SoPi, or how Pigalle became a hipster’s paradise

One Sunday morning I decided to sally out for a stroll, and as I headed out east from my block, I found myself in hipsterland.

Yes, it turns out my host family lives right next to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Paris: SoPi, or South Pigalle. In any case, that’s the name among those in the know, the hipsters whom the French call bobos (bourgeois bohemians).

So just as New York has SoHo and NoHo, Paris has its SoPi and NoPi, mentioned in the same breath as Le Marais, Canal St Martin, and République/Oberkampf.

A slew of new shops specialized in one product or some odd combination (like coffee and jeans), neighboring sleek, minimalist brunch places and organic bakeries, is reviving the village ambiance, especially around rue des Martyrs—the backbone of SoPi—and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

Even the WSJ sang the praises of SoPi, stressing the bourgeois over the bohemian.

Do we blame the hipsters? Is that term even appropriate here? What about bobos, or gentrification?


My interest in all this started with an opinion piece in the NYT by a former Brooklyn hipster who argued that, supposedly, Paris, and specifically Pigalle, had been ruined at the hands of—guess what—hipsters.

Mr. Thomas Chatterton Williams moved into the Pigalle neighborhood long past its raunchy days of prostitution and absinthe bars, but, as he remarks, it “remained funky in the original sense of the term. In addition to cigarette smoke and baking bread, there was the whiff of dirt and sex in the air.”

But instead of drug dealers hanging around the formerly overgrown and unlit park at Square d’Anvers, mothers and children now crowd the playground, and older residents gather for a chat and some vitamin D on a Sunday afternoon. Others, a younger crowd, sit down for a cigarette after brunch or tear off a piece of freshly baked baguette with a book perched on the knee.

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams is not clear about his own role in this downfall. He does not wonder about what any of those residents think—former, current, or new. He just wants them there to complete his Parisian fantasy, rather than see Pigalle for what it is becoming.

Williams wants only the whiff of dirt and sex, of former grungy glory—because what he seeks in Paris is a place to raise a family and “buy Pouilly-Fumé wine” to drink after putting the kids to bed. Shh, he tells his friends in the living room as he uncorks, pours, and sniffs.


You are a hipster—I am too—therefore we hate them and proclaim their Death, as Mark Greif did in n+1 back in 2009: his symposium at the New School brought 200 hipsters together in order to investigate the question “What was the Hipster?” and inaugurate the post-hipster era. They concluded that, among other things, the hipster was “a straw man in skinny jeans.”

This critique touches on something more fundamental in the way we talk about the hipster. The hipster is a scapegoat—using the term, always with a pejorative tone, the speaker proclaims his distance from the object of his critique.

Moreover, I am also thinking of the term “scapegoat” as it appears in René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Though there is plenty to critique about it—it seems too general, too neat to really have explanatory value—the mechanism describes what I’m seeing in Pigalle and in the blogosphere with eerie accuracy.

We usually desire something in imitation of other people, who are cooler than us—more hip, perhaps—but eventually this imitation will lead to rivalries with the models, the very people imitated in the first place. Mimetic desire makes every member of the community resemble each other, and this lack of differentiation generates scrutiny, envy, anxiety, chaos. Scrutiny and anxiety of the sort where people like Williams start calling out their fellow hipsters for ruining their hipster dream. To the point where people do not just want to imitate the model, they want to get rid of the model and become a model. To resolve this situation, the model needs to be killed, sacrificed: the hipster is the scapegoat. His ‘death’ is the ritual that founds a new community and restores order and peace.


Williams seems to forget that young creatives and eccentrics have moved to large urban cities for centuries, and they usually earned so little money they had to find the cheapest place they could live. That led them to neighborhoods on the edge, in which immigrants were forced to live or only the poor (working or not) resided.

Chatterton Williams agrees that the golden age of Paris was the 1920s, a time when people from “the well-heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided.” Who was Hemingway if not the prototype of the hipster, expat, and freelance journalist with a coffee and alcohol habit he could hardly afford?

