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The Zone (St Ouen) | ©Claude Shoshany/Wikicommons
The Zone (St Ouen) | ©Claude Shoshany/Wikicommons
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In The Zone: The Dark Past Of The City Of Lights

Picture of Steve Head
Updated: 8 November 2016
Rio has its favelas, South Africa its townships. On an international scale we talk about ghettos, slums and shanty towns. But did you know that from 1840, all the way up until the construction of the Périphérique ringroad in the mid twentieth century, Paris had The Zone?

There is a popular expression in French slang used by those who find themselves unexpectedly in a less-than-desirable area. It refers typically to the kind of rundown neighborhoods with boarded up windows and burnt out cars often associated with inner cities, but in theory can apply to anywhere a little rough around the edges. Somewhere dirty, dodgy, even dangerous. C’est la zone translates roughly to ‘Wow. What a dump‘ and is usually muttered under the breath whilst glancing around furtively for the nearest Métro and slipping anything remotely valuable discreetly into an inside pocket.

Les enfants de la zone | ©BNF/Wikicommons
Les enfants de la zone | ©BNF/Wikicommons

Though it has gradually entered into common parlance, the historical origins of the phrase are perhaps less well known. La zone to which it refers was a real place, a vast, barren strip of land on the outskirts of Paris, running the length of its perimeter. A desolate, blasted no-man’s-land just beyond the city’s borders, splaying outwards for 250 meters from the periphery wall to the edge of the industrial suburbs.

In the early 19th century King Louis-Phillipe, believing Paris to be militarily vulnerable, instructed his Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers to begin the construction of defensive structures which would encircle the capital and render it impregnable to attack. The fortifications were completed in 1844 and comprised a wall 33 km in length, 10 meters high and 3.5 meters wide in which 17 portes, or gates, were installed, allowing access into and out of the city. On the exterior side of the wall a deep ditch separated the fortifications from a coarse strip of land called a glacis. It was this strange, unclassifiable place, neither belonging to the city nor part of its vast suburbs sprawl, that would play host to the curious community which came to be known as The Zone.

The glacis was intended as a kind of buffer, an empty, wind beaten wilderness dividing Paris conclusively from the cities and towns that surrounded it. Invading forces heading for the capital would have no option but to cross its desolate threshold, leaving themselves entirely exposed to troops positioned along the fortifications. To ensure optimum visibility the glacis was designated a zone non ædificandi, or an area where no construction was permitted.

Inevitably, over time, this law was ignored and openly flouted, Parisian forces of order were too busy keeping the peace inside the city to deal with those bending rules on the outside. Makeshift encampments sprung up at the gates along with various services catering to the needs of the delivery drivers passing through on a daily basis. Although they began intramuros, these services, including everything from cafés and dive bars to ramshackle brothels, along with the communities that grew up beside them, soon spread beyond the fortifications. Rapid urbanization coupled with Baron Haussmann’s unforgiving overhaul of the city centre forced many of Paris’ poorer residents out to the exurban fringes. The Zone, with its wide open space, distance from prying eyes and relative lawlessness, permitted those rejected by a society in which they no longer had a place to eke out an existence on its margins.

The city’s ragpickers were the first downtrodden group to emigrate outwards and set up shop in the Zone. They had always been unwelcome in the city, the hawking of old clothes viewed with scorn and hostility in the birthplace of haute couture. Beyond the wall they enjoyed the space to lay out their wares wherever it suited them, as well as immunity from persecution and the long arm of the law. They were quickly followed by the rest of the Parisian demimonde; vagrants, drug addicts, alcoholics, pimps, gamblers, perverts, as well as peddlers of scavenged or smuggled goods, both innocuous and highly illicit. The relative freedom that these opportunist street vendors enjoyed on the periphery led to the creation of the first Marché aux Puces or flea markets, a number of which still exist today, most notably at Saint Ouen in the north and Vanves further south.

