The Evolution of Montparnasse

How this area went from affordable haven to chic destination

On the Left Bank of Paris, between the Rue de Rennes and boulevard Raspail, sits the neighborhood of Montparnasse. Once a haven for impoverished artists and American expatriates, the area is now a pricey district popular with upper-class tourists. This evolution in character took place over the course of several decades and is an example of a common trend in similar Parisian neighborhoods, that now market their cultural legacy as a commodity.

The district of Montparnasse has long been associated with literature and art. In the 17th century, the area was a popular site for Parisian students to meet and recite poetry; they named the region after the mythological home of the Muses and Apollo, Mount Parnassus. After World War I, the neighborhood became a prominent hub of artistic and literary life. A group of writers from the United States, frustrated with the materialist and conservative nature of American society, relocated to Montparnasse. Most of Paris’ artistic circles eventually did as well, shifting from the hilltop area of Montmartre, which had been the gathering place for the prior generation of writers and artists.
One of the main drawing points of this district was its inexpensiveness, as many of the painters, writers, sculptors, and musicians who moved to the area were almost penniless. Montparnasse offered a much more affordable living experience than most other parts of the city. For example, the neighborhood contained numerous group residences for painters and writers, called artist communes, such as La Ruche or “The Beehive”. Although they were unheated and cramped, full of rates and had no running water, these communes had very cheap rent and usually a no-eviction policy for tenants who were not able to pay on time. Montparnasse also had creative opporunitues for those who struggled to afford food. Marie Vassilieff, a Russian painter, ran a soup kitchen for starving artists in the area. Many of the restaurants in the district also aimed to help the creative crowd; cafes such as La Rotonde would frequently accept drawing and sketches from those unable to pay their bill. If artists needed somewhere to rest or fell asleep, waiters at places like Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde, La Coupole, and Le Select were instructed not to wake them. As French writer Jean Cocteau said, poverty was a luxury in Montparnasse.
A visit to Montparnasse today reveals that this is no longer the case. Once a refuge for impoverished painters, musicians, and writers, this neighborhood is now one of the most expensive districts in Paris, a trend that gradually took place over the course of the twentieth century. According to housing website, Airbnb, one night’s stay in the area will cost upwards of a hundred euros. Renting an average two-bedroom apartment costs anywhere between 2700 euros to over 3000 euros. Buying an apartment in Montparnasse is now an opportunity reserved only for the wealthy: a square meter of floor space will cost a bare minimum of ten thousand euros. The high cost of living is also reflected in the cafes and restaurants, many of which were popular spots for impoverished artists in the Interwar period. Places like Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, and La Rotonde are now pricey, upscale bistros, with entrees costing anywhere from fourty-five euros to almost a hundred. Try to pay with a drawing and the owners will be less than sympathetic.
Despite this drastic departure from the district’s historical designation as a bohemian haven for penniless creative types, a walk around Montparnasse easily reveals the area’s literary and artisitc legacy. In fact, the neighborhood’s association with expatriates and the Lost Generation is almost inescapable: bars have named their drinks after famous writers who lived in the area, restaurants hung pictures of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso on their walls. Places like La Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas deliberately highlight their connection with the artists and writers who lived in Montparnasse between the wars. Both cafes use placemats enscribed with the signatures of illustrious patrons, such as Ernest Hemingway and Man Ray. There is even a brasserie modeled after the infamous Dingo Bar where Hemingway first met Fitzgerald.
A certain type of hypocrisy haunts this district now. The rich, cultural legacy of Montparnasse has become a marketable commodity; places that were once sanctuaries for impecunious artists now charge exorbitant prices that would have bankrupted those same patrons they so proudly proclaim once visited. Indeed, Montparnasse today has become the very type of place many of the expatriates had fled.