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The Assassination of Paris

Architects, town planners, and specialists in traffic circulation are much more dangerous than sociologists, who, so often, have merely served to complicate what might have seemed self-evident and simple to the historian. The errors, assumptions, and miscalculations of the former are both durable and visible: solid contributions to human misery, whereas, while sociologists may attempt to bypass history, or to render it unintelligible and unreadable, they do not seek to destroy it altogether.

What virtually all architects and urbanists since Haussmann have had in common is a loathing for the past and an overriding desire to erase its visible presence. Like sociologists, they have little time for individuals and their trying, quirky, and unpredictable ways, tending to think only in terms of human destiny: so many units in the formation of a Grand Design (or a Grand Ensemble, to use a modish French expression), as if people, in rectangular blocks of a thousand, or ten thousand, were to be assimilated to a gigantic set of Leggo. There is nothing more remote from humanity and more devoid of the human scale than an architect’s model plan for a new urban development. Even the trees are puny and plastic, and of a sickly green (chlorophile); the cars, lined up in their parkings souterrains, are gaily colored, but the people to be assigned to the new Alphavilles are not even dots.

One of the few, wry, consolations to be derived from Norma Evenson’s well-researched and implacable record of architectural insensitivity is the realization that the horrors that architects and planners were actually able to perpetrate were as nothing to those that they had meditated and that, for one reason or another—often a war, or an economic recession (both concealed blessings for the urban dweller)—they had not succeeded in getting away with. Consider Le Corbusier, in his forty-year campaign against the beauty and variety of Paris. How he hates the place! With what sovereign contempt does he treat its mindless inhabitants! Here he is already in 1925 obsessed with his grande croisée, a swath of huge expressways cutting through the center of the city, east-west and north-south, marking Paris like a hot-cross bun. And here he is again back in the 1920s, with plans to uproot Les Halles and most of the old street system between the rue de Richelieu and the rue Saint-Martin, and to erect on the vast quadrilateral of the old Right Bank thus devastated a series of tower blocks, the first of many versions of his alarmingly named Ville Radieuse. And here he is in 1931 proposing a grandiloquent entry into the projected Voie Triomphale (the triumph of inhumanity), either at the Porte Maillot or the Pont de Sèvres.

The implacable Helvetian is tireless in his assault on Paris, doggedly determined to line both banks of the river with an aligned barrier of dragon’s teeth. What is the secret of his hatred of the place? Is it the rancorous provincialism of a twentieth-century Girondin? Anyhow, right up to his death, he submits plan after plan for the dehumanization of the city, and appears as constantly surprised by the rejection of his overtures. It must have been only a minor consolation to him to have been given a free hand in Marseille, or rather outside it, for the erection of what the locals at once nicknamed la maison du fada—the idiot’s house.

What distinguishes Le Corbusier is the sheer persistence of his war against the French capital. As the years go by, and conceit and rancor take their toll, the black lines on his maps, crisscrossing the city at its very heart, get blacker and thicker and more impatient, the ordered rectangular cubes of high-rise blocks become heavier and more febrile. The main assault is still on the Seine and its vicinity; but, with each year, the pencil of potential destruction moves inward, mapping out further swaths of demolition, as he greedily eyes the tempting fruit of the once plague-ridden pockets of the city known as the ilôts insalubres: Saint-Merri, Sainte-Avoye, Saint-Gervais, Saint-Paul, the Gravilliers, and the promising space left by the destruction of the old fortifications on the northern rim of the city.

Others do not quite last the pace thus set. But the awful Eugène Hénard, working at the turn of the century at the municipal office in charge of public works, could tote up at least twenty-five years of anti-Parisian dream-drawings. By 1903, long before the Swiss marchand de soleil, he is already obsessed with a grande croisée of his own, provided, in this instance, by a widened rue de Richelieu, leading to an avenue de Richelieu on the Left Bank, forming the main north-south axis, and intersecting an enlarged avenue de l’Université. His east-west axis would have actually cut through the courtyard of the Palais-Royal, while a further swath, the avenue du Panthéon, would have obliterated the rue Mouffetard, which, being narrow, and warmly human, has attracted persistent assaults from several generations of planners. If Le Corbusier reserved his most persistent loathing for the old Right Bank center, Hénard was primarily out to destroy the quartier Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

