Fauborg Saint Denis: <i>catching up on the news, in whatever language</i> Click for more photos

Around the world in 52 suburbs: Paris

Fauborg Saint Denis: catching up on the news, in whatever language Photo: Louise Hawson

Photographer Louise Hawson spends a month in Paris in an effort to finally 'get' the city that inspired her 52 Suburbs Around the World project. Each week, she is visiting a different suburb in some of the world's most-photographed cities to bring a more intimate portrait than those seen on postcards.

Bonjour! Welcome to Paris, the city that pretty much inspired this entire project.

Why? Because – Francophiles, avert your gaze – I’ve never really ‘got’ Paris. The two times I’ve visited, the last one 12 years ago, I’ve just never fallen under its spell. I thought if I left the tourist trail, explored the neighbourhoods and met the locals, I might feel differently.

As to the choice of our first Paris neighbourhood, I assumed I’d have to hit the real suburbs of Paris, beyond the arrondissements, to find the non-touristy. But it turns out that ‘Paris proper’ inside the périphérique has a handful of pockets that aren’t on the typical tourist trail. One such pocket exists in the 10th arrondissement, around Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis.

Just 10 years ago it was a super dodgy neighbourhood, a no-go zone of drugs and crime. It still has an edge about it, with Asian sex workers draped over motorbikes at one end and a vibrant African community who run the hair and beauty salons at the other. But it’s also now quite bobo, bourgeois-bohemian, with architects and ad types living in the former warehouses or apartments with their young families.

I enjoyed exploring the area but had I ‘got’ Paris after week one? Non! Sure, I was a little fatigué after three months of travel and meeting my weekly deadline on the blog. But I was also frustrated by the Parisian’s reticence to be snapped. How dare they be so wary! With Easter approaching, I took the advice of my blog followers and did little but eat macarons and chocolate for a few days with my daughter, Coco, to recharge and ready myself for another go at Paris.

It worked a treat. Refreshed if not a bit fatter, I decided to next venture beyond the périphérique to a ‘real’ suburb, Saint Denis. Same saint as the previous neighbourhood but a different address. Very different in fact. Because Saint Denis is one of the much maligned northern suburbs – banlieues – of Paris, synonymous with high youth unemployment, crime and drugs.

I was particularly interested in finding the HLMs, the public housing towers you hear so much about. Expecting dead ugly and awful, what I found was remarkably unremarkable. Nothing pretty but quiet, clean apartment complexes with smiling residents going about their business.

I later learned that I’d merely chanced on a better group of public housing and that other areas really were quite bad. But Saint Denis also has a lot going for it, from lovely centuries-old buildings to culture by the bucket load; a thriving theatre scene, jazz and classical music, and an art school run by Peggy, a delightful woman who’s passionate about art, kids and the place she calls home.

It was Peggy who enlightened me about something I find quite amazing. That despite the fact that just 10km separates Saint Denis from the centre of Paris, they are considered completely separate. People who live in Saint Denis don’t consider they live in Paris, and Parisians certainly don’t regard Saint Denis, or any of the banlieues, as part of Paris. Coming from the land of sprawling suburbs, where you can live 60km from the city centre and still be in Sydney, I find this mindset intriguing.

For my third neighbourhood, I slipped back within the périphérique to explore some of the 20th arrondissement, mainly Belleville and a little of nearby Menilmontant and Gambetta. If you’re youngish and bobo-ish, this is where it’s at - diverse, down to earth and not trop cher to live in, with a great music scene and some excellent bar-cafes.

Various waves of immigrants have kept changing the face of Belleville, the latest being the Chinese. But it also has a cosmopolitan, arty feel, something close to New York’s East Village, as well as one of Paris’s best kept secrets, le Parc du Belleville, offering an excellent view over all of Paris – Montmartre without the crowds.

So did my experiment work? Well, yes, so much so that I’ve decided to stay longer than planned. But the Paris I’ve ‘found’ in the last few weeks is not the Paris advertised on TV. And the beauty I’ve found is not the stuff of postcards. It’s a mix of imagery, from the diverse faces of Paris to small, unimportant details that usually go unnoticed in a tourist’s sprint to see the sights. Sure, there’s a macaron and an ancient wall in there too, but in general, it’s not the clichés that have clinched the deal. Vive la différence!

See you in a month’s time, for more Paris.

Follow Louise and Coco weekly at www.52suburbs.com. Or read their latest installments here on the last Friday of each month.