Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that artist Miss.Tic had retired. She has retired only from late-night tagging. The story has been updated.
It’s a chilly October night — so cold that my breath is a cloud of steam — and I’m going swimming outside in Paris. That’s right: It’s now possible to do laps en plein air, year-round, in the French capital. I take the plunge and join the late-night swimmers in the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood. Floating on my back in the glowing turquoise pool, I can actually see stars in the sky above and peer into apartment windows where residents sip wine over simmering stovetops. Teeth chattering — but totally energized — when I sprint for my towel, I share a laugh with the grinning lifeguard, who is wrapped in a puffy jacket. “Just wait for January!” he says.
Heated by the energy captured from data centers, the “Nordic pool” in the Butte-aux-Cailles is an example of innovation in the neighborhood I call home: the unsung 13th arrondissement. Please allow this proud resident to sing its virtues; you can’t come to understand the Paris of today without spending time in the dynamic and creative 13th.
The city is divided into 20 arrondissements, or districts, that famously resemble a snail spiraling out from the first arrondissement center, the historic heart dominated by the Louvre museum and the Tuileries gardens. Far from these well-known landmarks, the untouristed 13th district stretches southeast along the Left Bank, sandwiched between the Seine and the ring road of the Boulevard Périphérique — the Parisian Beltway. Today, the 13th has a population of 171,533, on par with Providence, R.I., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The 13th is also home to a Chinatown — concentrated around high-rise towers on avenues d’Ivry and Choisy.
“The 13th looks to be the arrondissement of innovation,” says Mayor Jérôme Coumet, who was born and raised here.
The 13th came into existence in 1860, when the city — undergoing a seismic urban revolution under Baron Haussmann — expanded by annexing neighboring villages. While Haussmann demolished disease-infested medieval quarters to make way for grand boulevards, the Butte-aux-Cailles remained unscathed. In fact, many victims of the wide-scale urban renewal moved here. A warren of cobblestone alleyways clinging to a hilltop, the Butte-aux-Cailles has retained the feel of a village from the last century: hidden courtyards, artists studios and two-story houses with flowering window boxes. It’s a vibrant place with buzzing sidewalk cafes, bars and independent boutiques, including a honey shop managed by a local beekeeper.
This is where the world’s first manned hot-air balloon flight successfully landed and a bloody battle took place in 1871 between the insurrectionist Commune de Paris and Versailles forces. (Today the Association des Amis de la Commune de Paris organizes an annual block party in commemoration.) Less than a half-mile downhill, glorious tapestries were woven for the French monarchs at the Manufacture des Gobelins. Traditionally, this was a quartier populaire, a working class district, humming with industry. In the 19th century, pastoral windmills were replaced with tanneries, limestone quarries, and dye works. La Bievre — a tributary to the Seine that winds through the neighborhood — became so polluted that it was completely paved over by 1912.
The Butte-aux-Cailles pool — filled with water sourced from an artesian well — is one of the oldest in Paris (1922-1924) and a designated historic monument. It also now is a symbol of the city’s bold environmental policy. “Pools are the most energy-consuming equipment in the Parisian park system,” explains Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism and sports, “so to achieve the city’s goal of reducing our overall energy consumption by 25 percent by 2020, we must also focus our efforts there. It appeared that this solution — allowing us to recover the heat produced by data centers — was a major innovation.”
In the same era when Haussmann rebuilt Paris, the banks of the Seine in today’s 13th arrondissement were crammed with factories (sugar, molasses, charcoal, leather, and ironworks). Left derelict after the departure of industry, this 340-acre district known as “Paris Rive Gauche” is undergoing Paris’s biggest urban regeneration project since Haussmann. And the architecture alone is worth a visit.
To get a better sense of this epic transformation, I play the tourist in my own back yard and take a walking tour with Architecture de Collection, a real estate agency specializing in remarkable buildings from the 20th and 21st centuries.
“In the last 20 years, Paris Rive Gauche has become a university and cultural pole, economic center and lively neighborhood — all at the same time,” says Delphine Aboulker, the agency’s director.
Some of the world’s top architects were recruited to design the buildings, of which 50 percent are for public housing. A stroll affords the chance to ogle landmarks by the likes of Christian de Portzamparc, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Frederic Borel.