*By the way, Williams names artists from the 9th arrondissement like Hugo, Renoir, and Gustave Moreau, among others, but does not seem to know that most of his examples were all either staunchly bourgeois, living in the inherited family mansion, or disgruntled aristocrat youths.

In any case, this situation of mixité sociale would stem not from fashions, styles, and the identity of a district, but from the realities of economic pressures and policymaking.

Indeed, until the latter half of the 20th century, much of Paris was still affordable to the majority. Rents were controlled, social housing was encouraged, communities were built, unskilled jobs were widespread—all of which meant that residence in the city wasn’t necessarily linked to an individual’s income.

As Anne Clerval pointed out in a recent interview, this situation continued up until the early 1980s. In 1982, 42% of all Parisians were from the lower classes. But by 2008, this figure had dropped to 27%. Today, even the middle classes are struggling to afford to live in the city. Most of this is directly due to key decisions taken at both national and local level. But this phenomenon is larger than just France: significant but formerly more fluid borders like province/city, north/south, center/periphery have become the site of increasing inequality and social tension due to economic factors—what some call globalization, late capitalism—and the policy used to influence those factors—neoliberalism, to put it rather generally.

Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, at Columbia, draws out even larger stakes, considering complex and catastrophic phenomena—such as the dislocation of the poor from their cities, of migrants from their countries, even of animals from their biospheres—as part of what she calls the economic of Expulsions.


Consider what happened to the neighborhood around the Sorbonne and Saint-Germain, where the existentialists used to hang out among the students, who rented little rooms in attics and former servants quarters. Sure, the university and its students are still there, but Café de Flore now charges 7,20 for a cappuccino and neighbors a Louis Vuitton store. This is not where we write our papers or meet up with friends after a lecture. Indeed, instead of artists, the place is full of art dealers and designers, whose galleries cater to the upper-class crowd that lives there, as well as wealthy tourists in search of a lost Paris.

It largely looks the same, of course, so if you squint and play a 1920s bar crooner through your noise-cancelling headphones, you just might get a sense of what it was like before.

If Williams really wanted to “rub shoulders” with working-class people and be “jolted from [his] anesthetized routines”—if he wanted to “genuinely” engage with urban space as “encountering and making room for an assortment of lifestyles and social realities,” however “appealing,” “provocative,” and “repulsive” they may be, here’s what he should do: move outside of the Périphérique, to the banlieues north of Paris, and endure a daily two-hour commute into the center of town.

Although apparently, that’s where the next wave of gentrification is headed: Welcome to Pantin.


Poetry Post (1) – I found ideas of madness at your door

I found ideas of madness at your door


He howled against the stupidity of paper walls.

Letters never swelled with lips or chest,

Like a mind wholly mind, perching

Its gooey wings; yet still its shit

Hit hard ground, hardly a ground

That was mine to understand,

Although inhuman, always of the world.


The paper was no persona. No more was he.

The screams and texts were not woven of words

Even if what he penned was what he traced.

Since what he penned had touched face to face.

It may be that in all his lines he graced

The clinging pulp and cutting pen;

But it was him and not these sheets I chased.


For he was the actor of the scripts he scrawled.

The ever-ruffled, blank-faced paper

Was merely the place in which he stood to speak.

Whose feather is this? I said, because I felt

It was the pen that he had used and felt

That I would touch it often as he spoke.


If only it was the feather of some bird

That wrote, or just alighted the aching hand;

If only it was the inner whisper of wings

And minds, of the charred branches paper-pressed

However light, it would not be black ink,

That Big Sur curl of ink, a moon-tide mass

Awash with moonshine ever canted

Or mere mass alone. It must always be more,

Never less than his voice, and mine, among

The pitiful danglings of paper and pen,

Foliated distances, white palms dropped

On dumb desks, precarious litterings

Of throb and thrum.


It was his hand that pressed

The c keenest in its hollowing.

He sounded to the core its plenitude.

