Wanted by Napoleon to improve the drinking water supply of the capital, then became a major axis of industrial transformation and transport of wood and coal for the Parisian market, the 108 kilometer canal inaugurated in 1822 reaches its bicentenary this year.
Damaged by the deindustrialization of the Île-de-France, this once inhospitable space has been integrated into the city for twenty years to become, for the first time in its history, an authentic place of life for the inhabitants. A particularly visible change on the side of the 19th arrondissement of Paris and the neighboring town of Pantin, in Seine-Saint-Denis.
Sitting in the shade of the Magasins Généraux de Pantin, colonial food storage warehouses converted into the headquarters of an advertising agency, Dolores and Miguel Julia idlely savor the passage of barges laden with sand or rubble. Caps on their heads, they watch the families with pushchairs taking the air, watching the cyclists and joggers exercising.
Although they have lived in Pantin since the 1960s, this retired couple only discovered the pleasures of the Canal de l’Ourcq with the appearance of the brand new district which has recently replaced old industrial structures. They now survey twice a day, as regulars, the new promenade at the port of Pantin.
“It’s our Promenade des Anglais!”, laughs Dolores, an 82-year-old ex-rayonist in a pharmacy. “We couldn’t come here before. It was dirt, there were no cobblestones.”
With its freshness and its trees in this extremely urbanized area, its cultural barges, its new buildings with neat architecture whose apartments are snapped up by Parisian sores, the Canal de l’Ourcq has become the showcase of Pantin, city which remains otherwise deeply popular.
– Ancien no man’s land –
The emblematic flour mill of the Grands Moulins, with false medieval airs, has been transformed into offices, housing the services of the BNP Paribas bank. An early 20th century furniture factory has been converted into accommodation, a theater has taken up residence in a brick shed on the north bank.
“When I was elected in 2001, the city turned its back on the canal. It was rather experienced as a fracture. We returned the city to the canal”, testifies to AFP Bertrand Kern, the mayor (PS ) from Pantin. “You would have come on a Saturday twenty years ago to the quays of the canal, there weren’t many people. Today it’s so crowded that I have to make arrangements between bicycles and pedestrians.”
The sometimes heterogeneous paces of the surroundings of the canal show, however, that its transition has yet to be concluded. Here an industrial laundry spreads a powerful smell of clean laundry on the quays, there operates a concrete plant. Under the T3 tramway footbridge, a migrant camp has appeared in recent days.
Further downstream, once the canal has passed under the tracks of the ring road, the same process of urban transformation can be observed in the 19th arrondissement of Paris.
Do picnickers on the lawns of La Villette know that they stand on the site of the old “city of blood”? Until its conversion into a park in the 1980s, the place hosted for a century the huge cattle markets and slaughterhouses that supplied Paris with fresh meat.
At the rue de Crimée lift bridge, small tourist boats are waiting to pass. Young people smoke joints while listening to rap, couples dance tango on a track set up for the “Paris Plages” operation.
The rebirth of the Canal de l’Ourcq, the socialist mayor of the 19th century, François Dagnaud, the date for its arrondissement in the mid-1990s and the “bet” of the MK2 cinema chain to open a room in a former hangar designed by Gustave Eiffel, in the middle of what was then a “no man’s land”.
“We were in the middle of a period when crack was already present, he tells AFP. In a neighborhood in distress, marginalized, not at all frequented by the inhabitants, it was the beginning of an urban mutation , cultural and social.