A perfect rectangle, the Goutte-d’Or neighborhood in the 18th district of Paris is bordered on the west by the Haussmannian Boulevard de Barbès and on the east by the rails of the Gare du Nord. The Rue Ordener and the Boulevard de la Chapelle, with its spectacular elevated subway, form its northern and southern borders. Its name, literally “the golden drop”, derives from a white wine variety produced in this area in the Middle Ages. Framed within the Rue de Chartes, you can see the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the distance. But while the Montmartre hill, the authentic Mecca of all tourists, is just a few steps away, there is no place less beaten by visitors than this one. A working-class neighborhood with a high Sub-Saharan population and a “Sensitive Urban Zone”, the Goutte-d’Or is considered the heart and soul of African Paris. I go there on an early June Tuesday morning and though in Paris it’s the post-pandemic era and there aren’t many people around, the atmosphere is as vibrant as always. Outside the Chatêau Rouge metro stop some girls are handing out flyers to promote their beauty salons, the greengroceries are crawling with customers and the streets are already getting noisy.
Right around the corner, in Rue de Suez, I find myself in the middle of the famous Dejean Market, with its many stalls of African products and exotic fruits. The people in the neighborhood come here from Monday to Saturday to find the ingredients, unavailable elsewhere, necessary to prepare traditional African dishes. Dejean market is filled with rare treasures: from bissap, the African hibiscus flowers juice, to yam, an edible tuber, from okra to cassava, from fresh herbs to sweet potatoes.
Outside the Dejean fish shop two fish sellers chat calmly while a third one helps a woman carrying two many shopping bags. The sidewalk is a watercourse: it has the scent of the sea. Down the street, crates of cooking bananas fill the market booths, bags of rice are piled on the floor and colorful, hand-written signs promote any sort of discount and bargain.
The épiceries of this neighborhood are ethnic rather than exotic and they specialize in very distinct products, specific to the different culinary traditions. After all, it couldn’t be otherwise in an area where more than thirty ethnic minorities coexist and forty different languages and dialects are spoken. In the rues Doudeauville and Mhyra, Malian, Togolese, Nigerian and Congolese grocery stores can be found, but also Senegalese or Cameroonian traiteurs. In Rue des Poissoniers, the sign of a store called Haiti Market is a reminder of French colonial past. Other signs recall Suez, Abidjan, Bamako, Lomé. The pastry shop El Andalousia, a small Arab dominion outside the Barbès area, fills the air with Algerian perfumes. The inner geography of the neighborhood and its economy gives an idea of the different migration waves that have followed in this area of Paris: Algerians in the ’20s, Tunisians and Moroccans in the ’50s, Malians and Caribbean people in the ’60s and Ghanaians and Sri Lankan in recent times. The Goutte-d’Or is a true crossroad of migrations, a place where ethnic identities are highly varied and share a diasporic past.
While the market is about to close, the streets start to empty and the crowd disperses. The sun shines bright and makes the people’s colorful clothes and hats glow. While I go north, towards the snake-shaped Rue Marcadet, I stumble into some African tailor’s shops overflowing with bright cloths, selling anti-Covid multicolored masks, all hand-made. In the same street I find a small African music shop, whose windows are covered in old CDs and DVDs covers that make it impossible to peer inside. And then Afro hair dressers’ salons, inexpensive perfume shops and beauty parlors, halāl butcher’s shops. The unauthorized peddlers, the kings of contraband cigarettes who usually play cat and mouse with the local police, are strangely absent today. A little further, a hipster record shop has recently opened its doors. And yet this neighborhood stays authentic and alien to any form of gentrification. Zadie Smith would probably call it “ungentrifiable”. While I walk to the closest metro station to go back home, on the other side of Paris, on the left bank, I think that the beauty of this little rectangle of Africa lies right there. It’s a place bubbling with creativity and contamination, whose diversity keeps it forever alive and genuine.