Saint-Ouen is known for its famous flea market where rag-and-bone men set up shop after the end of the Commune. However, the town has lots of other wonderful secrets to ferret out – it’s a bit like spending hours bargain-hunting in second-hand clothes shops. We hope this itinerary will help you see how Saint-Ouen has changed over the years – and continues to change!
Starting point: Vélib’ station N°17124 Porte de Saint-Ouen – Henri Huchard
Finishing point: Vélib’ station n°18140 – Porte de Clignancourt – Ney
Suggested duration: 2 hours
If you want to admire some rather impressive architecture (even if non-bicycle related), head down rue Lafontaine and take a good look at the rather futuristic council tower blocks – if you’re looking at it from the right angle, you should be able to see what look like cars on the main façade. However, this doesn’t help explain why rapid industrialization took place in Saint-Ouen at the end of the 19th century.
Industrialists chose wisely when they decided to locate in the town – which you had to pass through to reach the port at Gennevilliers. Paris-based factories were gradually moving out of the city and relocating to Levallois, Clichy and Saint-Ouen. Up to the end of the First World War, Saint-Ouen’s economy developed off the back of the chemicals and speciality chemicals industries, the metalworking sector and energy production, before becoming the spearhead of the French automotive industry.
Let’s go and see the last car factory still in the centre of the town. Take a right onto rue Émile Zola and head up it until you reach rue Farcot.
The last remaining car factory in the town centre
Let’s go back even further in time. If you look on your left, you’ll see the old PSA Peugeot-Citroën factory.
A symbol of Saint-Ouen’s industrialization, the story of this factory begins back in 1846 when Marie-Joseph Farcot, an industrialist who was closely associated with steam engines, decided to set up shop here. His son Joseph Farcot took over the reins of the business in turn. Nicknamed “the man with 194 patents”, he filed patents in a wide variety of fields: steam engines, cranes, combustion engines and more. In fact, he was awarded the prix Plumey by the French Academy of Sciences for his invention of a force-amplifying mechanism, the so-called ‘servo-motor’! Behind the factory’s walls, therefore, lies an impressive family engineering heritage…
From an architectural point of view, the workshop with its wood beam construction, which you can imagine behind more recent façades, is the oldest design, dating from the time of Farcot senior. In 1880, an 824 m2 iron-construction workshop which drew directly on the Halles Baltard and various world exhibitions for design inspiration was built by Farcot junior. Over 1,500 workers were employed here at the time. They moved between forges, the foundry and the coke oven (coke is a fuel obtained by a process of pyrolysis applied to coal).
After the death of Joseph Farcot in 1908, the factory changed tack and turned its back on steam engines in favour of arms manufacturing and research into internal combustion engines.
The buildings were bought by André Citroën in 1924. The Javel factory, located in the district of the same name in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, was now too small for the 100 cars that were being assembled there every day. In Saint-Ouen, parts assembly and stamping, a manufacturing technique used for bodywork, were carried out.
To blend in with the surroundings, brick walls have been added to encompass the various large workshops that have been built down the years.
What exactly do the 320 remaining workers do in this 40,000 m2 site? Well, they’re currently getting ready to make way for the Grand Hôpital de Paris Nord, the biggest Paris University Hospital Trust project for over 20 years. Renzo Piano’s architects studio, creator of Paris’ biggest industrial era-inspired futurist design, the Centre Pompidou, will take care of its repurposing.
The car, in every conceivable shape and form at the old bodywork factory and former Pierre Cardin museum
Take a left onto rue Louis Blanc and then turn right to go up boulevard Victor Hugo. Stop at number 33 and take a moment to admire this old bodywork plant which was then a museum until 2014 thanks to Pierre Cardin.
It’s not by chance that the fashion designer had his heart set on this premises for his museum. He knocked about in the automotive industry for several years, working as a car interior designer! He had a simple theory: “People should feel like they’re sitting in their living room, not in a machine”.
