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The French Cousins Behind New York’s Little Paris

Marianne and Léa Perret are the cousins behind Coucou French Classes, a cultural center offering language courses, workshops, and events for Francophiles in New York City. They have started a petition to revive Manhattan’s forgotten French neighborhood.
Léa Perret, co-founder of Coucou French Classes in Manhattan, has a new name for Nolita: “Little Paris.” © Robert Lester

Just as France lies northwest of Italy, a hub of French businesses is located northwest of Manhattan’s Little Italy. You might imagine that the area containing these French boutiques, cafés, and restaurants would have its own French name. Yet the neighborhood is referred to as “Nolita,” an abbreviation of “North of Little Italy.” According to Léa and Marianne Perret, French cousins and founders of Coucou French Classes, the name Nolita doesn’t do the area justice: “North of Little Italy should be called ‘Little Paris’!”

New York City is home to around 60,000 French expats and more than 81,000 French speakers. French people and culture have long played an important role in the city. In the 17th century, the small stretch of Manhattan that the cousins have dubbed “Little Paris” was called “Bayard’s Mount,” after a prominent Huguenot family of Franco-Dutch origin. The area later became a flourishing quartier français. As a magazine article from the 1870s put it, “the people [of the neighborhood] are nearly all French. French too is the language of the signs over the doors and in the windows.”

But the neighborhood’s connection to France isn’t simply historical. Today, “Little Paris” is home not only to Coucou French Classes, but also to a French café and bakery, a French wine bar, and a French art gallery and boutique. Even the old New York City Police Headquarters on Centre Street, an imposing Beaux-Arts building, evokes the architecture of Paris’s City Hall. Gazing out their classroom windows, Coucou students often say that they feel as though they’re looking into a Parisian street.

“It is time for French people in New York City to fully recognize and reclaim Nolita as their historical and cultural home,” say Léa and Marianne Perret. “A home where les Français de New York can celebrate their rich and diverse heritage. A home whose name reflects its status as a hub of vibrant French culture. A home called ‘Little Paris.’”

© Robert Lester

Coucou French Classes’ ambitions for “Little Paris” began with a petition in spring 2019. This year, to celebrate Bastille Day, the school installed Parisian street signs, hand painted in France, labeled “Little Paris NYC.” They can be seen adorning the facades along Centre Street between Broome and Grand Streets, highlighting the area’s French heritage. The founders of Coucou French Classes believe that nearby French businesses deserve to be championed under the banner of “Little Paris,” and hope that their initiative will spread throughout the rest of Nolita.

Ultimately, the pair behind Coucou French Classes want to create a second “Little Paris” in Los Angeles, where the school has another branch. Through their efforts to create new spaces for French speakers and Francophiles, Léa and Marianne Perret hope to make French people feel even more welcome in the United States, and to create new cultural exchanges between French expats and Americans.

“‘Little Paris’ isn’t just for the French,” says Léa Perret. “It’s for anyone who is interested in celebrating and learning about French culture. If you would like to learn French and prepare for a trip to France, make ‘Little Paris’ and Coucou French Classes your first stop. Regardless of your language ability or whether you want to attend classes in person or virtually, we offer free trial classes and level assessments to accompany you in your language learning journey.”

Coucou French Classes