Shabby to Chic: The Rise and Fall of Canal Saint-Martin

Canvas bags filled with organic muesli procured from Naturalia, impeccably dressed children swaddled in high-end strollers, clusters of bicycles, and a collective preoccupation with brunch: these are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the social group known as bobos. More mature than hipsters, the bobos -- a portmanteau of bohemien and bourgeois -- are a gentrifying force that Parisians have come to associate with the now-popular Canal Saint-Martin district. Take a stroll through this neighborhood, and you’ll find shops and restaurants that cater specifically to bobo tastes, from cafes that only serve locally roasted coffee to artisan jewelry makers who are also in the business of selling taxidermied mice.

But just 10 years ago, this wasn’t the case.

Before the bobo

The neighborhood’s gentrification may not even be apparent at first glance. Graffiti, broken bottles, public urinals overflowing in the summertime, the occasional rat swimming through the canal -- all these details make the Canal Saint-Martin seem unruly at best. Historically, there is nothing chic about this neighborhood, which developed around Napoléon’s canal, designed to functionally communicate with the Seine by bringing fresh water to Paris, helping the city avoid cholera and dysentery epidemics.

The neighborhood prominently features a 17th-century hospital built for plague victims.

The most prominent historical features of the neighborhood are not precisely glamorous, either. The area features a 17th-century hospital built for plague victims, a nearby leper colony, and just down the street, the gibbet, a site of public execution, which welcomed travelers with bodies hanging in a Hollywood Squares-type fashion. After the canal became a major thoroughfare in the 19th century, it slowly fell out of favor towards the 1960s, as trucks began to rival barges. Gentrification efforts along the canal banks were slow in the 1980s, as warehouses began to be repurposed at a sluggish pace. Today, the Point Éphémère, opened as a popular culture and concert venue in 2004, embodies this spirit.

Place de la République
Flickr/David McKelvey

Over the course of the 20th century, the Canal Saint-Martin was never quite the "it" place, but in the 21st century, this neighborhood’s image has been thoroughly altered. The cheap rent, just north of the impossibly gentrified Marais, as well as a major transportation hub at nearby Place de la République, were among the early draws to this eastern district. Place de la République underwent a major renovation in 2013, which made the district seem a little more accessible to tourists and those who may have balked at the homeless encampments and foreboding traffic patterns of the square.

"Five years ago, there was nothing at rue de la Grange aux Belles."

As local Franco-American artist Marcus McAllister explained, he rarely picnicked or strolled the Canal when he moved to Paris from New York in the late 1990s. After the beloved café Chez Prune opened in 1998, followed by design bookshop Artazart in 1999, however, the waterway became more popular. "That’s when the Canal started being on my radar," he said.

Back in the heyday

Since the early 2000s, new shops and restaurants have sprung up, like the trendy Pink Flamingo, which delivers pizzas to picnickers on the canal.

"Five years ago, there was nothing at rue de la Grange aux Belles, and that’s where I see the biggest difference," McAllister explained. Today, this street is home to Ten Belles and its excellent coffee, and the adjacent Bleuet Coquelicot, which houses an often barefoot florist and his impeccable flowers. By 2012, Paris’s first gluten-free bakery opened right by the expensive weekend organic produce market just one block from the canal. After living here for the past eight years, I feel like the grit and grunge that attracted the first wave of gentrifying bobos is all but gone.

canal st martin
Flickr/when i was a bird

Over the past few years, an onslaught of cool coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques -- even a German spaghetti ice cream shop (you can’t make this up) -- have set up around the canal. From April to October, it’s the place to sit and eat, drink, caffeinate, and photograph. Teens and 20-somethings can be found on its cement banks well past midnight. Canal Saint-Martin has become the place to be, and its image has gone from scruffy to nearly chic.

