Le Sentier



Preferably, let's choose a weekday, definitively not the week-end, to visit the Sentier district, dedicated to the textile and clothing industry.

Although heavily impacted by the relocation of the clothing industry, the activities around Prêt-à-Porter, developed after the Second World War and in the 1950s, have been maintained in Le Sentier.
We are going to use many congested small and narrow streets, very busy during the week; we are also going to use several passageways built for the most part in the 18th and 19th century.

The Sentier district is limited by boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle to the north, boulevard de Sébastopol to the east, rue Réaumur to the south and rue Montmartre to the west. Already in Atget's time, this part of Paris was dedicated to the clothing industry and the production of fashion accessories. In this time, it was also the centre for the printing industry and the press, all gone away today; if you pay attention, you will still notice some marks and press names on few buildings.

In the Middle Ages, it was the largest slum in Paris. Known as fief d'Alby, it was so dangerous and dirty that nobody entered the area, but the thieves and beggars living there. In 1784, a royal Edict decreed that the area be destroyed and replaced by a Fish market, to the great relief of the Parisians. However, this is not because this demolition was received as a piece of good news that the district took the official name of Bonne Nouvelle (which can also be the meaning of good news ...). The name of Bonne Nouvelle just takes its origin from the name of a chapel built in 1551 dedicated to the Annunciation.



The mannequins in the windows of Passage du Caires make me  think to  Atget's photos which attracted Man Ray by their Surrealist style - like this one taken avenue des Gobelins in 1905 (Getty Museum)

Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle

Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle is following the line of the Charles V Walls built in the 14th century in replacement of the previous Philip Augustus wall on the right bank. When on their turn the Charles V walls between the Bastille jail and the gate of Saint-Denis were demolished, they were replaced by the boulevards during the reign of Louis XIV. At the beginning, the boulevards were just dirt roads lined with trees. Did you know that the name of boulevard has a military origin? In the past a boulevard was the flat summit of a defensive wall.

These boulevards, called the Grands Boulevards, stretch out over more than four kilometers between Place de la Bastille and Place de la Madeleine. After their creation, they rapidly became favorite Parisian walkways to be finally the utmost fashionable place to be in the 19th century. The Grands Boulevards have adopted the name and the style of the districts they cross; hence, boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle has always been rather a working-class neighborhood due to rue Saint-Denis.

On Atget's photo we can notice on the right the elongated facade of the Gymnase theater. When created in 1820 it immediately got success with the first vaudeville plays written by Eugene Scribe, as well with plays written by renowned writers like Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, George Sand, Sardou. To honor Marie Bell, her name was added to the theater name in 1958.

  • Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle
    Atget - 1926

Rue Poissonnière

Cinema Theatre - Le Grand Rex

Let's walk up to rue Poissonnière and turn on the left where the movie theatre Le Rex is standing. This giant art-deco building has some Broadway style with its neon signs and the large images projected on the impressive facade. Its tower is also marking the boundaries between the Boulevards and the quite different Sentier district.

The word “Poissonnière” meaning a woman selling fish is rather sounding vulgar in French. It does sound weird too in a district dedicated to the clothing industry and in the past to the printing industry … Its name reminds us that in the past it was a road used by the fishmongers coming from the north of France to sell the fish and seafood to the fish pavilion of the Parisian Halles, now out of Paris.

Nothing today is bringing up the image of trolleys linking up the sea to the belly of Paris, it belongs to the past like at 21, rue Poissonnière the 17th century mansion and its elegant iron work photographed by Atget before its demolition in 1907. It has been replaced by an impressive neo-classical building with sculptures representing three severe man faces. Though the building is quite classical, it accommodates on its 1250 square meters an activity centered around data processing,  which is today largely established in the Sentier district.

On our way in rue Poissonière, we will see an elegant private mansion, the hotel de Noisy, located at 2.

We will proceed rue des Petits-Carreaux, then on the left rue d'Aboukir up to Place du Caire.

