'Beach' in the city offers respite for ordinary Parisians

In a working-class area of Paris, a multiethnic crowd gathers along a canal to kayak, practice tai chi, and enjoy the summertime.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Paris Plage, an artificial seaside stretching along the Seine has kept Parisians cool each summer since 2001.
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This city just kicked off its annual summer "beach resort" on the banks of the Seine – putting down tons of sand and potted palms in a concept called the "Paris plage" now copied in Madrid, Tokyo, Berlin, Budapest, Mexico City, and Amsterdam.

But for the summer beach party many ordinary Parisians now head to La Villette instead. It's in the 19th arrondissement – a slightly tattered ethnic collocation of Asians, Arabs, Jews, and younger French, and Paris's last working-class district.

Many of the laborers who keep Paris going in the annual August exodus live here. The area abuts the Paris banlieue, the largely immigrant suburbs where riots broke out in 2005, and there are some Arab-Jewish tensions here. It's a gritty area where vacations, beach resorts, and boating are seen as luxuries.

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Yet for three years the La Villette beach – on the Canal de l'Ourcq – has brought a community together. And its "authentic" quality makes it an urban beach crowded by rank-and-file Parisians – complete with a kayak-distributing boat house.

"It's crowded, but with like .05 percent tourists," says Jean-Claude Coucardon, director of the Charlety stadium in Paris who is deployed in summer on the plage project. "After the main plage became a success, we wanted new life outside the usual areas – the Eiffel Tower, Concorde, the Champs."

"I don't like cars and shopping," says Noelle Bordon, here with her sister under a large parasol. "This is the beach I'm coming to first, not the other one," she says.

Every July since Betrand Delanoe became mayor in 2000, the road along the Seine – a two-lane artery of exhaust and oil stains – becomes the Paris plage. The road is blocked for a month: The city adds sand, exercise machines, performing clowns, deck chairs, ping pong, and creperies – a lunch and sun spot in the heart of Paris. It's free, progressive, on the tourist map, and hugely successful.

But three years ago the plage concept went local. The basin of Canal de l'Ourcq, built by "Sun King" Louis XIV to bring water into the city, is the site.

Roads aren't blocked, there's no traffic, no pneumatic drills. Unlike the grand plage on the Seine – a river restricted to commercial boats – the basin is useable for recreation. Sailing craft and paddleboats are free for the month.

"We offer four or five classes a day for kids and adults," says Thanh Nguyenar, boathouse director. "A lot of kids have never been in a boat," he says, as a canoe glides past with a young boy sporting a yarmulke in the bow and his father with a New York Yankees cap in the stern.

The city modeled the idea on the traditional French riverside cafes that Pierre-Auguste Renoir famously painted. "It's the old rural cafe concept where workers eat French fries and dance on the weekends," says Mehdi Ben Slama, a plage official.

The original plage on the Seine stemmed from a Delaneo promise to close the Seine artery in summer. He did – but the first year brought no love from Parisians. It was a badly organized free walking zone in a summer of bad weather. Detour traffic clogged a city normally empty in summer. "For people to simply walk around a closed road, it didn't work," says Mr. Coucardon. "We needed to think of something else." The city hall brain-trust came up with the idea of a free beach resort.

As with many things French and Parisian, it was an instant success – and instantly attacked with withering social criticism. Intellectuals dubbed it artificial, an over-produced playground for bourgeoise bohemians.

No one is saying that about La Villette – a multiethnic romp for kids, and a place where locals do tai chi and play petanque, a kind of horseshoes with heavy balls. In an expensive city, drinks are supermarket prices. "People in the 19th [arrondissement] don't feel comfortable and spontaneous at the Seine plage," says Coucardon. "Here they feel this is for them."

But not everything is carefree at La Villette – there's no swimming. The official reason is safety; the unofficial one is water quality. "Maybe someday," Coucardon adds.

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