He was not alone in his distaste for the jumble of narrow streets stretching from the carrefour de Buci to the rue Mazarine, the rue Guénégaud and the rue de Nevers. The architect André Ménabréa, writing in 1932, looked forward to the razing of the whole area, in order, so he said, to erase the memory—somewhat remote—of the September Massacres of 1792, when, so he claimed, the rue de Tournon, the rue de Seine, the rue de l’Abbaye, and the rue de l’Echaudé had “run with blood.” Why not, then, tear up the rue de la Grande Truanderie and the rue de la Mortellerie, because they commemorated long-forgotten killings and ancient violence? Why not raze the cloître Saint-Merri, because it too had been the scene of a more recent massacre?

Even as late as 1937, urbanists were still toying with plans to prolong the rue de Rennes (the most desolate, inhuman street in Paris) to the level of the Seine, either at the Pont-Neuf or at the Pont des Arts, or at both, knocking off a wing or two of the Institut de France in the process (it was in the way). As in 1913, when similar proposals had been made, so in 1939 the advent of a providential war saved the integrity of the old Left Bank. The architects and planners and the technocrats of public health not only followed one another in their hatred of a human past and of a human street plan; they copied one another, from decade to decade, handing down, from 1900 to the 1960s, schemes for the assassination (an expression used by Professor Evenson) of Les Halles, the clearance of the riverside areas to the east of the Hôtel-de-Ville, the brutal invasion of the tranquility of the enclosed Palais-Royal—a safe paradise for lovers, flâneurs, and children—and the cutting of a huge swath through the quartier de Buci.

From 1900 to the 1960s, all such plans were dictated by a false priority, an obsession with the improvement of internal circulation, east-west and north-south, at the expense of a long-established human geography. Paris for the automobile, rather than Paris for the Parisians. This is what Paul Delouvrier, urbanist and prefect of the Seine, had in mind, in the typically pretentious phrase written in 1963: Paris doit épouser son siècle. One can see what this mésalliance signifies when one contemplates the fate of what had once been the Right Bank quays until they were converted into roadways.

So, indeed, it could have been much worse. The unfulfilled blueprints of destruction, the firm red lines of the planner’s pencil are even more chilling than the visual—and aural—evidence of what has actually been achieved by the combination of urbanists, architects, and building speculators. Had M. Pompidou, who also liked to talk of Paris being forced to marry her century (which did not prevent him from living on the agreeable tip of the île Saint-Louis), lasted a little longer, the canal Saint-Martin would have gone, covered over to carry a semi-circular highway which would then have roared through the lower slopes of the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève. And the quays of the Left Bank would have gone the way of those of the Right, and the Seine would have become as unapproachable as the majestic Hudson River. President Pompidou did get his trou, his hole, officially designated as le plateau Beaubourg; and he is commemorated by a strange building that rises above the modest levels of the old houses of Saint-Merri and Sainte-Avoye and that looks like a gigantic paupiette de veau, with all its innards displayed on the outside. Others have compared it to an enormous, multicolored, and very venomous insect.

Most of the worst horrors, the vast mushroomed, domed follies of the 1960s, are well away from the center. Except for the unfortunate people who must live or work there, no one needs to go anywhere near the convention center and shopping complex at the Porte Maillot, much less to the vast complex of high-rise apartments and office buildings at la Défense; the glass and concrete apartment blocks at the Front de Seine are only visible if one approaches Paris from Versailles by car. It is possible even to avoid the immense uniform towers of the new Porte d’Italie; and only a few elderly enthusiasts of a little-known XIIIème will recall, with nostalgic affection, the small streets and courtyards, the low-lying houses, and the warm and varied sociability of the rue Nationale and the rue du Château des Rentiers, now mere names derisively harking back to a vanished topography that was still quite recently genuinely working-class and that tightly enclosed a shared fraternity and a confident esprit de quartier that was sure of its environment and was content to stay put. This was the Left Bank equivalent of Belleville and Ménilmontant and managed successfully to combine a population of XIIIème-born French—many of whom had only left the arrondissement to do their military service, and some of whom, among the older female inhabitants, had never crossed the river, indeed, had never thought of crossing the river—with sizable groups of Algerian immigrant workers. Now the factories and workshops have gone, along with the two-storied houses; and so have those who worked in them. The new inhabitants of the vast Porte d’Italie complex are young, middle-class couples, with no memories of the old XIIIème, and nothing to attach them to a recent, but vanished past.

