Revamp of the "Belly of Paris" meets resistance

Tue Jul 27, 2010 11:15am EDT
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By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) - It was once a bustling area of merchant stalls, nicknamed "the belly of Paris" by Emile Zola. Its wrought-iron-and-glass arcades were filled every morning with fresh produce from all corners of France.

But what could have become Paris' Covent Garden -- London's former food market turned fashionable shopping area -- is now a 10-acre twilight zone, avoided by Parisians and tourists alike.

Drug pushers and gangs hang out under the dark and malodorous alcoves of the Forum des Halles, an unloved 1970s development in stark contrast with the elegant Louvre museum to the west and the artsy Pompidou Center to the east.

Les Halles -- the area has kept the name of the demolished market built by Haussmanian architect Victor Baltard -- is one of the post-war urban projects that scarred some of Europe's finest historical centers.

"It's been 12 years I've been working here, it's become awful," says Kim Schou, 63, a cafe owner under one of the concrete arches of the Forum. "When it's hot, the cement becomes like a microwave. When it rains, it leaks."

The partly subterranean shopping mall is unanimously denounced as an eyesore. But resistance has sprung up surprisingly to protect the adjacent garden, and is now threatening the whole redevelopment program.

Work was planned to start in May, but a court suspended it after a group of residents appealed against the destruction of the much-loved Lalanne garden, a rare oasis of vegetation in a city where green spaces are scarce.

"It's the destruction of a now mature garden. The felling of 343 trees in an urban environment really hurts," Gilles Pourbaix, the president of local residents' group Accomplir, told Reuters on the terrace of the Pere Tranquille cafe.   Continued...