IN the early hours of Friday on Feb 28, 1969, Parisians headed to the centuries-old fresh food market in the heart of the city to bid a nostalgic goodbye. By Monday the market would be uprooted from its prized location in central Paris and re-established in the suburbs at Rungis, today the world’s largest fresh produce market. Here is an account of the transfer 50 years ago of the ancient Les Halles market, replaced by a modern shopping mall of the same name.
Many of the Parisians who flocked to the site in the early hours of its last day came with their cameras to capture “for the last time the strange atmosphere” of the much-loved old market being dismantled, AFP reported. Armsful of flowers were tossed into the complex’s central square and there was a “bed of azaleas, roses and tulips” outside the adjacent Saint-Eustache church, lit up for the occasion. “A last tribute from the florists” who were the first to move to Rungis, the report said. A market had existed here since the 12th century when the first two halls were built, the start of what eventually became Les Halles with 12 pavilions over a dozen hectares. It supplied some eight million people with their fresh produce. But it had become too big for the narrow roads of the old city centre. For reasons of hygiene, traffic and access, authorities decided in 1959 to move it out. Carried out overnight March 2-3, the “move of the century” involved nearly 30,000 people.
With the Paris site of Les Halles abandoned, petitions circulated to preserve its landmark cast-iron, steel, brick and glass pavilions. In 1970 they hosted cultural activities, keeping alive the hope of an architectural rescue, but in 1971 demolition began and the great market turned into a giant excavation. A major railway hub opened on the site in 1977 and, two years later, a shopping mall known as the Forum des Halles, its latest transformation unveiled just last year. One original pavilion survived, reassembled piece-by-piece in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne where it houses a concert hall.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2019