The Boulevard Périphérique circles Paris with the constant roar of tires, the screams of sirens, and the presence of sudden death. But, as its name implies, it is well outside the city proper, and may be only briefly glimpsed from the comfortable safety of suburban overhead railways like the ligne de Sceaux. The horrors of the huge high-rise complex of Maine-Montparnasse, constructed during the 1960s, and the Tour Zamansky, it is true, cannot be disguised: the one sticks up like a threat from another planet, at the end of a neat line of trees in the Luxembourg gardens, the latter dwarfs the beautiful proportions of the tip of the île Saint-Louis. What, one wonders, did M. Pompidou make of that? The white hulk of the vast District de Paris building stares arrogantly across the river at the stilted cement and glass jungle of the Faculty of Science, as if defying the old-fashioned and familiar barges in between making their way to or from the equally familiar sand port of Paris.

But, since the 1950s, the greatest damage to Paris has not been architectural so much as human: a process that might be described as the de-Parisianization of Paris, as a result of the removal from the city of much of its traditional and characteristic population. Since the turn of the century, Professor Evenson tells us, the balance between Parisians and banlieusards, or suburbanites, has been steadily reversed. In 1901, the population of Paris stood at 2,700,000, that of the banlieue at 955,000. In the following year, nearly 200,000 people are stated to have been living in meublés, a form of cheap furnished flats that persisted through the 1930s and that survived at least into the early 1950s, enabling both the provincial newcomer and the foreigner to live comparatively cheaply in the city.

The exodus from the city seems to have begun in 1919, as a result of the introduction of the eight-hour day and the extension of the suburban railway network, and, between 1919 and 1939, by the formation of cités jardins on the model of the suburban English Garden City of Letchworth, designed by Ebenezer Howard. Because of the octrois—the toll houses on the outskirts of Paris where a tax was collected on goods entering the city—which were still in existence in the mid-Thirties, food was cheaper beyond the municipal barriers, inducing many people to move just beyond them, into overcrowded communes such as Vanves, Pantin, Aubervilliers, Malakoff. In 1926, there had been as many as 40,000 people living in the old military zone beyond the obsolete fortifications built around the city in 1845; all these zoniers had been cleared out by 1932, when on the former zone were built a series of HBM blocks (habitations à bon marché, quite literally, cheap housing), apartments accommodating up to 120,000 people along the northern edge of the city.

By the previous year, 1931, the balance between Paris and the suburbs had narrowed to 2,900,000 and 2,100,000; and on the eve of the Second World War the two populations stood about equal. However, because of the enormous influx of young provincials to Paris following the Liberation, the figures were temporarily reversed; and during the terrible winter of 1953-1954, many were found to be living in temporary edifices, minor bidonvilles, or shanty towns, within the limits of the city. Two years later, a quarter of a million families were officially listed as mal-logés within the Département de la Seine. In 1970, the population of Paris had declined to 2,600,000, that of the banlieue had reached 5,600,000. In the last nine years, this trend has certainly been accelerated.

For instance, following the clearing of the Marais, and the redevelopment of the area as a predominantly middle-class quarter, 20,000 of the original inhabitants were resettled in the suburban grands ensembles, complexes of highrise apartment buildings, schools, and shops built during the Fifties and Sixties. This process of alienation has been sensitively described by Simenon in his novel Le Déménagement—the “move” from the warm and closely observed sociability of the rue de Turenne to the bleak anonymity of one of the grands ensembles south of Paris: Arcueil, Orsay, or Antony. One would be quite hard put to encounter, as one used to, Algerian workers in the small hotels of the rue du Roi-de-Sicile, or Yiddish- or Polish-speaking Jews in and around the rue des Rosiers at the present time; and both the small workshops that cluttered the courtyards of seventeenth-century townhouses and palaces and the wholesale establishments, button manufacturers, shops selling articles de Paris, garment depots, and even the old clothes’ trade, once the stable activities of the IVème, have almost disappeared from the quarter. A few kosher butchers and one kosher restaurant in the rue des Rosiers are the sole reminders of what had been until quite recently the oldest Jewish settlement in the city. A little further to the west, the rue des Lombards, the rue de la Verrerie, the rue Saint-Merri, and the rue Quincampoix, once the beat of the most antique prostitutes in Paris, since they became pedestrian precincts (voies piétonnes) have lost their hôtels de passe and their tiny cafés, and have gained—if that is a gain—couscous restaurants, antique shops, bars, and discos. The odd Algerian café may be found still surviving—but not for long—on rue François-Miron.

