The Petite Ceinture or little belt is the name given to thirty two kilometres of abandoned railway track that skirt the boundaries of intramuros Paris, the vestiges of a former military railroad constructed in the nineteenth century rendered obsolete by the introduction of the Métro and forsaken to time and nature.
In an era of rampant gentrification and the relentless sanitisation of inner city areas once reknowned for their tumbledown charm (the partially sucked Strepsil masquerading as Les Halles the latest heinous example), the Petite Ceinture and its handful of surviving stations represent a refreshing pocket of disorder and wilderness amongst the mundanity. They are a glimpse into the city’s past and an antidote to the somewhat stifling uniformity of its present. The scratches on the record or irregularities in the photo that, rather than detracting from its quality, endow it with character.
The Mairie de Paris has officially designated one or two short stretches of the Petite Ceinture as public promenades and these have been tidied up and pedestrianised accordingly, in the process being stripped of a little of their previous magic. There remain however thirty-odd kilometres that have been left to the elements and retain their unique sense of mystery and decaying romance. Overgrown with wildflowers and decorated with vibrant street art they pass almost unseen through the outer arrondissements, a wrinkle in the fabric of the modern city that has sprung up all around them. To walk the untamed Ceinture (not strictly legal, but nothing fun ever is) is to lose yourself in one hundred and fifty years of history, to take a step back in time to an era of steam trains and military fortifications, separate, even if only for a short while, from the endless noise and bustle of everyday life.
The future of the little belt railway is uncertain. Many groups, including the Association sauvegarde petite ceinture et de son réseau ferré (a not-for-profit organisation set up to defend and promote the Ceinture) as well as the left-wing Front de Gauche de Paris, have submitted ideas concerning the use of the existing infrastructure. These range from the creation of communal gardens and urban farms, to operating a tourist train along certain parts of the network. Other interesting proposals detail the introduction of environmentally friendly electric wagons for transporting vegetables as well as the use of the tracks for leisure purposes via specially designed pedal-powered rail cycles. Given the wealth of ideas and the passionate debate surrounding its potential, the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo has opened up discussions with local residents in the 12th, 14th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, the four administrative districts next in line for the development of their respective sections of the Petite Ceinture.
Whatever the next few years hold for the railway itself, the stations that punctuate its length are assured of a healthy future, La REcyclerie at porte de Clignancourt and La Flèche d’Or near Porte de Bagnolet, two wildly successful bar/cafe/community centre/concert venues representing the newest incarnations of the Gare d’Ornano and Gare de Charonne respectively. Follow the tracks westward from the carnival atmosphere of Clignancourt through the quiet streets that run behind the butte Montmartre and you will find yourself standing in front of the newest addition to the family, or at least the dusty, fenced-off work site from which the Hasard Ludique will emerge.
The brainchild of three young entrepeneurs from the 18th arrondissement, the Ludique will follow in the footsteps of its perennially trendy predecessors, converting the dilapidated gare de Saint-Ouen into a multifaceted performance space with a strong community vibe. The approach to the development has been refreshingly democratic from the start, decisions concerning everything from décor to which beers to serve to how best to utilise the unique spaces available being put to a vote via the project’s website. It is a nice little touch which is sure to resonate with local residents, who are made to feel that their opinion is valued and important. That they have a say in the evolution of their neighbourhood’s history.
This kind of community involvement is what the Petite Ceinture is all about, what makes it so special. From the shared gardens of the Jardins du Ruisseau and the innumerable vegetable plots that pepper the grassy banks, to the former train carriages near Bercy which have been converted into housing for the city’s homeless, the ancient railway seems to inspire something in us. Some connection to a simpler, quieter time before mobile phones and reality shows and Twitter spats and selfies; all the distractions of modern existence that seem to draw us ever further from our roots, turning us inwards, away from the shared experiences that enrich our lives and bring us that little bit closer together.
You’d be forgiven for reading that last paragraph and writing it off as a load of sentimental, misty eyed nonsense. To be honest, before taking an interest in the subject I’d have been tempted to agree with you. It’s just an old railway after all, thirty odd kilometres of crumbling stations and rusting tracks and a somewhat interesting history. But scratch just below the surface and you’ll see that, in fact, it’s so much more than that. The Petite Ceinture has a way of uniting those lucky enough to live along its margins. It inspires everything from guerrilla gardening to bals populaire, cultural exhibitions to pop-up art galleries. For Parisians and visitors alike, it is a place we can turn to when the stressful side of Paris gets us down, to catch our breath and remember all the reasons why we love this city regardless.
Abandoned for so long, it is now slowly returning to the limelight. What will be done with it next is uncertain, but whatever it is it must respect the unique serenity and otherworldiness that sets the Ceinture apart. The wonderful sense of detachment that allowed it to be overlooked in the first place; to remain unchanged while the rest of the city modernised and moved on. It is these forgotten areas, these relics of Paris’ colourful history, that we must fight to preserve at all costs.