The Butte-aux-Cailles is a small neighborhood on a small hill (the word butte means ‘small hill’) in the 13th arrondissment of Paris, with relatively small houses and lots of friendly little pubs and restaurants full of arty-looking people.
The word caille means ‘quail’ in French, but that’s not where the name comes from. A man named Pierre Caille bought the hill in 1543 to grow grapes for wine-making, and the hill was later named after him and his family.
Today, the Butte-aux-Cailles is sort of like a scaled-down version of Montmartre, but without the touts and tourists and without the big ugly church at the top.
In fact, for many years the Butte-aux-Cailles had no church at all. On the historical sign it says: “Between the Revolution of 1848 and the Great War, the Butte aux Cailles was colonized by scavengers and leather workers. This village without a church was the site of farms, workshops and stores, in a spirit of conviviality and liberty.”
During a visit in 1865, Baron Haussmann proposed to build a monumental church on the Butte aux Cailles, comparable to the church Notre Dame de la Croix in Ménilmontant, for the purpose of bringing religion to this suspiciously secular working class neighborhood.
Haussmann himself was a Protestant, but that didn’t stop him from building Catholic churches to keep the working class under control. He envisaged building a church at the very top of the Butte aux Cailles, but the fall of the Second Empire put an end to the project. Only the land had been purchased before Napoléon III was overthrown in 1870.
When a church was finally built, from 1894 to 1912, it was at the bottom of the hill, not the top. It is called Sainte-Anne de la Butte-aux-Cailles and still exists today, although the neighborhood is still not notably religious.
Street art in Paris changes from year to year, as new pictures are painted and sometimes old ones are painted over. In 2013 here on the rue de l’Espérance (Street of Hope) at the top of the Butte aux Cailles there were several pieces of street art, including this one by Jana & J.S. showing Jana looking out an imaginary window with her camera dangling from her left hand.
Jana & J.S. have painted similar pictures on other walls in Paris and other cities. Sometimes her dress is a different color and sometimes she is sitting on the window sill instead of looking out. A nice realistic touch is that the bottom of her right foot is dirty, which is what happens when someone walks barefoot around a large city.
According to their website, Jana is Austrian and J.S. is French. They met in Madrid, lived in Paris for several years (but in Ménilmontant, not Butte-aux-Cailles) and are now living in Salzburg. On the walls of several cities they have painted huge pictures of themselves with cameras, taking photos of the passers-by.
Lèzarts de la Bièvre is an association that was founded in 2001 for the purpose of promoting cultural and artistic activities in the quarters of Paris that were once traversed by the Bièvre River, from the Poterne des Peupliers to the Seine. The Z in their name is shaped like a lizard, because the name is a play on words between les arts (the arts) and lezards (lizards), which both sound the same in French.
Each year on the second weekend of June, Lèzarts de la Bièvre holds an open door weekend in numerous artists’ ateliers.
The kid wearing headphones in this painting is being pursued by a fearful blood-sucking insect called HADOPI, a French government agency created in 2009 to impose drastic penalties on people who download copyrighted material from the internet without paying for it. The controversial HADOPI law was strongly supported by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who by coincidence is married to a prominent singer-songwriter. Sarkozy failed to win re-election in 2012, and the new government rescinded the HADOPI law a year later on July 10, 2013 (three days after I took this photo) on the grounds that it imposed disproportionate penalties on small-scale copyright infringers.
(This reminds me of the ongoing GEMA controversy in Germany. More about that some other time.)
A stencil painting by Miss.Tic (born 1956) with the caption: L’abus de plaisir est excellent pour la santé (‘The abuse of pleasure is excellent for your health.’)
Another stencil painting my Miss.Tic, with the caption J’ai du vague à l’homme. This is a play on words based on the French expression J’ai du vague à l’âme (literally ‘I have some vagueness or emptiness in my soul’), which means ‘I am feeling melancholy’. The word âme (soul) sounds rather similar to homme (man), so the girl seems to be saying that she is feeling melancholy because of a man.
The Rue des cinq diamants (‘Street of the Five Diamonds’) is a lively street leading up from the boulevard Auguste-Blanqui to the top of the Butte-aux-Cailles. There are at least six restaurants on this street, all of them evidently quite popular, and lots of lovely people walking around at all hours of the day and night.
At the lower end of the street there is a small theatre called the Théâtre des cinq diamants (at number 10).
Chez Gladines is a popular Basque restaurant at 30 rue des Cinq Diamants, at the corner of rue Jonas. At the entrance to Chez Gladines there are two stencil paintings by Miss.Tic, stenciled in 2011. The one on the right shows one of Miss.Tic’s typical sultry women with a caption that probably needs no translation, Alerte a la bombe.
The painting on the left shows a young man with his hands on his head to show off his biceps (or perhaps he has a headache, who knows). The caption here is Un homme peut en cacher un autre (‘One man can conceal another’), which is a variation of that quintessential French road sign Un train peut en cacher un autre. This is a sign that used to be (perhaps still is?) posted at every grade crossing where a road crossed a double-track railway, warning motorists not to start up when a train has passed before checking to see that another train isn’t coming from the opposite direction. When I was first learning French I was fascinated by this sentence because of the word en, which we don’t have in English at all. This little word en means roughly ‘of the same kind’, so the road sign means literally ‘One train can of the same kind conceal another’. I think the word en was responsible for giving me the impression, which I still have today, that French is somehow an inscrutable and mysterious language.
The small shop at number 46, rue des Cinq Diamants, is the headquarters of a remarkable organization called the Association of the Friends of the Commune of Paris (1871). This is said to be the oldest organization of French Workers’ Movement which is still active. Its purpose is to make sure the history of the Commune is not forgotten. The slogan of this association is Le cadavre est à terre mais l’idée est debout meaning ‘The corpse has been buried but the idea is still standing.’
Appropriately, the little square at the top of the hill, just around the corner is called the Place de la Commune de Paris (Vélib’ bicycle station 13022).
The Jardin Brassaï is a pleasant park at the lower end of the Buttes-aux-Cailles, just off of the rue des Cinq Diamants.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2017.
See more posts on the 13th arrondissement of Paris.