Thursday, 1 June 2017

La Banane, a Google republic

In an almost perfectly square kilometre between Belleville and the Père Lachaise cemetery, a rather strange anomaly is written large on Google Maps - La Banane. What does this name actually represent, and what is the reality of this little visited part of the city?

On Invisible Paris, we've been here before. On July 4th 1905 - at the height of the public fascination with the Apaches sub-culture - a policeman on his first patrol was shot dead in this district. The incident was made more infamous with the publication of a book shortly afterwards, but at no moment was the name 'Banane' ever used.

At this time, the district was "sillonnée de ruelles, impasses et culs-de-sacs ténébreux et infects où l'air et la lumière ne pénétraient qu'à grand-peine" (Criss-crossed with foul and gloomy back-alleys, dead ends and cul de sacs, where air and light entered with great difficulty). If the district itself has changed quite radically over recent decades, the principal routes through it have remained constant. The mean, narrow rows of slum housing were replaced by fairly anonymous concrete estates, but the historical structure and functioning of a once rural zone remain visible.


Une carte qui donne la banane

If bananas were unsurprisingly never grown here, the names of some of the streets in the area give a clue to what was cultivated in this ancient enclave of the village of Charonne. Rue des Pruniers (Plum tree street), Rue des Mûriers (Blackberry bush street), and perhaps best known of all in Paris, Rue des Amandiers (Almond tree street), the name by which this district is generally known, thanks to a park and theatre of the same name.

So where does a banana fit into the story? It is not entirely clear when the area was first given the name or by whom, but according to most sources it refers to a building on the Rue des Amendiers with a vaguely curved form. Comparing archive shots with today's building, it seems that the building was recently renovated and even given banana colourings!






Today the district has three main aspects. On the periphery are older buildings, most notably the facade of what must have been a coaching inn on what was the gateway into the city of Paris up until 1860. In the centre are a series of large-scale housing developments, but this is also an area with generous green spaces and sporting facilities.

Given that it is an area without any major thoroughfares (cars generally skirt around the outside) and several pedestrian-only zones, it is perhaps also one of the quietest parts of Paris. On a sunny afternoon you can easily find yourself alone in a small square, under clouds of blossoms that provide a visual reminder of a rural past.    




Despite these fragments of provincial charm, this is not an area that has been gentrified. This is partly due to the high percentage of social housing and partly because the area has suffered from a bad reputation since the 1990s. The 'Amandiers' is generally spoken of in the media only in relation to turf wars and drug dealing.

Was it for this reason that its inhabitants, mostly proud of their community and the spirit that exists here, rebranded it with a name that - in French - also means to be happy and to smile?



The bench in the foreground is part of the 'Bench by the road' project, a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. The benches are "historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved", with this bench on the Rue Louis Delgrès honouring an anti-slavery leader from Guadeloupe.  



As this 2008 video ("En direct de la Banane"/Live from La Banane) shows, it is an area with a high percentage of young people (often with an African heritage), where life is lived outside in shared, community spaces. "Everyone knows each other" relates the narrator, who also insists that she feels safe, if sometimes a little bored, in these streets.  

La Banane is therefore not just a geographical location, but also an identity and a state of mind. Local rapper Jo Le Pheno wore a 'La Banane' t-shirt in a video that got him into trouble with the police and the Minister of the Interior, giving the reason for this choice in an interview with the magazine Les Inrocks.

"Un gamin de 11 ans est venu me voir. Il portait un t-shirt ‘La Banane’ et des policiers lui ont demandé pourquoi. Il a dit : ‘Parce que c’est le nom de mon quartier.’ Ils n’ont rien trouvé de mieux à lui répondre que: ‘T’es sûr que ça te rappelle pas ton pays?’ Il était choqué"
("a kid of 11 came to see me. He was wearing a 'La Banane t-shirt, and the police asked him why. He told them, 'because its the name of my neighbourhood'. They had nothing better to reply than 'are you sure it doesn't remind you of your country?' He was shocked.") 


La Banane as identity and La Banane as defiance of authority. An inclusive name for a community that often feels itself to be forgotten by the rest of the city. "
Paris, ville lumière, capital of fashion, the favourite destination of tourists, the city where everything seems beautiful - at least in the parts they want to show you" begins the 'En Direct de la Banane' video mentioned previously. Yes this is not picturebook Paris, but it is a territory to be proud of, a name to patch onto Google Maps.

More than a century ago, these neighbourhoods - the historical outskirts of the city - were the strongholds of the Communards, the Apaches mentioned previously, and various anarchist groups. In a city growing ever-richer and more exclusive, La Banane is still a popular district, one of the last bastions of the people of Paris. Although it is not a name that is official in any respect, it is pleasing to see that Google recognises this unique republic.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's related to the term 'banana belt', meaning an enclave within a city or town that, because of the way it's laid out, is very warm and sunny.....though surrounded by cooler temps.

Adam said...

Interesting idea. I have never heard that term before, but it does seem quite appropriate!

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