Of course, it would be hard to lament the clearance of the old plague spots, the ilôts insalubres of the IVème and the IIIème; and, architecturally, the church of Saint-Gervais, released from a clutter of low-roofed hutments, now stands out to full advantage, above its steps, while, with courtyards cleared of the many huts that had invaded them at the time of the Revolution, the hôtels particuliers of the Marais can be seen in something of their original splendor. From being an area of small manufacturers and independent artisans, the quarter has been transformed into a balanced mixture of museum and luxury middle-class residence. It is nearly all there to be seen and appreciated. But it is as well to remember that the transformation was made at enormous human cost. The Marais, as an area of social mixture and of varied occupation, is now dead. A year ago, walking to work along the Quai Henri IV, I was stopped by a patrol of the CRS, the riot police, who had blocked off a rectangle of streets between Saint-Paul and the quays with four huge police vans, a punitive operation that lasted a whole morning, the aim of which was to clear three families of squatters, each consisting of a mother and two or three small children, from a group of houses designated for improvement, in the rue des Lions Saint-Paul. The Marais has been recovered as a tourists’ paradise. But the quarter has lost all warmth and originality.

Long-established artisans, small shopkeepers, café-owners, coal-selling bougnats, the employees of the Sorbonne, taxi drivers, typists, and white-collar workers living in hotels or meublés have likewise had to abandon the VIème and the Vème; and a present-day Jean Rhys would now be hard put to afford to spend even a single night in one of the small streets off the quai des Grands Augustins. There will be no more novelists of the VIème, for there is no life there any more to write about. The arrondissement received its official death warrant as a quartier populaire—or at least a quartier mixte—with the final destruction, after a long campaign carried out by the locals against the planners, of the old marché Saint-Germain. In June this year, in the rue de Tournon, where I had lived for twenty years, and in the rue des Quatre-Vents, I could only find one tradesman, a marchand de couleur, who had been there since the Liberation. All the others had gone, their food shops and small restaurants replaced by boutiques and shops selling Asiatic knickknacks.

In the neighboring arrondissement, the rue Mouffetard (or what has been left of it), once the most popular market of the Left Bank, and a street of intense sociability, has been given over to tourism, bars, and pornography. Only a few old inn-signs—an oak, the Trois Sergents de la Rochelle—hang as sad, limp reminders of what had once been a triumphal gulley of small shops, barrows, over-hanging clothes’ lines, and popular eloquence. Les gens de la Mouffe have been spirited away, as on a magic carpet, to Sarcelles or to another of the New Towns of the Paris region. Only the big gendarmerie barracks and the convents and monasteries behind their tall green portes cochères are reminders of the odd mixture that had once constituted the peculiar flavor of the quartier Maubert-Mouffetard: monks and nuns, gendarmes, and a population of long-living small shopkeepers, many of them widows, according to Louis Chevalier the oldest female age group in the city. Their place has been taken by young pied-noir couples running pizza bars and by elegant antique dealers.

Following the destruction of Les Halles, the rue Saint-Denis, the most authentically Parisian of all streets, and for two hundred years the academy of l’esprit parisien, has likewise entirely lost its traditional population of people in the food and drink trades, of les forts, people who had been in the same work for generations—and of their concomitant: inexpensive prostitutes. What is left of the quarter is rapidly undergoing a total social transformation, similar to that of the IVème, the former hôtels de passe and meublés having been converted into high-priced middle-class residences. The old Ier arrondissement has by now lost all artisanal character so that the population of the central markets, as depicted successively by Zola, Georges Arnaud, and Simenon (in La Mort d’Auguste), would now seem as remote as the memory of the all-night café Le Chien qui fume, and the lecherous and potentially violent population, as depicted as late as 1966 by Louis Chevalier in Les Parisiens. Even the title of his book would now represent an archaism. The once noisy night streets are silent and almost empty, save perhaps for Gaëtan and Marie-Claire, exercising their poodle and out for a midnight stroll in order to purchase Le Nouvel-Observateur and Charlie-Hébdo at the nearby revolutionary bookshop-cum-pornography.

