The Forgotten Line

La petite ceinture — the little belt — is an abandoned railway line, 32 km long, that circles Paris. Built in stages from 1852 to 1900, the line connected the main stations of the city’s five major railway companies. It closed to passenger traffic in 1934, facing increasing competition from the newly opened Métro; meanwhile freight traffic declined over the years, and by the mid-1980s the line was abandoned.

Since I encountered the petite ceinture in 1996, it has been my photographic playground. At first, I simply followed my imagination, enthralled by the mystery of its tunnels and fortified territories, by the smell of rust, tar and wood, and by the sense of freedom I felt when I lost sight of the city’s buildings and streets. I met all kinds of people there: walkers, artists, lovers, residents.

In 2009, I noticed segments of the forgotten line being replaced by new development, and I began a series of large-format photographs to document its disappearance. Today some areas are used to store equipment for the Paris tramway. Others are slated to become part of a natural green belt. For decades the owner of the tracks (the Réseau Ferré de France) and the city government could not agree on a future for this unique place, but a lack of buildable space in Paris — and the example of projects like New York’s High Line and indeed the local Promenade plantée — has accelerated plans for its redevelopment.

I would prefer the line remain abandoned, but I know it will not. I can only hope that future plans respect the spirit of this place, the last great wasteland in Paris.

Editors' Note

For related content on Places, see The Past Is Promenade, by Ian Baldwin, and Above Grade, by Phillip Lopate, both on New York City’s High Line. See also The High Line, photographer Joel Sternfeld’s documentation of the abandoned rail corridor before the creation of the new park.

Thomas Jorion, “The Forgotten Line,” Places Journal, November 2012. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 11.22.2012 at 07:31

    Great essay, Thomas, and great photos. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    It really seems that cities in general should care more about their decaying urban treasures, like this one.

  • 01.29.2014 at 08:03