It all started with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library. Standing out like a beacon on the Left Bank, the BNF was designed by architect Dominique Perrault (1990s) to resemble four open books surrounding a garden with the same dimensions as the Palais Royal. Planted with towering trees from Normandy, this garden thus pays homage to the medieval cloister, while the esplanade mirrors the size of the Place de la Concorde. From this vast wood deck, you can peer down into the garden and spy falcons soaring between the trees. The adjacent MK2 multiplex is one of my favorite places to catch a movie, and my young daughters love to watch the Seine’s boat traffic from high above the river.
The BNF is the center of Paris Rive Gauche. From here as we walk, my guide reveals quiet green spaces and head-turning architecture. On the Avenue de France, the M6B2 tower was imagined by architect Edouard François as a plant-covered high-rise with innovative seed diffusion to aid in the neighborhood’s biodiversity. And “The Nest” — which, true to its name, was created by Marseille-based architect Rudy Ricciotti with a facade covered in wood “sticks.” Many of these buildings pay homage to the neighborhood’s industrial history. The old industrial flour mill called the “Grand Moulins de Paris” was transformed into a university hub by Riccioti. He proudly preserved the Brutalist structure, which he dubbed “the Quasimodo of concrete.” Likewise, “Les Frigos” was abandoned as a refrigerated freight depot after Paris’s biggest wholesale market moved from Les Halles to Rungis outside the city. Occupied as an artists squat starting in the 1980s, Les Frigos is today an emblematic artistic hub with coveted studios and exhibition space.
An anchor of this district is the Halle Freyssinet — a gargantuan railway yard built by the engineer (Eugène Freyssinet) who pioneered the use of prestressed concrete. Under threat of demolition for years, this cavernous space will soon house the largest start-up incubator in the world. Station F is the brainchild of billionaire Xavier Niel, founder of the telecommunications company Free, who is investing 250 million euros in the project.
“Our goal with Station F is not only to create the largest start-up campus in the world but also to create a space that houses an entire start-up ecosystem under one roof,” explains Roxanne Varza, its director. “It’s a truly ambitious project that puts France and Europe at the forefront of the international start-up map.”
Scheduled to open in early 2017, Station F will welcome 1,000 start-ups with entrepreneurs from all over the world. Measuring nearly three football fields in length, the Halle has three naves supported by graceful concrete arches that are so thin they couldn’t be reproduced today. Renowned architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte has retained the concrete bones of the building and these graceful vestiges pioneered by Freyssinet.
Open 24/7, Station F will have a 370-seat auditorium, a fablab with 3D printing, meeting rooms that look like shipping containers, a post office, a pop-up store, lockers and showers. Even those who aren’t tech geeks will want to try the trendy restaurants; there will be seating for 1,000 people, and in a nod to the station’s railway past, you’ll be able to eat inside a vintage train car.
The BNF keeps vigil over a riverbank that’s vibrant with life once again as Parisians reclaim the quays once monopolized by industry. This Seine-side playground is a fun hangout, particularly in the summer months when paillottes, or beach clubs, pop up. As the sky turns rosé pink, merrymakers crack open wine bottles and play lazy Pétanque games. My kids like to watch the urban anglers hooking fish, part of the street fishing movement. All year long, the quays pulse with the excitement from numerous restaurants and bars — some aboard péniches (houseboats) moored along the quay. Catch a concert with dinner aboard La Dame de Canton, an authentic Chinese junk that was the only one to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. There also are Petit Bain, El Alamein and Le Batofar — another famous concert venue with a “lighthouse” perched on the top of the vessel.
The newest of the bunch is the trendy Off Paris Seine, which opened last summer. France’s first floating hotel is also the largest boat anchored on the river in the city. You’re so close to the river, you could almost trail your fingers in the current. Better to opt for the petite pool, where an inflatable gold swan bobs next to the chic lounge. Of the 58 guest rooms, two bold suites were designed by Interware’s Maurizio Galante and Tal Lancman, the award-winning team who straddle the worlds of haute couture and furniture design.
“There’s an emotional atmosphere in the evening with the changing light,” Galante said of the orange-on-orange Sunset Suite, “almost surrealist. And when you wake up, it’s full of good energy to start a good day.”