Of course, there are still pockets of les petites gens, of Parisians recognizable to Eugène Dabit and to Raymond Queneau and to other populist writers, in parts of the Xème and at the eastern end of the XIIème. But the Left Bank XIVème and XVème have been totally recolonized; and there is no longer any hint of the transport workers who once inhabited the rue des Favorites, off the métro Convention. The Javel quarter has, thanks to the Front de Seine, jumped up several classes as well as several levels. No place any more for the humble and eccentric characters of MacOrlan’s La Tradition de minuit. The XIVème at the present day would suit Lenin and his petit-bourgeois tastes even better than it did when he was living in the rue Marie-Rose; and he would have as neighbors the widest possible choice of university teachers of various Marxist persuasions.

Only the XIXème, the XXème, and the XVIIIème have retained something of their original character, and Eugène Dabit’s Belleville-Ménilmontant of the 1930s (Banlieues de Paris) can still be vaguely recognized, at least in accent, impudence, independence, and ingenuity at bricolage—every sort of repair and fixing—in the rue Ramponeau, or off the Place des Fêtes, or on both sides of the Boulevard de Belleville. La Vie devant soi was written only three or four years ago, and still described a mixed population of poor Jewish tailors—mostly from North Africa—of Algerians, and long-limbed Sénégalais. But even here the high-rise flats are beginning to point up menacingly on the heights and halfway down the steep slopes. It does not seem very likely that Belleville-Ménilmontant, the Paris of the Commune, and la Goutte-d’Or, the Paris of the FLN, will remain for long undisturbed. The middle-class armies from the north will soon be spilling down the hill, engulfing the little artisans’ two-storied houses of the rue des Amandiers, the rue de la Mare, the rue les Partants, and the rue Soleillet. When these northeastern areas are engulfed, the traditional Paris, based on the esprit de quartier and on a series of villages, thriving on familiarity and gossip, and in which even shopping represents a social function, will be quite dead. Paris will have become more or less a single-class city, reserved for the very affluent and the very ambitious.

Where then have the Parisians gone? The older, the more recalcitrant, the most intractable have died. The rest have gone, reluctantly, to Alphaville. Professor Evenson does not attempt to disguise the full horror of Sarcelles—the biggest and most conspicuous of the grand ensemble projects which has become a symbol of both the physical and social shortcomings of these suburban developments. (See photograph on page 16.) She describes the alienation, loneliness, monotony, and despair that French journalists have called la sarcellite, as if it were a disease, and she quotes to great effect Christiane Rochefort’s eloquent novel, Les Petits Enfants du siècle, an account of growing up in one of the grands ensembles as described by an observant sixteen-year-old girl.

What she does not state en toutes lettres is amply conveyed in the horror of the photographs: the vast concrete coils of the development called la Grande Borne, with its enforced walking precinct, dominated by twenty-foot stucco statues of ducks and geese, of huge wall-paintings of cuddly animals, of immense wall-portraits of Kafka (of course) and Rimbaud (such a homely couple), a panachage of a French Disneyland and of a sociologist’s ville radieuse, the rectangular blocks painted in bright colors. (See photograph on page 18.) They are all there: not only Sarcelles, an initiative of the Prefecture of Police, but also Cergy-Pontoise (rewarded with a prefecture), Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (which also gets a prefect, a very eighteenth-century concept of giving an identity to a town)—particularly sad, as it rises on the edges of the jumble of small individual houses and villas that had once been the railway town of Trappes—Melun-Sénart, Marne-la-Vallée.

