commerce, it also owes much to politics. The French Revolution, after all, began in the workshops of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the street bordering Aligre to the north, and the area is still vociferously leftist.
"They want a clean market (with our collaboration) with no noise!" the petition read. "Without too many vendors! With stalls that are extremely expensive to rent. Put simply, they want to make us disappear." A clean Aligre, without the noise, the vendors, the superabundance, the mess? I took the pen and signed my name.
If you want to be efficient, take the line 8 metro to Ledru-Rollin and launch yourself directly into the mouth of the market. But if you're like me, your idea of cities has nothing to do with efficiency. So start at the Place de la Bastille, and head down either Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine or Rue de Charenton. You can orient yourself from the Place de la Bastille by the July Column, that monster pillar built to commemorate the Revolution of 1830 and now the axis of the Bastille's traffic circle, and specifically by le génie de la liberté (the spirit of liberty), the winged figure perched on top. Torch of freedom gripped in fist—France's republican imagery is nothing if not strident—fist thrust at central Paris, the Spirit of Liberty's heel and bare, gilded backside point due east towards the two streets in what is either a kiss-off to the neighborhood or a touchingly literal demonstration of the direction taken by the instigators of the Revolution.
The Faubourg Saint Antoine is a muddle of pedestrians and traffic, and, especially by the Bastille, a series of unabashedly tacky storefronts set in beautiful pre-Haussmanian buildings—see, as a case in point, the Roméo furniture store, megashrine to the versatility of plastic in interior decoration. Rue de Charenton, on the other hand, is entirely serene. To get in both for good measure, it's worth starting out on the Faubourg Saint Antoine and crossing over through the Passage du Chantier, nearly hidden by the GAP outlet to its right, with its furniture stores and workshops. On the other side, the chain stores gone and the arches and struts of the Promenade Plantée visible to the right, keep walking away from the Bastille Opéra until you reach Aligre.