You've Never Heard of Paris's Coolest New Neighborhood
There was a key moment when Bertrand Kern realized that the fortunes of his gritty little town were about to change. Kern is the three-term Socialist mayor of Pantin, just north of the Périphérique, or ring road, that marks the outer boundary of Paris intra muros — Paris within the walls. Pantin lies beyond that, in a landscape of run-down housing projects and abandoned factories that Parisians refer to as la zone. Almost exactly 11 years ago, disillusioned young men and women from around the city spent weeks rioting there, as a way of expressing frustration with their dead-end lives. Historically, it hasn't been a place Parisians want to hang around in, for reasons of snobbery, fear, and common sense.
Kern's revelation came during a meeting with Thaddaeus Ropac, an Austria-born titan of the art world who runs a gallery in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. Ropac was looking for a cavernous space that could house monumental sculptures by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Erwin Wurm. As Kern describes it, "Ropac said, ‘I'm hesitating between London and Pantin.' London and Pantin! I had to rub my eyes. A guy like Ropac! London has Greater London, so I suppose this would be Greater Paris, if there were one."
Alas, there isn't. Paris — beautiful, tiny, perfect Paris — can barely breathe inside its tight corset. There's no place for it to go, and building upward is largely out of the question. It is already one of the densest cities on earth, even though it doesn't always feel that way. Kern is right about Greater London. The metropolis can sprawl for years to come. Paris, on the other hand, is packed like so many exquisite chocolates into a tidy 40-square-mile box. There's not much you can do to it, and, really, who would want to?
A stone's throw from Paris proper lie the banlieues, or suburbs: rich and leafy toward the west; urban and middle-class toward the south; and toward the north and east, well, that's la zone. It is here that Paris's future is taking shape, in towns like Pantin, Aubervilliers, Montreuil, and Issy-les-Moulineaux. More and more Parisian galleries and cultural centers are crossing the "Périph," while artists, designers, and other bobos (a term derived from the words bourgeois and bohemian) are moving to places they wouldn't have been caught dead in five years ago.
In the end, Ropac did choose Pantin (though he recently expanded to London, too). In 2012, he opened his gallery in a refurbished 19th-century ironworks. It's a bit of a schlep to get out there from central Paris, and Ropac wasn't expecting big crowds. "I thought maybe we'd get two thousand people," Ropac said of a recent exhibit of Antony Gormley sculptures. "We got five times as many." I took the train out to Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac with my family last spring to see sculptures by Tony Cragg. Afterward, we grabbed a bite in the gallery's chic little café; my discerning son declared the chocolat chaud the equal of anything in Paris proper.
Ropac wasn't necessarily looking for company when he moved out here, but he's found it anyway. In 2004, the Centre National de la Danse moved into a boxy masterpiece of Brutalist architecture from the 1970s that was previously a municipal administration building. Mathilde Monnier, the respected choreographer who came on board in 2014 as the new director, has made the CND into a lively hub for dance programming. At Ciné 104, a few blocks away, you can catch an art film, followed by a Vietnamese bun bo at its Vertigo restaurant. In Les Quatre Chemins, a neighborhood that straddles Pantin and next-door Aubervilliers, you'll find a big, busy jazz center called Banlieues Bleues. Just over the Périphérique on the Paris side, a stone's throw from Pantin, Jean Nouvel's ambitious Philharmonie de Paris performing-arts complex opened in early 2015.
Equally important to the changing character of Pantin is the outward migration of Parisians. Soaring Paris rents have a lot to do with it. Two years ago, a fashionable Parisian architecture firm called Des Clics et des Calques converted an old industrial workshop on Pantin's Rue Florian into offices and cozy apartments. A website called My Little Paris that can tell you where to find the city's best mojito not long ago declared, "Banlieue Is the New Cool," while the hipster weekly Les Inrockuptibles asked the counterintuitive question, "What if the best Parisian nightlife can be found in the banlieues?"
I met Adrien Betra at his ramshackle offices in the 10th Arrondissement. Betra cofounded Surprize, a firm that organizes nightlife events. More and more, Surprize is staging its revels in old factories and warehouses, away from Paris's unspoken dress codes, high entry fees, and low noise limits. "Paris has gotten a little stuck," Betra told me. "We Parisians like to get out of Paris now — it's less uptight, there's more freedom, you feel you can breathe."
Like many gentrifying suburbs, Pantin has an excellent supply of what's known as "patrimoine industriel," the kind of structures just begging to be commandeered by a new wave of creatives. In 1802, Napoleon built the Canal de l'Ourcq, which runs through the center of Pantin to Paris. The Paris–Strasbourg railway cut through Pantin in 1849. Industry soon clustered around these transport arteries. Gauloises cigarettes used to be made here. So did Motobécane mopeds.
And then, little by little in the postwar years, manufacturing evaporated. Today you'll find little evidence that Paris was once a place where things got built, but Pantin's deindustrialization came decades later, and its mix of workshops, warehouses, and affordable housing feels looser and more contemporary than Paris's perfect Haussmannian chocolate box.
I recently walked through a vast concrete former warehouse alongside the canal that has been repurposed as offices for the 900-odd bobos who work for the French ad agency BETC. Eugénie Lefebvre, who is overseeing the project, pointed out where the open podcast studio will go, the cool new restaurant, the organic-food market. "This is the Paris of the future," she said.
Parts of Pantin remain pretty dicey. The town recently refurbished Les Courtillières, a serpentine housing project designed in the 1950s by Émile Aillaud that's now considered an architectural gem. But open-air drug sales still go on. ("Not hard drugs, just hash — they say it's the best hash in the suburbs," Mayor Kern said, unable to suppress a flicker of civic pride.)
No one wants to keep the crime, of course, but everyone wants to retain Pantin's "mixité sociale," to keep it from becoming the next boboland. Artist Myriam Lefkowitz recently staged an exhibit at Pantin's swimming pool. She made sure the pool stayed open during her exhibit. "I wanted the art world and the people from the community to mix," Lefkowitz said. "When I first moved here, it reminded me of Brooklyn, but the communities are more porous here than they are in the States."
The Brooklyn analogy isn't embraced by everyone in la zone. Before Mayor Kern took office, Pantin was run by the Communist Party, which funneled every spare tax dollar into social housing. The Communists don't much like Pantin's climb up the class ladder. "I have to keep Pantin from being completely gentrified," Kern said. "But otherwise I'm content to let the process take care of itself."
The Details: Pantin, France
Take Line 5 of the Paris Métro past the city limits and get off at the Hoche or Église de Pantin stop. You can also take the E line on the RER, a commuter train, to the Pantin station.
Canal de l’Ourcq: Once an industrial artery for Paris, the canal that runs through the heart of Pantin now has a leafy promenade that’s perfect for strolling.
Centre National de la Danse: This dance institution is worth seeing just for its Brutalist architecture, but its world-class performances make it worth the trip.
Ciné 104: An art-house cinema with a renowned annual festival of short films and other offbeat events.
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac: The eponymous superstar gallerist rehabilitated a former factory, and now has enough space to show large-scale pieces by artists like Anselm Kiefer.
Piscine Leclerc: Pantin’s municipal swimming pool is a 1937 Art Deco gem that has been designated a historic monument. Go for a swim or simply take in the building’s unique design.