The social cost of Alphaville can be gauged from the high teenage crime rate in Sarcelles, with its rare café and its lack of an identifiable center, in the chronique judiciaire of the Paris dailies and weeklies. No doubt any roof is better than none, any grand ensemble is preferable to a bidonville. Yet, time and again, Professor Evenson returns to the preference shown by the Parisian artisan, ever since the 1900s and the 1920s, for the single house, the tiny villa, even a converted railway wagon or an old bus or green tram, pathetic grabs at privacy and individuality that mushroomed along the main lines, often on quite unsuitable terrain, and denied most of the amenities, on the wide steppes north of Paris, and in sight of the Warsaw express and l’Etoile du Nord: a jumble of irregularity, of artisanal fantasy, turrets, minarets, grottoes, plaster cloisters, Gothic towers in yellow bricks, that may be seen flashing by, in irregular lines, interrupted by the solid cubelike blocks of the grands ensembles, as one approaches Paris by train, from the north or the east. Life in the unfinished villa, in Drancy or Garches, as depicted in Queneau’s Le Chien-dent, was pretty uncomfortable; but at least one knew one’s neighbors living up the muddy, waterlogged lanes; and there was even a wooden café that specialized in bifteck-frites. There is, after all, quite a rich literature of this chaotic type of banlieue, the scattered bicocques, or shanties, of the 1910s, the 1920s, and 1930s, in the valley of the Orge, in the Pays de France, in the valley of the Marne, from Landru to Queneau, from Dabit to Ben Barka, from Simenon to Sarrazin, from Weidmann to Fallet, from faux-manoir normand to crenellated Maison Larousse, the literature of individualism, eccentricity and of do-it-yourself, the jumbled styles of le facteur Cheval and his many suburban imitators, and the tiny Follies below the railway viaduct at Viroflay. But, apart from Alphaville and Christiane Rochefort, what can one expect of the Grands Ensembles other than inarticulate despair, vandalism, and teenage violence?

Evenson’s study is equally informative on the development of the Paris transport system. The suburban railway lines came surprisingly early: Sceaux, in 1846, Bourg-la-Reine and Orsay in 1857, Boissy-Saint-Léger, in 1859. The Invalides line to Versailles was electrified in 1900. The Petite Ceinture was started in 1851, the Grande Ceinture, in 1875. Predictably, ever since the 1930s, the Gare Saint-Lazare has remained far the largest point of entry and exit. There is an evocative section on river transport, the bateaux mouches and the hirondelles, the former starting as a Lyonnais venture. The author states that the bateaux mouches were suppressed in 1934, but I can remember taking one from the Pont de Sèvres to the Pont des Arts in the following year.

We move from the trams to the familiar snout-nosed buses, with their open rear platforms, an invitation to sociability, conversation, and verbal fantasy on the part of inventive contrôleurs, one of the few places where one could encounter Paris police on terms of affability, and the stage too of Queneau’s wonderful Exercices de Style, Ligne 24. But Evenson is best of all on the métro, and this is as it should be, for it is the most poetical form of Parisian transport. The métro was carrying 400 million passengers by 1914, 761 million by 1938, over a billion by 1941, 1.5 billion in 1946, its peak year. Her account is one of steady advance and improvement, from grinding rames to the silent rubber-tired trains of the present day. It would require considerable nostalgia to regret the passing of the old, clanging scalloped coaches of the Nord-Sud, as they emerged from under the Seine. But how I wished that she had evoked the little Dubonnet-man, and the flickering Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet, the emblem of the late 1930s and the insistent accompaniment to the packed métros of the Occupation years! And how I wished that she had quoted the advertisements and métro-poems of Raymond Queneau! Generally, her account is so accurate and so well researched, one hesitates even to question it; but the Gare d’Orsay did not connect up with the Gare de Lyon; it was the prolongation of the line from the Gare d’Austerlitz, so that, at one time, the Sud-Express, from Madrid, terminated in the center of Paris.

I wish too that Evenson had made greater use of literary material in her descriptions of the city and its suburbs. Zola is all very well. But why Sartre? Why the boring, self-indulgent Gertrude Stein (“we lived,” “in our time, we all…”). What of Poil de Carotte and Bubu de Montparnasse, of Jean Galtier-Boissière and of Jules Romains? I wish too that she had taken greater care of the spelling of French words, especially in her bibliography, from which, unaccountably, she omits Louis Chevalier’s powerful and angry L’Assassinat de Paris. For that is the subject of her own careful, beautifully illustrated, compassionate and very human book, the work, surprisingly, of a professor of architecture.