  • Mansion built in 1660
    21, rue Poissonnière
    Atget - 1905
    (Demolished in 1907)

Place du Caire

Place du Caire
Atget – 1903

We arrive Place du Caire, where we can immediately notice the three giant heads representing the goddess Hathor which decorate the building giving access to the passage du Caire  (2, place du Caire).

Place and rue du Caire, named to celebrate Napoleon's Egyptian campaign,  were built in 1798 where previously an old convent was located between rue Saint-Denis and the small rue des Forges. Other neighboring streets: rues d'Aboukir,  d'Alexandrie, du Nil and Damiette remind as well the military and scientific Egyptian expedition.

These streets were built where was before the biggest slum in Paris. This den of thieves and beggars has been well described by Victor Hugo in his book the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Because they were using a secret language, the Argot (slang), this group of thieves was named the Argotiers. Beggars in the day, they were using tricks to counterfeit the crippled, the blind, the epilectic (for this they were putting soap in their mouth to play hypersalivation), the leper … in the evening, back at their slum, they were removing their fake signs of disabilities, in an other word accomplishing a daily miracle, hence the name given to their district, the Court of Miracles.

On  Atget's photo, we can see several signs of printing companies above the passage. In his time, press and typography were an important activity and the printers were sharing the passage with the straw hat makers.   

Very often, you will see immigrant workers waiting in the middle of the square for some handling work required by the manufacturers. They remind me the porter photographed by Atget and the description made by Louis-Sébastien Mercier who was describing the Parisian streets in the 18th century: “You can find Hercules and Milos of Croton waiting at the corner of our streets for moving our furniture or carry the burdens of our trade.  When called, they come with their hook; leaning against a stone, they are waiting for a job.”(translation by Martine Combes). 

Today, they come with their trolley and their mobile, they are waiting for moving boxes across the narrow streets. They deliver the collections to the carriers parked away in broader streets and they provide the link between the workshops and the wholesalers.

It is as if this district would perpetuate the same lives of poor hardworking fellows  through the centuries. In the evening, it is also quite possible that you can see some guys picking up some pieces of fabric and ornamental borders let on the pavement. Here again, they remind me the rag picker photographed by Atget.

  • Porter
    Atget in 1899
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Ragman
    Atget in 1899
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Passage du Caire

Passage du Caire
33, rue d’Alexandrie
Atget - 1909

Built in 1798, Passage du Caire is the oldest passage and the longest in Paris. It includes three distinct galleries: Sainte-Foy, Saint-Denis and Caire. An other peculiarity: the pavement was made with tombstones from the convent Filles-Dieu. May be it was some way to make the passage more intriguing to the Parisians who  from the start were not attracted by it. There was no shop, no attraction, only print shops, lithography factories for the press industry; and for the clothing industry, manufacturers of accessories, like ties, straw hats, collars and cuffs.
Today you will see no tourist or stroller, either. Basically, you will only see retailers coming here to buy fashion products or shop mannequins.

Now le'ts follow the aisle Alexandrie which opens in rue d'Alexandrie, then the alley opening in rue Saint-Denis.

Passage Sainte-Foy

Passage Sainte-Foy
261, rue Saint-Denis
Atget – 1907

When going out of Passage du Caire, we turn left in rue Saint-Denis where we will stop at the number 261-263 to go into Passage Sainte-Foy.

Rue Saint-Denis is famous for an older activity than the textile industry. The oldest profession in the world has always been carried on in this area, in the past by the walking girls in Court of Miracles and still today by high siliconised ladies. When I last visited the district, two of them were framing the narrow entrance of the passage.

At the end of the passage, you will have to climb a small stair before reaching rue Sainte-Foy. In fact, these steps take you above what were in the past, the walkways on Charles V ramparts,  built around 1370. By the way, it may be the right time to give you one of the possible origins of the French word “bordel” (brothel): Since, in medieval times, the prostitution was authorized only outside the city walls, the prostitutes were standing in shacks bordering (en bordure de) the walls; these cabins were designated the “bordes” since they were bordering the city walls and their owners the “bordelières” …

Few steps away ahead the gate, activate the button on your left to go outside. 

