Paris and the canal Saint-Martin
The canal's construction located in the eastern
Located in the eastern neighbourhoods of Paris, the canal Saint-Martin stretches 4.5 kilometres, and consists of nine locks. Its construction was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, to create a waterway network – which also includes the Canal de l'Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis. The site was developed by Pierre-Simon Girard (mathematician and roads and bridges engineer) for supplying Paris with food, goods and fresh water – and to link central Paris with the north-east, by cutting a loop of the Seine river. The creation of small ports had thus become possible.
Given the area was already largely built-up, the Canal Saint-Martin faced many challenges during its construction, which was eventually completed in 1825.
The canal's development
Along the Canal Saint-Martin, new industrial districts emerged, with glassworks, mills and a number of other construction works.
Around the year 1860, the Prefect of Paris, Gaspard de Chabrol, was forced to cover part of the Canal in order to create a large boulevard in the east, which is today the Boulevard Voltaire.
The small ports were lost as a result, and the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir was born. The year 1890 saw the final completion of two swing bridges, named "Dieu" and "Grange-aux-Belles."
Along the canal
The history of Paris’s waterways reflects a real desire for development in the 19th century.
Nowadays, commercial and industrial traffic has practically disappeared, giving way to tourism. The river and canals have been commandeered by tourist boats, but their banks are a living reminder of the poetry and charm of olden-day Paris. The picturesque canals have inspired many artists and filmmakers (Hôtel du Nord, 1938, by Marcel Carné, The Sicilian Clan, 1969, by Henri Verneuil, The Troubles, 1972, by Alfred Pierre Richard, and Amélie, 2001, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
All year round, Parisians and visitors alike ride their bikes or stroll along the romantic Canal Saint-Martin and over its arched, iron bridges.
Paris and the Hôtel du Nord
The Hôtel du Nord building
Built as the Canal Saint-Martin was undergoing renovations, the Hôtel du Nord was finished around 1912, and at that time belonged to a Mr and Mrs Dabit.
The building still consists of three floors, with eight windows. Written in blue, tiled mosaics on its front façade are the words “Hôtel du Nord”.
In 1938, the humble hotel consisted of 40 clean but modest rooms, with brightly polished wooden floorboards, and a narrow staircase. It was frequented during the week by workers, unemployed people and sailors. The canal could be seen out the windows, and from the attic, which was typically piled high with bric-a-brac. The panorama of Parisian rooftops seen from this window today has not changed since before the war. The Hôtel du Nord also had a picturesque courtyard with a little stable, chickens and a laundry.
These days the restaurant has the same zinc floors, black and white tiles, and cozy tables. You might even get a visit from the shy little in-house dog, Badoun, who’s both deaf and blind.
Parisians save the Hôtel du Nord
Throughout the 20th century, several projects threatened the Hôtel du Nord, but the people's love for Paris, and French cinema, proved stronger in the end.
Hôtel du Nord threatened by an expressway
In post-war Paris, the desire for modernity was paramount.
On August 4, 1968, the National Journal of French News wote: "(...) there is talk that the ‘new Paris’ is emerging at the expense of the Canal Saint-Martin. The canal will be emptied of water for the construction of an expressway, going from north to south, where cars and trucks will replace the boats and craftworks (...) Farewell, ‘Hôtel du Nord’ and ‘Chope des Singes’ (...) Farewell ‘Canal St Martin’, where residents will be reminiscing about the good old days.
The proposed demolition of the Hôtel du Nord
The hotel fell into disrepair in the 1970s, when the building was not being properly maintained.
On the French TV news programme FR3 Ile-De-France, in August, 1984, journalist Rachid Arhab announced that planning permission had been granted for new dwellings at 102 Quai de Jemmapes – but the demolition permit had yet to come through.
At that time, the owner of the insalubrious hotel, mostly rented to migrant workers, wanted to renovate the premises in order to build nine apartments and a commercial premises on the ground floor. But the tenants needed to be relocated before work could begin.
It was at this time that Parisians and artists mobilised in front of the famous building, with its strong connection to French cinematic history.
Unfortunately, given that the film was not shot within the hotel walls, it was difficult to classify the building as an historic monument. In the end it was the organised activism by residents and artists that prevented the demolition of the Hôtel du Nord.
Arletty, too, had her say. The soundtrack of her interview was broadcast on FR3 Ile-de-France, on April 21, 1989: "(...) This is a wonderful part of Paris. It means a lot to me. It’s a bit like the Eiffel Tower ... the Hôtel du Nord, I love this neighbourhood – it should be left untouched. I hope the façade of the Hôtel du Nord will be saved."
Hôtel du Nord, the resurrection
On June 1, 1989, the TV news, presented by journalist Christine Ockrent, covered the protests outside the Hôtel du Nord. The facade was old and deteriorated and the windows filled in with bricks.
At this time, Alain Lhostis, a councillor in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, mobilised a huge number of residents.
In answering reporters’ questions, Jean-Claude Brialy said: “Even Americans are talking about the Hôtel du Nord."
The architect of the new housing project, Didier Morax, said: "The only way to preserve this collective image is to restore the facade."
Alexandre Trauner, the film’s famous set designer, said: "The film has remained in the collective memory of French people … I'd be embarrassed if this building disappeared ... It has become synonymous with my work."
On June 15, 1989, the Committee of Historical Monuments gave its verdict. The building’s famous facade, and the edge of the roof, was to be heritage-listed.
The determination of residents and artists had paid off. The residential building and the ground floor of the Hôtel du Nord was remodelled into a traditional bistro-restaurant with a large, 100-seat dining room, just as it was originally. It opened its doors in mid-January, 1996.
On the TF1 television news of February 5, 1996, the new owner, James Arch, explained that the site had been preserved and faithfully reconstructed from the images of the film. Much to the delight of the restaurant's dedicated clientele, the atmosphere had remained intact.