History Books

Colin Jones's Paris

Paris, The Biography of a City, by University of Warwick professor Colin Jones (Viking 2005), is a must for anyone who shortlists Paris among the world's very best cities. Such lists are necessarily kept primarily by travelers and historians, and not by natives. It is not the lot of most people to know many cities well, and those whose it is are never native to all the ones they know. In essence, cities are unfathomably vast accumulations of people. We cannot really grasp that about them, though, any more than we (or most of us) can conceive of distance in light-years. But just because cities are made up of people, ticking off a list of famous sites is not thinking about cities. To think about a city is to consider the areas in between the monuments, where people are primarily found. We imagine street scenes, working with postcards and personal experience. We conjure neighborhoods as best we can. We recall historical events and important recent developments. We draw from the literature that any great city is bound to generate. We try to answer the question: What is it like to be there?

Paris may be a widely favorite city because it presents itself to the imagination with a thoroughly Gallic order. A river snakes through the middle and around two islands. A spiral of  twenty delineated districts, the arrondissements, coils out from the city center. The ordinary buildings are similar, and typical of Paris, while the taller buildings that you can find anywhere stand on the outskirts. A ring road marks the edge of town: Paris itself is no longer growing. And it is "Parisian." Actually, my little summary is studded with misunderstandings, but it would be pedantic to point them out. Like Manhattan and unlike London, Paris is fairly easy to get a handle on.

While the history of Paris precedes Caesar's account, today's Paris is not even two hundred years old. There are older, much older buildings in it, most of them monuments, but the manner in which they are interrelated is a fairly recent invention, dating to the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Prefect of the Seine, Baron George-Eugène Haussmann, a Protestant of Alsatian background, reconceived Paris, actually rebuilding much of it and leaving a plan that has been followed more than it has been ignored. Haussmann was an engineer whose principal brief was to make Paris a more healthy city. He and his team built a modern water-supply system as well as the famous sewers. Believing in light and fresh air as well as in clean water, he resolved to open up densely-packed neighborhoods and demolish the ramshackle. He did not, as is widely thought, decide what Paris would look like; rather, he updated some edicts of Louis XVI vintage governing such things as the height of buildings and the prominence of cornices. His was an immensely tidying project. Ordinary bits of Paris will have their charms, but - and this is the important part - they contribute to one's overall sense of the city, instead of distracting from it. The city of Paris is an ideal setting for what everybody thinks of as "Paris."

The history of Paris before Haussman is partly the history of the famous sites, most of which preceded him. Had he not come along, Paris might have looked very much like London, with organized subdivisions and complexes separated by perfect jumbles. The famous squares and palaces were developed every now and then with more or less intelligible logic, but nothing connected the Place de la Concorde, for example, to the Hôtel de Ville. There was no east-west thoroughfare at all until Haussmann drove the Rue de Rivoli through the heart of Paris. Until the seventeenth century, the area surrounding the church of St-Germain-des-Près, which was just about the center of town fifty years ago, stood well outside the city walls. The Invalides was followed, at a ninety-degree angle, by the École Militaire and the Champs de Mars, a century later, but the quadrant in between them was not covered by any urban plan. My favorite square, the Place Vendôme, was a speculative venture sponsored by an aristocrat who stipulated the design of the façades but left everything else up to the individual builders. It was not in the center of anything, which is why it was there to be developed. The idea of tearing something down to build a new street was resisted right into Haussmann's time, and well beyond.

Take the Louvre. The Palais du Louvre was a rather more modest complex until the Second Empire. It consisted of the Cour Carrée and the Grande Galerie. The end of the Galerie joined up with the Palais des Tuilderies. As Prof Jones points out, it seems always to have been the habit of kings based in Paris to rule from the Louvre but to live in the Tuilderies. The landward side of the Louvre was filled with narrow streets and service buildings. This was not cleared out until the northern Richelieu wing was built in the first half of the nineteenth century, thus enclosing what is now the Cour Napoléon and the Jardin du Carrousel. The Tuileries burned down in the chaos of the Commune, and I understand that there is talk of rebuilding it, but doing so will block the amazing view of the Arc de Triomphe. In any case, most of the old-looking building is not very old, and much of it didn't conform to our ideas about palaces until rather lately. 

In Paris, the sense of quartier may be strong, but each one opens out on to its neighbors, and one does not immediately sense the change from one arrondissement to another. There are people who find the overall homogeneity oppressive and unimaginative, but they are vastly outnumbered by people like me, who sense teeming variety beneath a notional conformity. Paris has emerged, almost miraculously, as a dense urban center that fosters the pleasure of getting from one part of town to another.

