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Talking about the Treizieme: Paris’s 13th arrondissement

In the 1970s, the City of Paris built a battalion of low-income housing skyscrapers between Porte de Choisy and Porte d’Ivry in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. Little by little, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chinese immigrants moved into the neighborhood.

The sterile Euromarche, one of the first supermarkets within the city limits of Paris began to take on a distinctly Asian flavor. Across the street from Euromarche, restaurants offering authentic Cambodian/Vietnamese and Chinese cooking became neighborhood fixtures.

Angelique introduced me to the Tricotin restaurant, a huge family style restaurant (really two restaurants), one which specializes in steamed dishes, and the other which features some traditional Cambodian dishes and huge soups.

If you’re looking for a meal in a soup, this is the place to go.

When I first moved into the 31st floor of the Residence Massena, the building was clean and well-maintained. The whole concept of low-income housing in Paris was meant to provide clean, contemporary housing for everyone – and in this case- even luxurious (compared to the maid’s quarters stuck in the garrets of some of the more toney neighborhoods).

In the seventies, it was a great neighborhood for middle and lower income-earning families (and you’ll notice that I use the word ‘earning’ because the majority of the people that I met as neighbors were all working. Across the street, there was a soccer field. For a nominal fee, you could join the association.

During these days, I was teaching English as a tutor. I would visit all sorts of neighborhoods in Paris, including Belleville where one student was a squatter in an apartment scheduled for demolition. This was a difficult building to manage in the evening because there wasn’t any electricity. At night, he would have to escort me back down the steps with the help of a cigarette lighter.

By comparison, living in the 13th arrondissement at Porte de Choisy was much more pleasant in some respects. We even had a view of the Eiffel Tower from the window, however, I found living in a skyscraper very depressing and claustrophobic. If you are rich or poor, I don’t think that human beings were ever meant to live in skyscrapers. They are unnatural. Human beings were meant to live close to the land, not in pigeon coops – even if some idiots in NYC are paying 20 Million dollars AND MORE to live in a pigeon coop with a view of Central Park, they’re still fools.

In the seventies, 31 floor, highrises weren’t the norm so much so that one visitor was so horrified by the idea of taking an elevator up so many stories that he took the stairs instead.

Nowadays the number of Asian restaurants and shops selling fresh produce has quadrupled. As I’ve written in past posts, the 13th arrondissement’s Chinatown is a fine place to spend Chinese New Years or take a martial arts class – or just have an inexpensive meal. It doesn’t get much coverage by most tour guides to Paris simply because it’s relatively distant from the major sites you’d want to see as a first-time visitor to Paris, but if you’re working on a tight budget, remember that the Metro connects you to every part of town you might want to visit and you might find the 13th to be more in line with your budget.

Even though I had lived in the 13th for almost a year, I didn’t get to know the Buttes aux Cailles district or the quaint streets named after flowers like Rue Iris until I took a bicycle tour with Paris a Velo, C’est Sympa! (22, rue Alphonse Baudin, 11eme, near La Bastille. Tel. 01 48 87 60 01). When I took their 13th Insolite, or Unusual 13th Arrondissement Tour is when I really began to get a feel for the variety of neighborhoods one can find in the 13th.

If you are looking for an apartment in Paris, for example, you can find some unbelieveably quaint locales – and feel like you are in a Paris of a completely different era – don’t expect to be the first, though, many of these house, and leafy spots of Paris have already been snapped up.

The 13th arrondissement also has its share of artists’ ateliers and the famous ‘Gobelins’ tapestry workshops. I am embarrassed to see I have yet to visit the Gobelins workshops. However, I have visited the Jardin des Plantes (which once was the home of the 19th century giraffe who made an impressive overland tour, first from Africa, and after crossing the Mediterranean, traveled with its guardian from Marseilles to Versailles and its final home at the Jardin des Plantes).

If you are making your first trip to Paris, the 13th arrondissement probably shouldn’t be your first priority, however, it’s a neighborhood that you shouldn’t overlook if one plans on making Paris a frequent destination.

Want to get to know the 13th via bicycle?
Paris a Velo, c’est Sympa!
22 Rue Alphonse Baudin
Metro: Bastille
(33) 1 48 87 60 01