Since about 2009, Afghan refugees have called the parks and bridges around the Canal home, and continue to raise humanitarian concerns that contrast with the glossier side of the district. While there has been a fair amount of outreach to these folks by the local community, dozens of refugees continue to camp out under bridges, cook over open fires, and sleep in entryways -- and their presence continues to serve as a reminder that this neighborhood, and this city, needs to also concern itself with the thousands of underserved who deserve humane living conditions.

canal saint martin
Flickr/Guillaume Flament

Noise, trash, and graffiti have long been gripes of the neighborhood’s residents. However, this winter, the city drained the canal to clean 14 years’ worth of debris collected at the bottom. Of course, they discovered a little bit of everything, including bikes, motorcycles, shopping carts, and tons of bottles from over a decade of picnics. It’s not just the canal, though: this area has begun changing even more rapidly, and it seems like the entire neighborhood is putting on a fresh coat of paint.

It seems like the entire neighborhood is putting on a fresh coat of paint.

For instance, a favorite restaurant among neighborhood locals, Le Cambodge, recently shed its tired old décor for something new and modern, and La Marine, a staple café along the Canal, has been gutted and redesigned. Everything seems a bit spiffier, as well-clad locals head north from the once-trendy Marais to sip their mochas at Craft Cafe, wait in line for pancakes at HolyBelly, or line up to photograph the pastries at Du Pain et des Idées.

Rising prices and changing times

Now the Canal of yesteryear is gone. Is it for the better? For the families and hipsters who inhabit the district, the changes are great... as long as they can afford it. Real estate prices have more than tripled since the 1990s, jumping to their highest in only the last 5 years. As McAllister said, "I don’t know how I would do it if I were moving now into this neighborhood." The hipsters and artists who made the neighborhood so cool are being priced out of the neighborhood, and the bobos who made the Canal chic will be replaced by the simply bourgeois.

Such is progress, but I don’t feel as though I can whine about the neighborhood gentrifying -- after all, I like good coffee, Portuguese pastries, and cute shops, and arguably helped change this place from its previous incarnation, as well. Still, I am a bit indignant at having to wait that much longer for bread at Du Pain et Des Idées; living through change is frustrating, and nostalgia sets in until we move on to the next cool thing. The only problem is that Paris is running out of spots that can sustain cool -- that is to say, spots where hipsters, artists, students, and other creative types on a budget can congregate affordably.

Paris is running out of spaces where creative types on a budget can congregate affordably.

Generations before us have seen similar evolutions, most recently in the Marais district. Now enshrined in the tourist guides, its fate as a destination is sealed for the foreseeable future. "The Marais has something for everyone," according to the Fodor’s guide, doing little to distinguish it profoundly from the rest of Paris. The Canal Saint-Martin, a new feature in many guides, still gets lumped in with "Eastern Paris" or "Beyond Central Paris," but the recent Lonely Planet named it number nine of Paris’s 16 top attractions.

canal saint martin

Following the November 2015 attacks that targeted bars and restaurants near the Canal, Parisians and travelers alike have been bravely seeking out the district, despite the shootings. If anything, this attack on the Parisian way of life has only made the neighborhood more attractive to some. Already, at nearby Place de la République, tourists flock to see the statue that has become an improvised memorial to the tragedies of 2015 that marked this neighborhood. The statue, depicting the goddess of Liberty, Marianne, which was covered with spray paint and plastered with posters and images from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo until recently, when it was cleaned and restored.  

Donantonia Pastelaria
Donantonia Pastelaria

This is great for local business, of course, but as the tourists come with their selfie sticks, the last edge that the neighborhood had will be filed away. At least many of the new shops and boutiques are not corporate, aseptic, and soulless, but locally owned spots that are a pleasure to patronize.

Virginie Gonçalves, owner of the recently opened Portuguese pastry shop DonAntónia Pastelaria, told me that locals and other businesses in the district have been warm to welcome the new shop. "We’re super happy in this street,” she said. “The coffeeshop Ten Belles and other businesses, we get along well. There’s a real exchange between us all, and we’re stronger for it."

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Bryan Pirolli is a Paris-based writer, photographer, tour guide, and PhD candidate at the Sorbonne who is more than likely currently drinking wine. Follow him on Twitter right here.