Rue des Degrés - Beauregard - Eglise Notre-Dame de Bonne Nouvelle

When going out of passage Sainte-Foy, let's turn on our right in rue Sainte-Foy where we stop at the number 13 to use an other passage, which is in reality a long and narrow bar-tobacco shop, essentially known by the locals. Out of the bar, we turn left on rue d'Aboukir. On our way, we will notice rather fancy wholesalers windows and we will turn on the left rue Saint-Philippe where the fabric wholesalers shops are grouped. We then turn right rue de Cléry which was the road outside the Charles V city walls.  Then on our left, we climb the fourteen steps of the shortest street in Paris without entrance to any building, to arrive in rue Beauregard.  On our left, we can notice the church Bonne-Nouvelle which gave its name to the whole area.

From rue Beauregard, you can notice the 17th century tower of the church,  which is the oldest part of the church rather charmless which was completely rebuilt in 1830. Remaining intact vine tendrils would have been found when digging the foundations of the new church in 1824 where in the past a vineyard was cultivated along the slopes of the Mont-Orgueil. Indeed, the bucolic view of the surroundings has let its name to the street Beauregard (meaning beautiful view). The church has some curio like a modern (1990) in ground full immersion baptismal font in front of the altar; and the garment used by Edgeworth de Firmont, who celebrated King Louis XVI's last mass before his execution.

  • View from rue Beauregard,
    Notre-Dame-de-la-Bonne-Nouvelle church
    (Musée du Carnavalet)

Corner of rue Beauregard, Cléry and Chénier

Rue Beauregard
Atget – 1909

Indeed, the shadows of King Louis XVI's last hours are hovering over street Beauregard. Here, at the corner of the streets Beauregard, de Cléry and Chénier there was the last desperate attempt by Baron de Batz to save the king on the road to the scaffold on 21, January 1793. It was planned that he would be helped by five hundred other conspirators to be grouped altogether in front of this narrow and leaning house standing at the corner of three old narrow streets. At this time, the sloping ground above Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle was very steep and the boulevard not yet leveled. Therefore, when the escort would have to slow down to climb the slope, it was planned that the mass of the five hundred men would run down from the above streets, breaking through the national guards and save the king. But,  much to his surprise, the baron could only find twenty-five conspirators at the meeting point. In fact, the plan was disclosed and early in the morning of the  January 21 all of the conspirators were prevented to go out by the police, to the exception of Baron de Batz and few partners who spent the night away from home. In spite of being alone, he bravely threw himself forward calling; “ Help me, those who want to save the king!” After this vain attempt, he managed to escape as the other few courageous fellows were tracked and killed; without even slowing down the fatal escort.

If rue des Degrés is the shortest street in Paris, the building standing at the corner of streets Beauregard and Cléry is the most narrow with only one room at each floor. On Atget's photo  taken in 1909 by Atget, we can read the sign of the wine shop: “Au Poète de 93” (Poet's home in 93), as per a plaque on the house stating that it was the home of André Chénier in 1793. The young poet was also known for his political views against the reign of Terror and his critics against Marat and Robespierre. One year after having written a poem congratulating Charlotte Corday who murdered Marat, he was arrested and executed in 1794 when he was only aged 31.

On Atget's photo, we can also see the portrait of a man near the window of the first floor which has nothing to do with the poet; it is just an advertisement showing a waiter holding a napkin on the arm for an employment agency  La Française. Today, the advertisement has been replaced by a street plate providing the name of the square Pointe Trigano.  

Rue Sainte-Foy

Let's walk down rue de la Lune towards the boulevard where is standing the triumphal arch built by François Blondel in celebration of the victories won by King Louis XIV and let's turn in rue Saint-Denis where we will stop at the corner of rue Sainte-Foy and Blondel.

When the nice hairdresser Maxime wearing wide brimmed hat and sunglasses saw me taking a photo of his shop, he took me in and showed me the reproduction of Atget's photo hung on a wall. I felt that this brought things full circle,  which is pretty neat in a hairdresser lounge, is not it?