He was the sole believer in the objects

Of which he wrote. And when he wrote, the c,

Whatever character it had, became the character

That was his own, for he was its creator. Then I,

As I caught him howling there in quiet,

Knew that there would be some new knowledge:

Save the ideas he cried and, deaf, composed.


Wallace Stevens, tell me, if you please,

Why, as your mind deceased and I flipped

The final page, tell why the realest things,

The things in crude foyers of houses here,

As the walls unfolded, speaking of themselves,

Scaled the walls and sounded past the doors,

Mingling incarnate cantos and mending wings,

Resounding, quivering, vaulting walls.


Oh! Mad quest for echoes, old Wallace,

The poet’s quest to echo the sounds of the real,

Sounds of glued mouths, thickly-scarred,

And of myself and of my own hidings,

In roomier constellations, suppler words.


—Written in tribute to The Idea of Order at Key West by Wallace Stevens


I wanted to repost this one because I am working on several other poems using the same technique. But then how did I write I found ideas in the first place?

The first thing to know is that the poem replicates the structure of Wallace Stevens’ original, The Idea of Order at Key West, in detail. That is to say, I used the same formal patterns or devices wherever possible. In lines with the same meter and the same length as the originals, I rhymed, used alliteration, and put punctuation in the same places. I was already a fan of Stevens’ work, but I read and reread a lot to get a sense of and draw on what you might call his tone, manner, or style—in short, his way of patterning sounds and images to carry weighty and mysterious thoughts with trademark whimsy and composure. I wanted to see what would happen if, given one initial line, I let the form of the poem guide the content—an experiment or puzzle of sorts in the vein of the OULIPO writers. It was a lot of work, it was exasperating at times, but I felt liberated within the constraints, it got the creative juices flowing, and completing the poem was as satisfying as, say, solving a Saturday crossword without cheating (which I’ve never accomplished so far).

The poems I want to imitate/work with next are Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden and Paris, 7 A.M. by Elizabeth Bishop. In the first, tentatively entitled Musée Rodin, I want to talk about the innumerable hands Rodin made over the course of his career. My idea for the second is less concrete: I feel a certain resonance with the muted hum of panic that in Bishop’s poem inheres in the everyday experience of walking around your own home when you feel the state of the world is about to take a serious turn for the worse. It was written from her experience in Europe between 1935 and 1937. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.


*The image is of Untitled II by Cy Twombly

It gives you an idea of what I feel like my writing (process) is at this point. Scratches. Copying line after line on a blackboard. Not even letters, but loops and swirls.

Footnotes on the Flâneur

Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks. (Teju Cole, Open City)

Paris is made for walking. It is known by walking.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe over these first two weeks while doing my best to make Paris my new home. Classes haven’t started yet, and my study abroad program chose to spread out its orientation program over two weeks, which leaves me with a lot of empty time. Already I can see I’m approaching the city in a totally different way than a tourist who has four or five days to ‘do’ Paris.

They’re not here in great numbers at this point—that will come starting April, is my guess—but they are spending their time efficiently.

The game has changed: Nobody walks around with guidebooks or maps anymore. It’s still easy to tell who they are. Individual travelers or small groups stand on street corners and stare down at a screen, rotating and moving to and fro in order to get the little Google Maps-arrow to point the right way—as if you couldn’t just look at the street names or any nearby landmarks. Or, God forbid, ask someone in a shop or a café. Outside of rush hour, even a Parisian passerby might help you.

The second type of tourist is on a guided tour; but gone is the funny little old man, no doubt a volunteer, with his metonymical umbrella pointing the way. Now tourists strut along speedily with ear buds rattling off the various historical facts and events that float somewhere in the sky above their heads or surround them in the streets and walls—of Haussmannian boulevards and apartment buildings, constructed in the late 19th century for Napoleon III, following the 1848 June Days uprising, for example.

What do you want? I wonder. I’m the opposite of the harried tourist in an endless quest for the expected, the already discovered world of pictures and postcards. I am waiting for the unknown, bored-that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire (Adam Phillips, “On Being Bored”).

