we have forgotten what a city was -- 1/20/16

Today's selection -- from The Other Paris by Luc Sante. In the passage below, Sante discusses the evolution through time of the rich and poor neighborhoods of Paris, with pronounced sympathy for the poorer ones:

"The Quartier de l'Europe ... retains the greatest con­centration of money and power [in Paris], and in that way common to old-money neighborhoods in many cities, it has probably pre­served more of those small businesses, cafes, and such than have the more vulnerable neighborhoods elsewhere, because the rich have the power to save the things they love. That wedge of west­ern Paris has changed primarily in that its composition now in­cludes not just the old families and the nouveaux riches but also a significant number of foreign and often absentee property owners who invest in a Paris flat the way they might buy art and warehouse it. That attitude might almost make you think fondly of the old families, who at least are or were connected to the city's soil and history. But then you might recall how consistently in­imical the western districts have been to the rest of the city over time, how they made common cause with the Prussians against the Commune in 1871; called for the extermination of the Com­munards, including women and children, during the Bloody Week in May of that year; and in 1938, after the Popular Front, 'acclaimed Hitler in the cinemas of the Champs-Élysées at twenty francs a seat,' while even fashionable ladies joined in shouting the slogan 'Communists, get your bags; Jews, off to Jerusalem.' It is no coincidence that the Gestapo office on Rue des Saussaies and the headquarters on Rue Lauriston of its French counterpart, the Carlingue, were both situated within that triangle.

"[The poor neighborhoods were] undeniably rougher. The marketplace of the street brought all types to the fore, and they did not necessarily speak correctly or measure their tones or clean themselves up; they might not have wished you well. And the streets themselves held as many gaping eyesores as they did the sort of charmingly weathered houses you admire in Atget's pictures. ... So, you might ask, why should we care that those people or their contemporary avatars have vanished from the city? Isn't it pleasant that Saint-Médard has been so nicely cleaned up and aired out that now it looks like the parish church in Anyville? And isn't it at least sanitary that Place des Fêtes has been so landscaped? And if it is surrounded by monolithic highrises wi­th all the charm of industrial air-conditioning units, that at least mean they are designated for low-income housing? Because, after all, if the low houses that ringed the square before urban renewal claimed it had been cleaned and repaired instead of being razed, no one living there could today afford the neighborhood. There are indeed a few places in Paris where the poor can live, but the requirement is that those places be inhuman, soulless, windswept. In the past the poor were left to hustle on their own, which might mean accommodating themselves to squalor, with accompanying vermin; the bargain they are offered today assures them of well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures, but it relieves them of the ability to im­provise, to carve out their own spaces, to conduct slap-up busi­ness in the public arena if that is what they wish to do. They are corralled and regulated in ways no nineteenth-century social engineer could have imagined. ...

Marche de Saint-Medard

"This is not to imply that society was just or kindly; it was brutal, generally. Nevertheless, there was room for the full range of classes, and everyone was somehow equally involved in the common task of constituting a city. It was an ecosystem in which every aspect of the physical fabric was employed and drained and periodically revitalized, in which everything from rags and bones to ideas and fads was recycled and where nothing was dis­posed of until it was completely spent. So much of life was con­ducted in public that an entire education could be procured just by walking around, from riverbank to market to square to bou­levard, from 'the great poem of display' (Balzac) to the perfor­mances of the mountebanks, from the dance halls to the public executions, from the news vendors to the dandies, from the pros­titutes to the bill posters, from the east to the west. ...

"The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats -- as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions -- have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds. The reformers and social activists of the past, faced with the urgent task of feeding the hungry and housing the unsheltered, failed to anticipate that the poor would, in exchange, be surrendering the riches they actually possessed: their neigh­borhoods as well as their use of time, their scavenger economy, their cooperative defenses, their refusal to behave, their ability to drop out of sight, their key to the unclaimed, the scorned, the com­mon property of the streets. As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was. There was a flavor to the city that has now been eradicated. It had a fugitive lyricism al­most impossible to recapture."


Luc Sante


The Other Paris


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2015 by Luc Sante


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