What makes the rue de Belleville such a stimulating environment? I cannot count the number of times that upon returning home from Belleville I feel dizzy with colors and images. The shock of Belleville is not just how much exoticism there is in one small terrain but how deep it gets buried into your senses. Let me put it this way: from one block to the next I walked past a halal butcher, a Pakistani cash and carry, a Chinese takeaway and perhaps a branch of Monoprix to remind me of where I was. Globalization is to Belleville what a fish is to the water. The gradual transformation of the neighborhood has taken place in different waves from the not so remote days where Belleville was still a village attached to Paris attracting mostly artists and bohemians until the present day. During the XX century, Jewish immigrants from Germany and Spaniards fleeing the civil war settled in the neighborhood. As if mysteriously destined to be layered by myriad cultures, it continued to absorb the new North African and Asian arrivals, stacking up their dreams of a better life and shelter in a foreign country.
Underlying all this local whirlwind, a very intense working class feeling preserves the original spirit of the place. It is here that the last barricade of the Commune of 1879 endured the attacks of the government troops. And it is here that Edith Piaf was born at number 72 the Rue de Belleville. Her pathos did not originate in the search of a personal style but from her biography and family. And from the place where she was born. The legend of Casque d’Or, a feuilleton of blood and passion, unfolded in the neighborhood. Amelie Hélie, her true name, and a girl of, so called at the time, loose morals, is the lover of a local mafioso, Joseph Manda. She wants to become an artist under the name of Casque d’Or. Her dream takes a different turn when she meets Leca, a Corsican and rival of Manda with whom she falls madly in love. The ensuing revenge and tragedy captured the imagination of the Parisians of the period. As one of the chroniclers put it: “elle avait le diable au corps”. In 1952 Jacques Becker made the eponymous film with Simone Signoret in the role of Amelie.
This is not a beautified spot of Paris gradually dominated by the uncontrollable forces of the trendy and artsy. Some will be inclined to disagree and perhaps there is some presence of those urban clans . Where would you not find them in Paris? They are the contemporary version of the body snatchers. They steal the soul of the place. However their occupation of Belleville has not succeeded in rooting out that spellbinding personality that dominates the quartier from its shops and markets to the turbulent life one encounters in the streets. If Nino Rota had walked the streets of Belleville he would have given us the same generous music he has given Fellini for his most touching films.
Belleville is today a laboratory where Parisians measure the chances that divergent cultures and social classes may live together.