La zone d'Ivry, 1913| ©BNF/Wikicommons
La zone d’Ivry, 1913 | ©BNF/Wikicommons

Free from the drudgery of apartment hunting, extortionate rents and dishonest landlords, the Zonards managed to carve out a place for themselves, forming their own complex, self-sustained community on the doorstep of the city that had turned them out. Their houses were built from whatever materials they could salvage, each improvised shack a testament to human ingenuity. Rocks, tin, scrap wood and sardine cans filled with mud served as bricks and mortar, sheets of corrugated iron or repurposed railway sidings used to mark boundaries between one property and the next. Abandoned carts and train carriages were gutted and converted into living quarters, some of the more luxurious dwellings even boasting a working stove and chimney.

Although la zone served primarily as a kind of refugee camp for the cast off underclass, people who were simply too poor to exist elsewhere, it also attracted those whose reason for quitting the city was of a rather more sinister nature. Gang members, murderers, terrorists, fugitives of all shapes and sizes soon discovered that out in the forgotten edgelands, where civilisation fused with rural nothingness and savagery was routine, they were just another sullen face lost amongst the crowd. This anonymity proved to be an overwhelmingly potent pull factor, drawing the dregs of the criminal underworld out to the lawless fringe. Murders were common occurences as were knife fights, robbery and vigilante justice. This wild west, anything-goes reputation led the Zone to be immortalised, often rather romantically, in pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls as well as art, film and music.

In spite of its darker side, many found life in the Zone to be preferable to that of the big city. It was a manifestation of unbridled liberty and sovereignty from the stifling rules of civilisation. Outside the walls you could live as you wanted and nobody would judge you or attempt to harsh your buzz. You could sing, shout, drink, smoke, fight and be merry in whatever way suited you at any given moment of the day or night. The Zone was to the Zonards as the Costa Brava is to teenage Brits abroad; a paradise of limitless hedonistic opportunity and minimal repercussions, a heady mix that saw its population swell to upwards of 40,000 before the government finally signed its death warrant shortly after the First World War.

A concert in La Zoe | ©Claude Shoshany/Wikicommons
A concert in La Zone | ©Claude Shoshany/Wikicommons

In 1928, with the lack of accommodation for the city’s poor at crisis point, construction began on the ring of affordable social housing that still stands on the former site of the Zone, a looming wall of orange brick cozying up to the Périphérique. The HBM (habitations à bon marché) were designed with frugality in mind, tightly packed clumps of six story apartment blocks that grew up from the rubble of the old military wall and spread outwards across the glacis until they reached the future site of the orbital ring-road. 280,000 of these low cost apartments were eventually constructed and by 1932 a great deal of them were filled with relocated Zonards, their former dwellings torn down and their ephemeral community dispersed haphazardly across the map.

Although daily existence in the Zone was far from rosy, most of its residents lacking even the most basic amenities, it gradually entered into legend, any rougher edges smoothed off over time by the transformative lens of nostalgia. It was recalled in literature and old postcards as well as the wistful lyrics of songs that invoked a world full of rustic charm populated by honest, hard working people, where children played happily on the grassy slopes of the fortifications and life was simple and separate from the chaotic bustle of the city. For many it represented a return to the old ways, living off the land, a proximity to nature. For others it was little more than a glorified refugee camp, a stain on the city’s collar which proved to be particularly hard to scrub off.

Despite attempts by the government to eradicate it, vestiges of the Zone remained in place all the way up to completion of the Périphérique in 1970, a legacy of over a hundred years that can still be felt today. Though the glacis and its inhabitants are now nothing but a distant memory, the sense of a division between Paris and its poorer suburbs is still remarkably apparent, a relentless wave of gentrification and soaring property prices ensuring that the city is reserved for the wealthy while those of lesser means are forced to its margins and beyond. With high crime and unemployment rates as well as sub standard housing commonly found in the most impoverished suburb, it could be argued that the Zone never really went away at all, it just moved a little further out.