Coloring the Murs à Pêches

Postcards of the Murs à Pêches, Montreuil, Paris, 1916. [Left: unknown photographer, via Wikipedia France; right: Claude Villetaneuse via Wikimedia Commons]

Only five people in Paris know how to take care of fruit trees, and we’re all retired.

— Thierry, member of the Fédération des Murs à Pêches, former master gardener at the École du Breuil, August 2020.

Murs à Pêches, Montreuil, Paris. 1916.

From above, long rectangular lots striate the landscape. Their origins date to the mid 17th century, when the use of walls as an agricultural tool was first developed.1Ivan Lafarge, Les murs à palisser à la Montreuil. (e-Phaïstos, 2012), 79–87. Their materials were available on site: rock, clay, and gypsum, more commonly known as plaster of Paris. Built up to an elevation of three meters, the longer edges of the lot were positioned north to south and spaced about twelve meters apart to receive maximum sun exposure. By shielding winds and stocking heat, the plots between these walls enjoyed a microclimate eight to ten degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding area. First used to grow grapes, they soon welcomed an exotic fruit adored in royal courts and until then only cultivated in the south of France: la pêche, the peach.

The land was productive, but also experimental. As Parisian demand for fruits and vegetables increased, a complex system was developed by the Montreuillois combining horticulture, viticulture, and arboriculture. By selling their goods directly in central markets, producers were able to use buying trends to inform the development of new methods and varieties. Peaches, sold profitably to the bourgeoisie, often became the subject of and fuel for such inventions. Their high maintenance was anthropomorphized; trees were “dressed” and “refreshed,” fruits were “cleaned” of their fuzz with a novel rotating brush, and even protected with revolvers set to detonate against garden intruders through a system of strings. Like secret lovers, new varieties were given erotic names such as Le Téton de Vénus, the Nipple of Venus, or La Grosse Mignonne, the Fat Cutie. By the end of the 18th century, the area of the Murs à Pêches reached its apogee with over 300 hectares of walled lots — one-third of Montreuil.2Collection Itineraire du Patrimoine, Montreuil Patrimoine Horticole, ed. Victor Stanne, 1999.

The golden years lasted until the 1850s, when France’s expanding railroads made it possible for cheaper fruits from the south to arrive earlier in the season.3Florent Quellier, Des fruits et des hommes : L’arboriculture fruitière en Île-de-France 1600-1800. (Renne: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2003). Yet the effects of the Murs à Pêches on the urban fabric remain visible in Montreuil today, with the exception of the large housing and public projects built in the 1960s. Declining demand was quickly followed by an expansion in Paris’ appetite for building past its fortified belt. Offering a delectable selection of potential housing lots, Montreuil was gradually eaten in long rectangular bites.4Rempart: Mission Patrimoine, “Association Murs à Pêches.”


Clockwise from top left: A section of the Murs à Pêches run by the Fruits Défendus (Defended Fruits) Association, cleared and planted just after the COVID-19 lockdown; social housing projects appear in the background. Thierry guides us through one of the most developed gardens of the Fruits Défendus Association, which includes fruit trees and medicinal plants. Between the remaining hectares of Murs à Pêches, a long and hidden construction site. “Tramway 1, the line that changes everything,” an EIF Factory in the background. [Théa Spring]

Space is a doubt: I must constantly mark it, designate it; it is never mine, it is never given, I have to conquer it.

— Georges Perec, Espèces d’espaces

Murs à Pêches, Montreuil, Paris. August 2020.

The pedestrian streets that once brought fruits and vegetables to Les Halles have been cut by the périph’, the ring of highways built around the capital in the 1960s. Modern transportation infrastructure has created a strange mix of coveted real estate and isolated pockets of deprivation, one of which is the Murs à Pêches. The A186, which splits the area in two, is currently under reconstruction: Grand Paris has decided to convert it into an extension for the Tramway 1 line, which is intended to link the metropolitan peripheries without requiring transfers through the city center. Across the street, the walls appear as vestiges, out of place in a contemporary context of smooth concrete and glass. They stand in half ruin, mostly enveloped in weeds. Unused parcels are full of construction debris and household trash, thrown from cars. Other plots have homes, their perimeters extended with corrugated metal and raised CMU blocks.

