‘We live in a time where the rich must be forgiven their riches. Those fortunate people should not use their wealth just to satisfy their own desires but above all to relieve the sufferings of the poor and disinherited.’
That’s an approximate translation of a speech from 1909 marking the 25th anniversary of the charity Bouchée de Pain. Founded by a couple of wealthy benefactors to offer bread and soup to the hungry and homeless, the association now runs five canteens around Paris including this one in Rue de la Fraternité which serves 250 meals a day.
The eighteen mechanics and three shoe repairers who founded La Bellevilleoise didn’t rely on wealthy benefactors to solve the social problems of their times. Opened in 1877 as a cooperative grocery store, this Belleville community centre grew and developed to offer free medical and dental consultations, evening classes, political lectures, concerts and dances.
In the early years of the 20th century the Bellevilleoise became a focal point of campaigns for votes for women and workers rights. By 1927, when the association moved into new, purpose built premises, the management committee was affiliated to the PCF (the French communist party) which explains the hammer and sickle over the door.
Internal disputes in the 1950s led to the closure of most of the centre’s activities with a savings bank gradually taking over the whole building. The resurrection of the Bellevilleoise started in 2006 and the place is now a thriving theatre, concert venue and community hub again proud of its history and founding principles. This view from the street doesn’t give much clue of what’s hidden behind the facade. You can see inside here.
(Click on any photo to view the gallery)
Although it has officially been part of the city of Paris since 1860, Belleville is still something of a place apart. A history of small scale gypsum mining (to make plaster of Paris) left the hill on which the town is built riddled with tunnels close to the surface so many areas could not support the foundation for tall buildings. With grand scale urbanisation out of the question, nineteenth century Belleville grew through networks of narrow streets with small, individual houses in pocket handkerchief gardens. In the 1970s architects somehow managed to introduce tower blocks to the area but many neighbourhoods remain urban villages proud of their radical history.
Ironically, wealthy Parisians have started to appreciate small scale living with the inevitable consequences for house prices in the area. I guess most of the real workers of Belleville live in the tower blocks now.
A post for Thursday Doors.