  • Shop - rue Sainte-Foy
    Atget - 1907

Rue Blondel

16 Rue Blondel
Atget - 1910/ 1912 (BNF)

Let's leave Maxime, this nice ladies' hairdresser where some ladies walking rue Blondel  go certainly to have their hair done. If the brothels which made rue Blondel that famous are now all closed, the main activity of the street is still quite today the same …

Atget simply used the word “Brasserie” to title his photo of the house located 16, rue Blondel. Marquis de Rochegude wrote a Paris guide in 1910, same date at which Atget took the photo. In this guide,  I have found the description of the house and especially its Art-Nouveau gone facade which was called "Paradis Japonais" (Japanese Paradise). Later, the address will be quite famous for the brothel "Au Moulin". It can certainly be assumed that this “brasserie” was already a sort of hostess bar where the customers could enjoy other consumption upstairs ... 

Passage Lemoine

Passage Lemoine
232 rue Saint-Denis

Let's come back rue Saint-Denis and walk up to Passage Lemoine at n° 232 fully dedicated to the clothing industry. This passage through three consecutive yards will take you to boulevard Sébastopol.  

Boulevard de Sébastopol, built by Haussmann, is dedicated to the clothing industry too.

Now let's go to  n°131 where were taken some shots of the French movie “La Vérité si je mens” (would I lie to you?) which is about the Jewish community working in the district of Sentier. The paved court yard in front of the elegant mansion built ca 1735 can be identified in some shots of the movie.
The last yard opens in rue Saint-Denis, n°224-226. Let’s take it on our left and let’s go up to rue d’Alexandrie.

  • Rue Sainte-Foy
    View from rue d’Alexandrie

Rue Réaumur

Corner rue Saint-Denis and rue du Ponceau.
View from rue Réaumur
Atget –1907

We now proceed rue Saint-Denis up to rue Réaumur where we turn on our right. We will stay on rue de Réaumur up to rue Dussoubs on our right.

On each side of rue Réaumur, you will notice that the cloth manufacturers are here rather high-end.

Before turning right on rue Réaumur, let's have a look at the extraordinarily decorated building across the street, at n° 61-63. Have a closer look at the corner of the building with rue Saint-Denis and you will notice that this fancy building built by a fabric wholesaler in the intent to impress is only 2 metre deep! Already in the spirit of the movie “Would I lie to you” somehow …

Rue Dussoubs

Old well, 25 rue Dussoubs.

From rue Réaumur, we have turned on our right in rue Dussoubs. We will see two old wells embedded in the facade of n° 25 and 27.

At n°21 a plaque is mentioning that in 1793, Goldoni died in this house, at the age of 86. The “Italian Molière” left Venice and settled in Paris in 1762. He became part of the King's court, taught Italian to Louis XV's daughters and directed the Théâtre Italien in Paris. He was extremely poor when he died in February 1793 since the pension that he got from King Louis XVI was suppressed by the French Revolution in 1792.    

Rue Dussoubs has kept many old buildings. Like this building at n°17. 
…and like this other 16th private mansion – the beautiful facade over the courtyard is classified.

  • House where Charles Goldoni died in 1793
    21, rue Dussoubs
    Atget –1907

  • Old 16th century mansion
    17, rue Dussoubs
    Atget – 1907

  • 22, Rue Dussoubs
    Atget – 1907

Hôtel de Meslay
32, rue du Sentier
by Atget in 1907 – 1908

Let's come back and turn on our left in rue Saint-Sauveur, then on our right rue des Petits-Carreaux, rue des Jeuneurs on our left and rue du Sentier on our right. From there we will reach the Grands-Boulevards where our tour ends not far from where it started.

Sentier in French means country path and the name of the street in French does sound quite poetic. Jacques Prévert wrote about the street in his book “Paris is so small” and told about a wolf during a cold winter in 1612-1613, so much starving that he came to this street in Paris.

In 2005, the Hôtel de Meslay was being restored to transform clothing workshops into offices. Today in 2016, the hotel is getting new restoration work to transform it into a hotel. Let's hope that this beautiful house is not going to be  too much transformed under the lead of Business wolves taking a sort of revenge for the poor starving wolf hunted during a cold winter day in 1612 …

Year 2016 - text and photos/ Martine Combes