The best-selling French car of the early 1970s, the Simca 1100, was redesigned by Pierre Cardin. Next came the AMC Javelin and the Rav4 Pierre Cardin, confirming the fashion designer’s enthusiasm for this field. He would even go on to found an American car manufacturer in 1980, Pierre Cardin Automotive, with offices in New York. No sweat! Unfortunately, the futuristic Cardin Evolution was a commercial failure: the target was to sell three hundred each year, but only one hundred found takers across the pond. Hand-stitched leather seats, British lambswool carpeting and 22k gold accents failed to win over buyers…
Despite this experience, the influence of the car remained – he created cocktail dresses with elements which drew on Citroën bumper designs – and which were actually made by a panel-beater.
Although the Pierre Cardin Museum has since moved to the Marais, the blue-brick building continues to re-invent itself as it’s now destined to become a student hall of residence for Paris-Diderot University.
From the TGV to fine dining – the old Alstom workshops to the Docks eco-district
Two building restoration projects can be seen from rue Frida Kahlo,
Odd side of the street: rue Frida Kahlo – Manufacture du Design
Make a U-turn, go down boulevard Victor Hugo and take the first street on the right, rue des Bateliers. The fourth street on your right will be rue de la clef des champs, go down this street, then take the first street on your right, allée de la Comtesse de Cayla. Take a good look at the architecture of rue Frida Kahlo, paying particular attention to the Halle Alstom, located between rue Paulin Talabot and the pedestrianized Cour des Bateliers. Trains were built here from 1922 to 2008!
The old workshop now houses glasshouses festooned with tropical plants and design studios. This major building design project pulled off the feat of creating something new whilst still respecting the old. The project took eight years, the time needed to implement a 100% passive solar energy approach to the building! The workshops, which have been given listed building status, proudly show off their metal structure and overhead cranes. They now host a “campus, research centre and school” (according to Olivier Sagez, founder of La Manufacture Design). It seems as if fate has a keen sense of irony – this place, which began life as the archetype of the scientific management approach or ‘Taylorism’ where every employee had their assigned workstation from which they played their part in constructing trains, has been transformed into a very mobile work environment which “encourages creativity”.
Whether by twist of fate or not, one of the clients of La Manufacture Design is none other than the French national rail company, the SNCF.
Even side of the street: rue Frida Kahlo – High-end food hall
Now we come to the other Alstom building between rue Paulin Talabot and the pedestrianized ‘mail André Breton’: if you’re not drooling yet, you soon will be! This food hall is part of the Ile de France region’s “parcours de la gastronomie” (fine dining-themed itineraries and venues) and is due to open in 2023. On the menu, sorry, the programme, is an organic produce market, ten or so restaurants, about thirty food shops, a cookery school, an auditorium and more. All this will be open from 8 in the morning to midnight. Whether you’re an early bird or more of a party animal, this will be right up your street! The Lune Rousse marketing agency, the brains behind the famous Ground Control venues concept in Paris, will organize a programme of fun events to help put you in the skin of the boatmen who used to let their hair down by the banks of the Seine when the docks were still where people came for a holiday or a day out!
Old Saint-Ouen – a district bursting with life!
Go back up rue Paulin Talabot, turn right onto rue de la clef des champs then take a left onto rue Albert Dhalenne. Turn right onto rue de Saint-Denis and a little further on take a left at the intersection onto rue des châteaux. Take another left turn in order to continue along this street and half-hidden behind the trees you’ll soon be able to make out a little church, behind which we have the place de l’Abbé Grégoire.
Let’s take a journey back in time, to the 15th century. At this time, Saint-Ouen comprised 24 families clustered around the medieval church. Their occupations (wine-makers, day labourers, ploughmen, masons, innkeepers, market gardeners, servants) were rather less socially-elevated than those of the visitors who feasted in the surrounding castles.
Whilst factories moved into the Docks area and the outskirts of Paris, there were workshops galore in town centres, these causing at least as much disruption and annoyance to the neighbourhood: animal oil production centres, glass light fixture manufacturers, makers of chemical products (Mourrut, Tyseau et Duchemin, Montreuil frères) and more.
