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Mass tourism sparks battle for Montmartre’s soul

The neighborhood that was once home to struggling artists has become a major tourist attraction, driving up property prices and chasing away old businesses, with souvenir shops as the sole survivors

By Loic Vennin  /  AFP, PARIS

People walk along the Villa Leandre in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris on July 12, 2013.

Photo: AFP

Inside a dark, low-ceilinged room once frequented by Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani when they were still struggling artists, a group of tourists from Russia, Canada and Australia are listening to traditional French songs. This is the Lapin Agile, a small house surrounded by acacia trees that is home to the last cabaret in Montmartre, an iconic neighborhood perched on a hilltop in the middle of Paris.

However, in the past few decades, the village-like district of steep hills and sweeping views has been transformed by the arrival of mass tourism.

“It’s the last of the traditional cabarets,” owner Yves Mathieu said, grumbling about the proliferation of souvenir shops selling Paris mugs and Eiffel Tower keyrings clogging the nearby cobblestoned streets.

“I’m 90 years old, but I’m not giving up,” he said, pointing to the cabaret’s sparse furnishings of plain wooden tables and benches.

Its walls are decorated with copies of works by Picasso and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, artists whose original paintings once helped pay for their meals there.

Many folk singers also made their debut here — among them Leo Ferre, Georges Brassens and Charles Aznavour, who passed away earlier this month aged 94.

However, these days, the top of the hill — “la Butte” — which was once a 19th-century mecca for artists, risks being swamped by industrial-scale international tourism.

About 12 million tourists tramp up its slopes every year, usually to admire the white-stone Sacre Coeur basilica, the panoramic views of Paris, or to visit the most famous of the French capital’s vineyards.

However, the Place du Tertre, a village-like square at the top, is threatening to become some sort of “Disneyland,” said Alain Coquard, president of the self-proclaimed “Republic of Montmartre,” an association set up in 1921 to oppose urban development.

For now, Montmartre has not yet turned into Venice, he said of the historic Italian city visited by about 24 million tourists annually.

“There is still stuff worth saving,” Coquard said.

However, for long-time residents, it is another story.

“Here, at the top of the Butte, it’s game over,” a 76-year-old said, sitting at his usual table in a restaurant once painted by Vincent Van Gogh.

Spiralling rents have driven out ordinary shopkeepers, said Frederic Loup who owns a pharmacy that has been serving local residents since 1927.

Today, it is the only local shop left in the area.

“The baker left. The butcher also left. The problem is the rents, which only the souvenir shops can afford,” he said.

Once favored by penniless artists at the end of the 19th century for its cheap lodgings, Montmartre has seen property prices skyrocket over the past three decades, with its homes snapped up by the rich and famous.

Already a hit with the tourists, Montmartre won further acclaim when its picturesque streets hit the big screen in 2001 with the release of Amelie, a light-hearted romantic comedy which painted a rosy, idealized version of the neighborhood.

However, while the area’s unique charm has caught the attention of stars like Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, locals are moving out.

Thirty years ago, the cost of an apartment was about 1,500 euros (US$1,730) per square meter.

Today, buyers are looking at 10,000 euros or even 20,000 euros per square meter, said Brice Moyse, who heads Immopolis, a real-estate agency that specializes in properties in Montmartre.

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