Arrondissement 1, 2
Numbers: 20, 79, 90, 92bis, 93-99, 120, 151, 221, 237/239,
This is one of the earliest known streets in Paris. It was named after an abbey built on the site of a Roman Villa directly to the north of the Roman city of Lutetia. Many believed the villa was the burial site of the Italian evangelist Denis who came to Paris between AD 250 and 270, and was its first Bishop and martyr. So in 630 King Dagobert (of the Franks in what is now northern France) started to build a huge basilica on the spot and called it Saint-Denis. When he died in 639 he was buried there.
From that year on until the French Revolution when the body of the guillotined Louis XVI was disposed off in a quicklime pit, all French kings were buried in the St Denis Basilica. The church was also used to crown the King’s Queen and the road from it into Paris was also always used by the royal family for their processions into Paris, and so was known as the ‘royal route’.
Today the St Denis road begins its journey to the north of Paris at the Place du Châtelet where it is crossed by the Avenue Victoria. It used to go right down to the ‘Grand-Pont’ (Big Bridge) that from the 9th century crossed the wider reach of the Seine and accessed the central island, the Ile du Cite. That bridge was washed away several times and finally replaced by the Pont au Change.
The northern end of the road is at the magnificent Porte St-Denis, a huge triumphal arch created by Louis XIV in 1672 on the site of a major fortified gateway through the (now demolished) Charles V defensive wall that protected the right bank of Paris. The photograph of the arch above was taken in the 1930s.
On June 23 1848 one of the main barricades of the workers’ insurrection against the closure of the national workshops blocked the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle from being used to move troops from West to East Paris where the movement was strongest. It was defended by engineers who worked on the Northern Railway Company, and was only taken by the government’s troops after their canon had fired 80 shots at the barricade.
The Rue St Denis continues beyond the Porte’s Arch northwards towards the Saint-Denis suburb. From this point it becomes the Rue du Faubourg St-Denis which runs as far as the Boulevard de la Chapelle.
Number 20 used to be the entrance to the Halles Centrales café and concert hall, where Blanqui spoke at several meetings in 1870.
The weekly anarchist journal Le Libertaire that had resumed publication on December 21 1944, thanks to the financial support of Georges Brassens, was able to install itself alongside the Libertarian Communist Federation in an office at No. 79 in March 1954. Series 5 of the paper finally stopped publication on July 12 1956.
Subsequently, from 1960 to 1976, No. 79 became the headquarters of the exiled Spanish anarcho-syndicalists who believed that the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo should work with the exiled government.
One of the few barricades built by the leftists who participated in the Society of Seasons uprising on Sunday May 12 1839 led by Blanqui and Barbes was at No. 90. It blocked the road at the junction with the Rue de la Grande Truanderie.
The 1839 barricade was just next door to the one built at No 92 bis in front of the St Leu church on November 19 1827. This was the first barricade in Paris since 1795 and was put up after troops were ordered to remove all signs put up in houses celebrating the liberal victory in Paris in the November 17 legislative elections. The resulting riot was put down with a cavalry charge and some gunfire in which a young Blanqui was wounded by a bullet in the neck.
At the principal barricade built across the road at No. 120 on the same day the 18th regiment fired at the defenders, killing four of its defenders.
No. 151 (or No. 153 or No. 243 where the family lived soon afterwards as is suggested in the Paris birth records) was the birthplace of Léon Blum on April 9 1872. Then, like today, it was in the heart of the Parisian textile and clothing industry. But where once it was predominantly Jewish, today the businesses in the area are largely of North African origins.
The bloody week that ended the Paris Commune took its toll at No. 199. This was where a barricade was built across the corner with what is now the Rue Réaumur saw serious fighting on May 24 1871. Another barricade at No. 237/239 that crossed to the Passage du Caire covered alleyway was defended by the Commune’s 92nd battalion.
As long ago as the Middle Ages the central Paris area around Rue Saint-Denis, Rue Grenata, the Rue aux Ours and the Rue de Saint-Martin was known as the ‘Huleu’ (screeching) quarter because of the prostitutes calling out for clients as men passed by. The women used to hire covered wooden stands, and men climbing on to the stand went ‘en bords’ (onboard). This was the origin of the now internationally recognised word ‘bordel‘ (brothel). Paris counted some 50,000 prostitutes by the mid-19th century.
For me, the southern part of the road near what used to be the huge Les Halles market still conjures up memories of that night in 1962 when I and my close school friend David walked on a cool dark summer night, with money in our pockets, determined to lose our virginities. I was quite amazed to find that more than 50 years later, despite the removal of the Halles market and the gentrification of central Paris, Tripadvisor is actually still selling the area as the place to go to see ‘Paris nightlife’.