Gradually, over the course of centuries, the old part of Saint-Ouen became home to workers from the French provinces and later, from increasingly distant foreign lands. A genuine melting pot, the last cattle farm closed in 1960, making way for a more residential town centre.
The Château de Saint-Ouen and the Grand Parc des Docks de Saint-Ouen – a work in progress!
After having stopped to admire the church, go down rue du Moutier, then make a right turn onto rue de Saint-Denis and stop when you reach the Grand Parc des Docks de Saint-Ouen.
Opened in 2013, this 12 hectare park boasts three children’s play areas and an educational greenhouse covering 1,400 m2! Before it was this enormous green space, there was an outer harbour built by local industrialists, used to counteract the effect of high levels of water in the River Seine and to cope with large volumes of river traffic. At the beginning of the 19th century, a canal and harbour basin were dug out: warehouses, pumping stations and factories quickly followed. Today, the process of de-industrialization is bringing change to the riverbanks, which are being reclaimed by locals once again, thanks to this huge park.
Let’s take a look at the château de Saint-Ouen, which has been on the listed buildings register since 2019. Did you know that it was built by Louis XVIII? The King fell in love with the town after attending a celebration held by the Grand Chamberlain of Poland and decided to build his second residence here. He demanded that the ruined castle then occupying the site be completely razed and chose architect Jean-Jacques-Marie Huvé to build his new home in the neo-Palladian style. Louis XVIII took a close personal interest in the project and helped create architectural sketches for the new castle. The design was much influenced by the church of La Madeleine in Paris and the Petit Trianon in Versailles. The first stone was laid on July 8th, 1821! The King’s last favourite, countess Zoé du Cayla, ended up in possession of this royal residence.
There is a political side to the château’s story as well. It was here that Louis XVIII signed the declaration of Saint-Ouen in 1814, restoring the monarchy. He also recognized certain civic freedoms that had been granted during the time of the French Revolution and under Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule.
Considerably later and after having undergone several incarnations, the property was bought by the Thomson-Houston manufacturing firm (now Alstom) in 1917. The company divided the premises in two: one part was used for playing fields and gardens for the workers, the other housed a factory for the production of electrical equipment, which was linked to the railway network. The château was left empty until 1965 when it became a museum, which eventually closed in 2005. Since then, it’s as if the pause button has been hit for the castle as it awaits a new beginning.
The Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market
Go out of the park and onto the rue de la clef des champs before you reach rue des Bateliers. Take a left turn down this street, then a right turn at the end, followed immediately by a left onto rue villa de l’industrie. Continue until you reach Avenue Gabriel Péri, take a left and then the first road on the right (Rue des rosiers). Now you’re on the home straight and ready to finish this itinerary on a high note! We’re almost at the place to be in Saint-Ouen, where you can discover all the tricks of the rag-and-bone trade. For hundreds of years, rag-and-bone men collected old fabrics for paper mills, rabbit skins or bones for glue-making, scrap metal for the metalworking industry and lots of other things. In 1880, the trade was at its height, involving some 35,000 people. The exponential growth in demand for paper, with the development of the media industry, definitely had much to do with this… However, in 1884, Eugène Poubelle, at one fell stroke threatened to put all these people out of a job. As of this date, it was forbidden to deposit rubbish in front of residential buildings in Paris. As a result, the rag-and-bone men moved to the plaine Malassis where they sold their findings.
The Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market now draws five million visitors a year, making it the world’s biggest art and antiques market! Second-hand clothes traders at the Porte de Clignancourt, + at the avenue de la Porte de Montmartre and antiques dealers in the rue des Rosiers still work side-by-side – much to the delight of bargain hunters.
Nota Bene :
Feel free to drop your Vélib’ off at station n°18140 – Porte de Clignancourt – Ney. It’s more pleasant to wander around the Puces on foot – enjoy your walk!
 A rag-and-bone man is someone who sells old rags and other old items they have either bought or picked up on the streets.