Beginning at the beginning, Paris: The Biography of a City is necessarily about a town that that doesn't resemble the one that we know. It is not until well past the halfway point that Baron Haussmann appears. Paris begins as a fortified island surrounded by monastic foundations. One of these, the Abbey of St-Denis, forms a powerful association with the crown, but Paris goes in and out of fashion with rulers. The Carolingians don't care for it, but the Capetians, who rule little more than the Ile-de-France, endow it with walls and churches. The sunny period of Paris's medieval history comes to an end with the death of the mad Charles VI in 1422; for nearly two centuries afteward, kings prefer to rule from along the Loire, and city falls in and out of English hands. Prof Jones vividly describes the vanished Paris, or multiple Parises, that waxed and waned with royal favor and stability, but it is not until the end of the religious wars that Paris began to stretch again, particularly, as I had learned from Diane Johnson's recent Into a Paris Quartier, onto the Left Bank. The first two Bourbon kings are rooted in Paris, but Louis XIV is uncomfortable there, owing partly to traumatic memories of the the Fronde, the series of uprisings that roiled his minority, and partly to his passion for hunting, which he would pass on to his successors. In 1682 he moves the seat of government to Versailles, a town about eighteen miles from the center of Paris. The funny thing is that this time Paris does not slide into eclipse. Most government business continues to be conducted in the capital, and newly professionalized writers make Paris the center of intellectual Europe. Always a hub of the luxury trade, Paris is exporting style itself by the end of the eighteenth century - style and revolution. But it must be borne in mind that this style was set within the enclosure of the Palais Royal, built by Richelieu but appropriated by the Orléans branch of the Bourbons and developed as a sort of shopping mall-cum-residential hotel in the middle of the eighteenth century. Paris still consisted of islets of order tossing in a dog's breakfast of warrens.

It is often suggested that the French Revolution was inspired by the American War of Independence (we do not in the country call our wars by meaningful names). This is correct only to the extent that the American war suggested the possibility of revolutionary change. Both nations looked to Rome for inspiration, but while the American Revolution was led by men of great substance, the aristocrats of France - more or less everyone with lots of money - were aligned, with increasing obstinacy, with the crown. If there was one thing the French Revolution was not, it was "sober." It is my opinion that France stopped reeling from the excesses of its revolution only under the somewhat Louis XIV-like figure of Charles de Gaulle. Two empires, two monarchies, and five republics all within the space of a century and a half indicate trauma to the body politic, and the longest-running of those governments, the Third Republic, was also the most despised and corrupt.

Above the upsets of this period, Haussmann rises with the power of a creation myth, and far more tangible material consequences. No city has ever been to such an extent the work of one man. Haussmann may have lacked an aesthetic sense, but he had the wit to rely on those who possessed it, and his Paris succeeded not because it is pretty but because Haussmann realized his hygienic goals. That is the paradox of his success: it is close to mindless. Haussmann had no intention of building the world's most romantic city, but in building a healthy one he guaranteed exactly that result.

The history of cities is a newish line of work. Until fairly recently, it was known that cities grew - and that was about all. Still somewhat contentious, because ad hoc, is the relationship of the city center to its suburbs. The very idea of the suburb is uncertain. The Borough of Queens, in New York City, is principally suburban; that of Staten Island almost entirely so. Brooklyn and the Bronx, however, remain distinctly urban. What do we mean when we say these things? It would be better to say, perhaps, that the outer reaches of Brooklyn, and the inner ones of the Bronx, are peripheral, while truly suburban Staten Island and Queens are external. Such a distinction becomes very important when discussing the extra muros, as Parisians call everything that lies beyond the boulevard périphérique, or ring road constructed upon the foundations of the old city walls. This very clear line makes the distinction between the center of the city and its periphery much sharper than it is in New York City. On the west side of Paris, to be sure, the city grades evenly into very posh suburbs comparable, very roughly, to Riverdale in the Bronx, but for the most part Paris has pushed its less privileged denizens into the banlieues that surround the rest of town and constitute an unprepossessing spectacle to anyone taxiing to the airports.

What is the relationship between Paris and its banlieue? This is the question that Prof Jones feels that Parisians have answered the least satisfactorily. It is an easy question to goof, and I don't think that we're doing a much better job here. Let's say that Paris intra muros and Manhattan are comparable. (Paris has nearly twice the population of Manhattan, but let that pass.) Manhattan is both a Borough of Greater New York and New York County. (Anybody who thinks that this is the New World ought to wake up: the boundaries of these two entities are not identical. The more one understands American history the clearer one sees the reinvention of feudalism. Our guns? Hello?). There are four other such boroughs, each of them counties as well (Bronx/Bronx, Queens/Queens, Brooklyn/Kings, Staten Island/Richmond). Beyond the city line lies a vast "metropolitan area," much of it in two other states. Some of this is extremely enviable, most of it is okay, and too much of it is substandard. Administration of the entire area is positively medieval in its decentralization. I should say that the French have laid the ground for a doing a better job, whatever Parisians themselves think. Prof Jones reminds us that Paris is now one of several départements in the governmental Ile-de-France region, which sounds very much as though the city lies at the center of a compact state. In time, perhaps the regional director will become the hub of local power.

Paris seems to invite questions about "stagnation." Even if Haussmannisation made Paris the best possible Paris, if the city just goes on looking like the Paris that we all know and that some of us love, won't it lose its vitality? Might it not come to resemble Venice, a museum that's home to fewer and fewer Venetians (down to sixty thousand, last time I heard)? Only time will tell. But I think that the stagnation argument is bogus. The fabric of Paris will continue to need restoration and, perhaps, minor modification; nobody is talking about abandoning Paris and letting it decompose, as happened to Rome at the beginning of the Middle Ages. As long as people go on living in it, it won't stagnate. As long as it is a capital of art, style, literature, and entertainment, nobody will mind if the boulevards going on being the boulevards, lined by the same buildings. As long as Paris is full of people who love it, inhabitants and tourists alike, it will be Paris, better than ever.

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