I’m hoping to waste time and to do it well. With Paris enchanted by a spell of cold, dry, sun-drenched weather—like the best winter days in New England—I set out for the streets.

Turns out that amount of research on Yelp or Tripadvisor—nor the hippest guidebook or private tour—will beat aimless, solitary walks through an arrondissement for the moments of wonder and pleasant surprise that come with making a personal acquaintance with Paris.

An arrondissement is the thing for the day—each arrondissement has several quartiers, each which in turn has its own bookstore, hip coffee shops, a Sunday market, little municipal libraries tucked away in side streets, a small, cozy museum about a forgotten artist, and a boisterous bistro, where people buy lottery tickets and cigarettes, read the paper, and slam down an espresso (usually just 1 euro if you’re standing at the bar).

Of course, I am only the last to join a long line of flâneurs—there’s Baudelaire, Flaubert, Balzac, shadowed by their various fictional characters, and on the American side, we have Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, and, in a sense, good old Thoreau.

Historically male, this figure turned up in nineteenth century literature as a keen observer of the bustle of modern life—with his nose up high, his top hat on, and his arms clasped behind his back, the flâneur would stride up and down Hausmann’s broad boulevards, stopping and turning frequently to peer into shops or exchange a witticism in a café, only to move on to the next interesting little spectacle. Detached from the humdrum of working days, with money and time to spare, he is open to all impressions, and his city becomes layered with meaning. The flâneur appears at a time where rapid changes in technology and development have created an estrangement between individuals and their environment—so viscerally expressed in Kirchner’s “Street in Dresden”—but this very estrangement allows him to rise above the myopic vision of the masses and grasp all the fragments of modern life to form an interpretation of the whole.


He is “a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye”, writes Virginia Woolf in her 1927 essay Street Haunting.

Henry Miller’s Paris, as he writes it in Tropic of Cancer, for example, is really just a study of Miller—to the flâneur, the gleam and glass of the arcades, the vitrines, and the department stores are nothing but mirrors in which he can study himself with a Narcissus-like gaze.

Whitman was different: a romantic in the heart of Manhattan, he found solace and joy in the “democratic vistas” of city parks and Broadway’s ever-present streams of humanity. For Whitman, this chaos is a plentitude, a blurring of the hard boundaries of the self. Through it, he defines and creates himself, in the interdependence of You and I. He not only actively absorbs his surroundings but also expects whatever You he makes contact with to do the same. In this way, he is far from the aloof, cool, and keenly observant flâneurs in Paris that Walter Benjamin wrote about.

I’m at the café de la Mairie, place Saint-Sulpice. Years ago, Georges Perec was there too and wanted to try something new: to describe everything that happens in this one particular place. From October 18 to 20 1974 he took notes for his Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (Attempt at a Description of a Place in Paris). Here’s a fragment:

In a magnificent ensemble, the pigeons fly around the Place [St. Sulpice] and return to roost on the gutters of the town hall.

There are five cabs at the taxi stand.

An 87 [bus] goes by. A 63 goes by.

The bells of St. Sulpice begin to ring (for the hour, no doubt).

Three children being taken to school. Another apple-green deux-chevaux.

The pigeons fly around the place again.

A 96 goes by, stops at the bus stop; Geneviève gets off and goes down the rue des Canettes; I call to her, rapping on the café window and she comes over to say hello to me.

A 70 goes by.

[And so on.]

We look at what we care about and what we want to act on. When we move and walk around, we gaze into the vanishing point of our goals, seeing nothing but obstacles in the faces of people we find on the same cramped sidewalk.

But Perec is capturing life, and nothing more, before it flutters away like a bird. The environment only consists of these unimportant things: what we see, hear, and smell—which we pay no attention to but what makes up our daily lives all the same. Perec gives us the plenitude of nothingness. The richness of the ordinary. He draws it from the bottomless well of boredom.