Sometimes when I’m riding Line 6 of the Paris Métro, I watch passengers point excitedly out the window along Boulevard Vincent-Auriol. Coumet is a passionate proponent of street art, and the district has emerged as a hotbed for international talent. Working in partnership with the Galerie Itinerrance, the mayor has created an itinerary of 28 murals by the likes of INTI (Chile), Invader (France) and Shepard Fairey (United States), famed for his “Hope” portrait of President Obama when the then-senator from Illinois was in his first presidential race.
Between the Quai de la Gare stop and Place d’Italie, the elevated Metro line provides bird’s-eye vistas as it arcs through the arrondissement. From this vantage point, you’ll get whiplash as you turn right and left to see the eye-popping murals painted on the sides of high-rise buildings. Flashing before your eyes are some of the biggest and most influential names in street art. Fairey created “Delicate Balance” to honor the Paris Climate Agreement and “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” to commemorate the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks in late 2015. Across the boulevard, a dancer leaps for joy in a fresco by the artistic collaboration FAILE above a public primary school that was spray painted (with the help of children) in summer 2016.
“It’s an open-air museum,” says Mehdi Ben Cheikh, the Franco-Tunisian founder of the Galerie Itinerrance. “Metro riders traverse an exhibition — illuminated at night by solar-powered lights.” Ben Cheikh is the mastermind behind monumental projects such as “Djerbahood” (2014) — in which an entire village on the Tunisian island of Djerba was transformed with works painted by 100 international artists — and “Tour Paris 13” (2013), for which 80 artists took over a building slated to be demolished in the 13th arrondissement. Day and night over the 30 days it was open to the public, the line was so long that I never made it inside. Luckily for me, more murals are appearing all over the arrondissement — an exhibit that is free and open to the public. Coumet has made it his mission to democratize art; he garnered the prestigious Marianne d’Or, an award among all French mayors, for his support of culture and the arts, which have changed the face of the 13th.
“My goals are many,” he says. “To share art with the most people possible, beautify the city, and give an identity to our arrondissement. Today, around each new project, the inhabitants get together to choose the artwork and accompany the artist during its realization. . . . It’s created a real sense of collective, civic pride.”
From the Place d’Italie, I like to meander back to the Butte-aux-Cailles, one of the original bastions of Paris street art. It was here in the 1980s — Ben Cheikh calls it “the first wave,” during the same era as painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat in America — that iconic Parisian artists such as Jef Aérosol and Miss.Tic used the streets as canvases. Though Miss.Tic has long since retired from late-night tagging (she was getting into too much trouble with the law), her signature stenciled heroine — a play on the sexy pinup — is still spouting witticisms on the neighborhood’s walls. My favorite? “Je cherche la vérité, et un appartement.” It means, “I’m looking for the truth, and an apartment.”
Even as we’re looking for a bigger apartment, our new place won’t ever be anywhere but this lucky arrondissement, where we’re so fortunate to live.
More from Travel:
OFF Paris Seine
20-22 Port d’Austerlitz
France’s first floating hotel has 58 rooms and a trendy lounge. Rooms from $160.
Hotel Saint Charles
6 Rue de l’Espérance
A three-star hotel smack in the middle of the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood. Rooms from $110.
73 Blvd. Auguste Blanqui
An organic bakery run by artisan bread maker Anthony Bosson. Soups (around $4) are also available at lunch. On Sunday mornings, the bakery is an anchor of the popular street market that sets up along the boulevard.
La Butte aux Piafs
31 Blvd. Auguste Blanqui
This fun bistro has retro decor, menus made from vintage album records and a large sidewalk terrace. The “California’s Burger,” topped with half of an avocado, could be the best in town. Main courses cost around $15.
5 Place Paul Verlaine
This historic complex has one indoor pool and one outdoor “Nordic Pool” heated year-round. Entry fee is around $3.
Walking tours with Architecture de Collection
Starting from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library)
Walking tours cost $25 per person, or $650 (before tax) for groups of 15 to 20 people. Guides are art historians.
24 Blvd. du Général d’Armée Jean Simon
In partnership with the mayor of the 13th arrondissement, Galerie Itinerrance has created a street art circuit. See the website for maps and details of the artist murals. Free.
Lézarts de la Bièvre
Each June, this artists association hosts an open house of artist studios, allowing visitors a chance to peek inside houses in the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood that are not usually open to the public. Free.
For the author’s full list of recommendations for the
13th arrondissement, visit washingtonpost.com/travel