Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Left Turns On The Red Streets Of France

When I first moved to Vancouver I was struck by the street names of my new home. Some were named after battles of the Crimean War (“Alma St”, “Balaclava St”) and others from sources taken from British military history (“Trafalgar St”, “Hornby St”, “Bleinheim St”), attesting to the city’s ties to Mother England. There were several colorful names (“Dunsmuir St”, “Trutch St”, “Robson St”, “Cambie St”) that I would soon learn had their origin in local BC history. The city map itself provided a fun history lesson for this new guest, and I used it as a guide for more than just my navigation needs: it also gave me a sense of the history, the culture, the values, of my new home.

Fast forward to more recent times, and a revelation that occurred while blogging at Covenant Zone.

In what feels like another life, I used to blog regularly on the urban violence rocking France’s fractious suburbs. Early on I especially needed to rely upon internet maps to help me situate the scenes of the latest crimes I would read about, since “Seine-St-Denis” and “Clichy-sous-Bois” were place names I wasn’t yet familiar with.

I couldn’t help but notice that the neighborhoods I was researching seemed to contain several streets with familiar names indeed. I remember the first time this happened: “Avenue Salvador Allende?”, I read aloud from the tiny text on my computer screen. “The socialist Salvador Allende from Chile..? Well, France does have a left-leaning history…”

I didn’t know the half of it. Lately I’ve been indulging in some armchair traveling through the streets of Paris and its environs, thinking up historical personages and historical events and seeing if there's someone commemorating them in Paris' "banlieus rouges" ["red suburbs"]. Here’s a picturesque report highlighting the surprises that were in store for me, courtesy of GoogleMaps' mesmerizing street view feature.

What can we learn about a city, a people, from the names they choose for their streets? Let's take a left turn through the streets of some of the "sensitive zones" of suburban France, and look for some clues...

Let’s start our trip with Bobigny’s City Hall [above]. The commune of Bobigny is the capital of the infamous department of Seine-St-Denis. Socialist mayor Claude Bartolone's place of business is, fittingly enough for such a traditionally left-leaning neighborhood, at the intersection of President Salvador Allende Avenue and Lenin Boulevard. (this is us looking south towards city hall, from a vantage point along Lenin Boulevard; Salvador Allende Avenue is off-screen, to the right of this building)
Lenin Boulevard seems to be a beautiful street, with lots of green parks to the south, and an assortment of shops to the north, as you can see in the photo above.

Heading west we soon encounter an interesting intersection... the corner of Lenin Boulevard and Karl Marx Avenue, pictured below, again as seen from Lenin Boulevard:

Not to be confused with the corner of Lenin Road and Karl Marx Road, in the commune of Bagnolet.
This is the view on Bagnolet's Lenin Road looking south down Karl Marx Road. The large white building on the right of the image is, as it turns out, a kindergarten school. (A kindergarten school with "Rue Karl Marx" as its address; Vive La France!)

South of Paris we can find yet another Karl Marx Avenue, this time in the commune of Villejuif, in the department of Val-de-Marne.

If we travel east long enough (crossing Yuri Gagarin Road along the way) we soon arrive at, believe it or not, Karl Marx College (!), a school built in 1930 by French architect André Lurçat; as a result of this achievement he was apparently invited to work in Moscow from 1934 until 1937.
A final stop on this tour: back to Seine-St-Denis to lurk in the late afternoon shadows of Che Guevara Alley, looking north up to the intersection with, so help me, Stalingrad Avenue.

Google's street view may be controversial in some quarters, but nevertheless it is wonderfully enlightening.

I sense I now understand what it must have been like for early movie-goers in the 1890s, when the world seemed such a bigger place, to be presented with thrilling films shot by the Lumiere Brothers in far-off St-Petersburg, London, Athens... and less-red streets of Paris and her suburbs.

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