Paris, a disappeared city

Paris split in two: less than two centuries ago, this is how the French capital looked like. Today, there is -almost- nothing remaining. Immersion into a vanished city.

In 1941, as France had to face foreign invasions, Adolphe Thiers government built a gigantic wall to protect the city: the “Enceinte de Thiers”.

Outside the fortification, a 250 meters strip was considered as a no-building land, for a better visibility and defense against the potential aggressors: the “Zone”.

Map of Paris adopted by the Parliament in 1841

As shown on this map, the city of Paris was surrounded a fortification, and a military “Zone”, itself surrounded by 16 forts.

Even if most of the fortification has been destroyed, some rare vestiges are still remaining. La Poterne des Peupliers (XIIIth arrondissement) is one of them.

Crédits : Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet — Marie Gentric

Even recognizable, some other places have significantly changed, like Porte de la Villette (XIXth arrondissement). As the Boulevard Mac Donald has been constructed in 1968, the place has evolved. But we still can finds its numerous bridges.

Porte de la Villette, Boulevard Mac Donald

Crédits : Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet — Marie Gentric

The fortification was constituted with 17 gates. The Canal de L’Ourcq (XIXth arrondissement), on the following picture, was one of them. Today, the XIXth arrondissement has become a very connected place, with a metro, bus and tramway lines ; and many buildings too.

Gate of the Canal de L’Ourcq passage, 26 boulevard Sérurier

Credits: Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet — Marie Gentric

As regards the “Zone”, it has totally disappeared today. However, in the beginning of the XXth century, it welcomed into its midst more than 12,132 constructions and dozens of thousands of people, the “Zoniers”.

Credits: Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet — Marie Gentric (montage)

Ragmen at the Poterne des Peupliers, 1913

They suffered very hard conditions, they survived thanks to a second-hand market and little jobs. Some of them worked as dustmen; other ones collected the trash or fix things discharged in La Seine.

In 1919, the government considered that the military “Zone” was not useful anymore. Paris thus decided to dismantle and to annex it to the rest of the city. Most of the places have been totally destroyed and built again, as Chaumont (XIXth arrondissement), another gate in the Thiers fortification.

Boulevard d’Indochine, Porte Chaumont

Credits: Anonymus — Marie Gentric

However, some rare places have resisted the dismantlement of the “Zone”, at the end of the first World War. The park La Butte-du-Chapeau-Rouge is one of them.

La Butte-du-Chapeau-Rouge

Credits: Anonymous — Marie Gentric

Since the XVIth century, the Butte-du-Chapeau-Rouge was a gypsum quarry. Besides, its reliefs come from the former diggings, for gypsum extraction. It became a park in 1938, one year after this photo was taken.

Though glaring, the fortifications and “Zone” ’s destructions have been a slow process. In particular, many “Zoniers” refused to leave or demanded a financial compensation. Their evacuation from the “Zone” was accelerated during the Second World War and the last “zoniers” only left in 1970, as the ring road, “The Périph” as called in French, was built.

But, if we look beyond the huge buildings and the high avenues, there is no denying; underneath our modern Paris, a vanished city might be perceptible.

Poterne des Peupliers, zone of Fortifications, boulevard Kellermann

Credits: Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet — Marie Gentric


We found many pictures of this “Zone” in Paris’ archives. But for most of them, we did not have any information about the time or the place they were taken.

We decided to gather the photos with the most precise indications. We thus discovered that many of them had been taken in what is today the XIXème arrondissement in Paris.

However, even providing spatial information, the archives’ indications can lack of precision. As an instance, they do not indicate the exact location in the street or the number of the building.

Because of that, and because the place has been almost totally rebuilt, we faced a big dificulty to find the exact location where the photos had been taken. Nevertheless, we have tried to be as accurate as possible in order to show the “Zone”’s evolution.

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