But one section is maintained by the Fruits Défendus Association, part of the Fédération MAP, a group of organizations that joined forces in 1994 to defend the Murs à Pêches from the encroachment of concrete. Today, 30 of its 300 hectares remain, with only eight-and-a-half hectares protected as horticultural landscape heritage.5Est Ensemble, “Planning and Programming Orientation: Sectorial,” 85–93. Here, the plastered walls still protect a space of stillness and nature that seems far from Paris and far, too, from the 21st century. This hidden rural landscape plays host to an extremely diverse urbanity, from housing to agriculture to spaces for cultural events and continuing education. Weekend markets, a circus, and art exhibitions share space with volunteer and “reinsertion” programs (for formerly incarcerated people) that offer instruction in how to mortar and plaster a wall or how to prune a fruit tree.

Earlier this year, the region of Est-Ensemble released a new urbanism plan, adjusted in part due to protests demanding an integrated consideration of the Murs à Pêches.6Association Restes Ensembles, “Letter to the elected of Montreuil: Depolluting the EIF factory,” June 24, 2020. Though engaging on paper, every element of the five “proposed axes” (agriculture, culture, biodiversity, Tzigane inhabitants, heritage) already exists on the site. As Thierry, a recently retired master gardener and member of the Fédération explained when I visited this summer, “what we are missing is funding and manpower.”

But support for restoring the Murs à Pêches has not fully materialized. Furthermore, by compartmentalizing the plan, city officials have been able to focus on other areas at the cost of the Murs à Pêches. For example, four hectares have been approved for use as maintenance zones for the new tramway. Two more were selected for a housing project, but the proposal was abandoned when surveys revealed the considerable cost of depolluting the site.7Ground pollution is present in the entire Ile-de-France region, as shown on the Map of Georisks, Inventaire Historique des Anciens Sites Industriels et Activites (BASIAS).

The development plan has been temporarily halted by the current health crisis, providing us with a moment to reconsider the trajectory of the Murs à Pêches. Surely it is possible to improve the conditions of this neglected place and to strengthen its transport links to central Paris, while also preserving the bricoleur qualities of this extraordinary landscape, with its remarkable history and social identity. Grand Paris claims its new infrastructure will create an “extended” sense of Parisian identity.8The presentation of the Grand Paris project can be found here; the winning project for the new stations of Grand Paris are by Sensual City Studio. It will be a missed opportunity if the unique character of the Murs à Pêches is not part of this identity.


We soon recognize, from the green that covers it, to the beautiful and numerous fruits which hang from it, that this is the prison of Danaé, where gold rains.

— Eloi-Johanneau, 1825. Collection Itineraire du Patrimoine, Montreuil Patrimoine Horticole

If the Murs à Pêches was once the gold between the walls, what will be its new color?

Notes

  1. Ivan Lafarge, Les murs à palisser à la Montreuil, (e-Phaïstos, 2012), 79–87.
  2. Collection Itineraire du Patrimoine, Montreuil Patrimoine Horticole, ed. Victor Stanne, 1999.
  3. Florent Quellier, Des fruits et des hommes : L’arboriculture fruitière en Île-de-France 1600-1800, (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003).
  4. Its effects on the urban fabric are visible in Montreuil today, with the exception of large housing and public projects built in the 1960s.
  5. Association Murs à Pêches,” Rempart: Mission Patrimoine.
  6. Est Ensemble, “Planning and Programming Orientation: Sectorial,” 85–93.
  7. Association Restes Ensembles, Letter to the elected of Montreuil: Depolluting the EIF factory,” June 24, 2020. Ground pollution is present in the entire Ile-de-France region, as shown on this Map of Georisks, Inventaire historique des anciens sites industriels et activites de service (BASIAS).
  8. See the general presentation of the Grand Paris project and the winning project for the planning of the new stations of Grand Paris by Sensual City Studio.
  9. Collection Itineraire du Patrimoine, Montreuil Patrimoine Horticole, ed. Victor Stanne, 1999.

About the Author

Théa Spring

Théa Spring is a graduate student at the Tulane University School of Architecture. Her research explores infrastructure and public space in peripheral urbanism. She holds a B.A. in history from McGill University and has lived and worked in Canada, Argentina, France, and Armenia.