In English, the Place Fréhel would be described as an empty plot or derelict land, but in French it is a dent creuse – a missing or hollow tooth. And how true this seems. From a point near the Pyrénees Metro station, the fangs and molars on the Rue de Belleville lead the eye towards the Eiffel Tower far off in the distance, but half-way down, on the corner of the Rue Julien Lacroix, one (or more…) of these crooked teeth has indeed been pulled out.
On one side of this small, unintended cavity, a jumble of tables and chairs form the terrace of the Culture Rapide bar, the leading venue in the city for slam performance poetry. Above, an installation by the artist Ben informs us that Il faut se méfier des mots (“beware of words”). Words clearly have their importance in this rather unique location, but it is not easy to find the right ones to describe it.
It has always seemingly been a place without a purpose, a square peg in the city’s round hole. It mostly functioned as a parking space for motor bikes and scooters, but has recently been converted into an urban nursery. Pear trees – heavy with fruit – stand in wooden boxes, their feet tickled by wild flowers, and there are even plants blossoming in old bath tubs! But why did this gap in the city’s logic appear in the first place?
Once, of course, there were buildings here (the parcellation plans dating from the second half of the 19th century that I found online suggest there were three – see below). The first sounds they heard were the hooves of the horses that trotted up and down the Belleville hill, but as soon as technology allowed it, these were replaced by the rattling of a funicular tramway. The tramway lasted for only around 30 years, before being replaced by the grumble of a motor bus, and then finally by the underground rumbling of the Metro. It was this final noise that would prove fatal.