The Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression, under the guidance of University of London Institute in Paris’ director of research, Anna-Louise Milne, has been working with migrants and asylum seekers in Northern Paris for more than five years. As part of this year’s Being Human festival of the humanities, the Centre will be running a series of workshops with a group of asylum seekers and local secondary school pupils to explore the connections and contradictions found within the place names of Paris: their histories, modern resonances, and the diverse meanings that they generate for the migrants making their way to and through these areas.
Street names speak volumes. They have a general tone, that of a period and its political and cultural orientation, and they reserve a cast of often ill-assorted characters thrown together in a plot that no-one could anticipate.
Reading cities through their street names can be a source of disbelief or melancholy. Some of the densest developments in post-war social housing in Europe were dubbed with the names of classical composers. The irony when they detonated them – as they did the Debussy housing block near Paris in 1986 – to make way for smaller scale units was all the crueller.
Earlier names are more likely to provoke mild fascination, prompted by their incongruity or a suggestion of hidden mystery. (Who was the Chevalier de La Barre?) And, undoubtedly, a lot of the time, we just take up the names around us as a coordinate in our daily routine, leaving the stories they contain to lie dormant.
France has a particularly strong tradition of using street names for commemorative purposes. New street names or proposals for name changes have to be voted on at the level of the local authority, then approved by a city-wide commission. Individual citizens can petition their councillor to campaign for a particular name, though the reasons of State and City will often outweigh local initiatives.
At present, in Paris, there is a particular effort underway to redress the gender balance in street names, pitting women activists, writers, educators, scientists and actresses against the earlier predilections for generals, philosophers, inventors, industrialists and, in left-leaning areas, trade-unionists. The new Esplanade Nathalie Sarraute, named after the Russian-born French author of post-war nouveaux romans, sits alongside the rue Pajol, commemorating a General in Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial army, which itself runs from the Place de La Chapelle, a name that belongs to a much earlier chapter in Parisian history and marks the church that stood in the centre of a small collection of houses in the Middles Ages.
They are all possible indications you could be given if you were recently arrived in Paris, stepping off a train at the Gare du Nord for example, and wanted to reach the large public gardens known as the Jardins d’Eole with its evocation of Aeolus, God of the Winds, that is a further clue to contemporary tone: no longer the higher spheres evoked by classical music, but rather the personified forces of climate systems in a city where air quality is desperate. But why would you want to go to the Jardins d’Eole if you had just stepped off the train at the Gare du Nord?
If you’re reading this, there is little chance that any of these street names are going to be your first destination. But La Chapelle, Pajol and even Eole are prominent features in the maps used by people caught in forced displacement from East or Central Africa, or Libya, or Afghanistan, Syria, Irak, Turkey… They’re names recognised nowadays across a whole stretch of the planet, marking what has become a ‘hotspot’ for asylum seekers, particularly those who might be trying to get to the United Kingdom, or who have abandoned their efforts further north, in Sweden or Norway, and know there is nothing for them in Italy or Greece where they have often spent long months already.
It’s a hotspot in part because the Paris authorities have built a one-stop centre called the Bulle – the Bubble, because it is temporary and destined to pop like all bubbles… – for people who want to register a claim to asylum, which has to be done as soon as possible after arrival in a given country. But if the authorities situated this temporary reception centre in the La Chapelle area, it is because the area has long been a focus for legal and illegal migration.
Politicians like to latch on to concepts of push and pull factors in explaining how concentrations of displaced people emerge and stabilize. Some will claim that the crowds of homeless men drifting around La Chapelle today are pulled there because of the Bulle, while others insist that it is largely because they have been pushed back from Calais, and elsewhere, and find the reprieve of long-embedded tolerance in that district of the city.
None of them have much interest in how the map works for the men, and the women in much smaller numbers, who find themselves navigating these streets. In this respect they restrict their perception of the map to a two-dimensional structure, charting possible vectors of movement or gathering. They fail to see the other dimensions that toponyms open up, the ‘géographie seconde’ that the anthropologist and philosopher Michel De Certeau valued particularly in street names, which offer material for ‘cobbling together’ alternative narratives or what he referred to as bricolage.
It might seem that the naming of place would also be of little importance for those caught in the different traps of police and administrative apparatus designed to control immigration into Europe. But De Certeau’s notion of bricolage tells us otherwise. Street names are like a gateway into another language, often the first element to take form and become a source of possibility when so much else that is heard by the recent arrival from a different continent is no more useful than the clatter of trains and the sound of sirens.
They’re also the receptacle with which people can start to gather their stories, the point of connection. Walter Benjamin, philosopher and historian of Paris, was also deeply attached to street names. He described them as ‘intoxicating substances’ that have the power to rise above their mere communicational value and to provoke a form of ‘interpenetration’ akin to the evocative power of poetry.
In this sense, the street name is the hospitality that belongs fully to the city in the way that a public bench might. A space that can accommodate as many uses of it as can be invented by it users, and more difficult to remove.
Of course, it is a lightweight sort of accommodation and no answer to the desperate shortage of viable living situations for people in transit or seeking refuge. But street names are one of the resources we have for beginning a conversation that is liable to escape all the stories shaped by the power of State to determine access to minimal safety.
Dr Anna-Louise Milne is director of graduate study and research at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). She convenes ULIP’s one-year MA in Paris Studies programme, which uniquely takes a hands-on approach to explore the many facets of the city. Her research interests extend from cultural translation to urban sociology.
- Street names are the starting point for a mapping project that Anna-Louise Milne will be running with the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression at the University of London Institute in Paris for the Being Human Festival 2017. For more information see: https://ulip.london.ac.uk/events/missing-persons-lost-and-found-paris
- Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online