It’s after 9 p.m. and Alix Le Bourdon is enjoying a picnic dinner with her family and friends at the Buttes Chaumont park in Paris 19th arrondissement. Usually at this time they’d be rushing to pack everything up before the park guards, blowing their whistle, come through to shoo everyone away and lock the gates.
Every Parisian knows the sound of those whistles that draw the curtain on many a summer night in the park. But not anymore, says Le Bourdon.
“When you want to have a picnic at night it’s really nice to be able to stay a long time and not even look at your watch,” she says. “Just stay and enjoy the freshness of the evening.”
That’s exactly what Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is hoping people will do when Paris’ nine largest parks stay open all night in July and August this year.
The mayor’s office has been experimenting over the last couple years by keeping certain small parks and squares open 24 hours a day. And its been successful. More than a quarter of Paris’ nearly 500 parks have adopted this nocturnal schedule.
The capital’s biggest parks were excluded. But now Parisians and tourists alike will have more than 500 acres for nocturnal strolls and midnight picnics in a city that’s considered safe after dark. The experiment is already underway on weekends in May and June.
And as the days grow longer, it stays light past 10 p.m. When the summer solstice comes next month, it will be light until nearly 11 p.m.
On this mild May evening, there are blankets spread across the park’s grassy hills. The last rays from a setting sun illuminating happy faces. Longtime Paris resident Lori Thicke, a Canadian, is enjoying a glass of wine.
“It’s so much more fun to be able to stay,” she says. “But it’s the first time. So I’ll have to see what happens. But I noticed the music’s getting louder and people seem to be relaxing a little more.
As darkness falls, a more festive ambiance takes over. Under a canopy of trees a group of young people have strung illuminated, flashing balloons to celebrate a birthday.
The Legacy Of Napoleon III
The 61-acre Buttes Chaumont park opened in 1867. Built on a former rock quarry, it has hills and lakes, statues and band kiosks. This park was one of many built by Napoleon III. Paris historian and author David Downie says the emperor hoped to improve workers’ crowded living conditions at the time of the industrial revolution.
“In Paris, the population topped out in the late 19th century at over 3 million,” he says. “So what did you do with all these factory workers? And Napoleon III wanted to avoid another revolution, so one of the ideas was well, ‘We’ll create these wonderful green spaces where people can cool out.'”
Many of Paris’ parks were created under Napoleon III’s great architect Baron Von Haussmann, who also widened the cramped, narrow streets to create wide boulevards and let the city breathe.
Some of the nocturnal picnickers say they love staying later, but wonder about the wisdom of keeping a park open all night. They say there could be crime.
Penelope Komites, deputy Paris mayor in charge of parks, says authorities have taken important steps in ensuring the parks will be secure. There will be a heightened police presence making rounds. Including special K9 units.
“We are also counting on the civility of Parisians for the project to work,” she says.
The four-month experiment will cost about a half-million dollars in extra security, lighting and trash pick-up.
It’s nearing midnight and Akim Boulai and his friends are kicked back on some rocks drinking beers and talking. He says they used to scale the tall iron gates to get in here, but it’s much nicer being here legally.
“We don’t feel like we’re doing something wrong and that we have to hide from the police,” he says. “So it’s a lot more relaxing.”
Yusef Benharam says he feels safe with all the park guards.
“But more than anything I feel Parisian,” he says. “We live in the most beautiful city in the world. And this gives us the time to appreciate it.”