Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris

‘Hurdy-gurdy man and street singer’; photograph by Eugène Atget, Paris, circa 1898–1899

All cities have ruts—paths worn by the routines of their inhabitants as they go about their business. Paris is especially rutted, and the Parisians have an expression for the sense of imprisonment that it imposes on them: “métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, job, sleep). But there is another Paris, the city inhabited by those who don’t have jobs, either because they can’t find employment or because they have opted out of life in a rut. The marginal, the poor, the eccentrics, the bohemians, the dropouts, and the down-and-outs haunt the pages of Luc Sante’s vivid tour of that other Paris, most of it buried under what remains of the nineteenth century.

Subterranean Paris still exists, some of it inhabited. I have a small apartment in an old building in the second arrondissement. One day, after leaving my bike in the cellar, I decided to explore the subcellars. There were two of them, consisting of caves, filthy and unlit. Groping in the dark, three floors below street level, I stumbled upon a body. I ran up the stairs and out the front door, looking for help. The first person I encountered was a man washing dishes in the kitchen of a restaurant next door. When I shouted through the open window that there was a body in the bottom cellar, he replied calmly, “It’s nothing. He’s our clochard.” I hadn’t known that our apartment building provided a refuge for a homeless man; and after a moment’s reflection, I realized that the “our” used by the dishwasher did not include me or any other apartment owner. It referred to another Paris.

Although it is steeped in history—thoroughly understood and expertly narrated—The Other Paris is not a historical study. Nor is it a guidebook, although there exists a genre of “other” guidebooks: This Other London, The Other Side of Rome, etc. (The genre has especially flourished in German; most European cities have inspired guidebooks beginning Das andere…; the earliest Das andere Paris dates from 1983, and there is one currently available on YouTube.) Part of the fascination of The Other Paris is that it slips between genres. It can best be characterized as a historical-cultural tour of a great city, or flânerie, for Luc Sante invokes flaneurs throughout the book and writes as one of them.

According to the ideal type invented by Baudelaire, the flaneur takes in a city by strolling through it. He (Baudelaire did not envision female flaneurs) does not follow a fixed itinerary but rather loses himself in the crowd, swimming wherever its currents take him and letting the cityscape work on his consciousness in unexpected ways. When inspired, flaneurs have produced some important literature. The line of their books extends from the greatest of them all, Le Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sébastien Mercier (it grew from two to twelve volumes in successive editions, all of them illegal, between 1781 and 1788),* to Paris inconnu (1861) by Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont, Nouvelles promenades dans Paris (1908) by Georges Cain, Le Paysan de Paris (1926) by Louis Aragon, Le Piéton de Paris (1939) by Léon-Paul Fargue, Les Parisiens (1967) by Louis Chevalier, and The Streets of Paris (1980) by Richard Cobb.

Sante has mastered all of this literature and a great deal more. He knows the city thoroughly, and he evokes its spirit in the manner of Cobb, concentrating on its poorest arrondissements and accompanying his text with hundreds of illustrations. Unlike the photographs in Cobb’s The Streets of Paris, however, the photos in The Other Paris have been culled from archives and are often too small and blurred to be decipherable. The book fails as a picture album, but it succeeds marvelously in conjuring up street life, especially lives lived at the outer border of the city (the Zone) and along its many margins—a world inhabited by ragpickers, prostitutes, criminals, street singers, drunks, poets, and the endless varieties of the indigent.

As Sante describes it, it is a world we have lost, and the loss should weigh on the consciousness of anyone who loves the city—not the Paris of conventional guidebooks, or the Paris inhabited by the rich and the powerful (those from the center and the west, particularly the seventh and the sixteenth arrondissements), but the Paris of the poor (those from the east and the north, especially the nineteenth and the twentieth arrondissements), who lived largely in the streets and created a culture of their own. That culture took root at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It bore its last fruit in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is dead today.

This view of the Parisian past can easily veer off into sentimentality. Tough talk by the titi with his gros rouge sur le zinc—the lower-class native Parisian swearing in slang over cheap wine at a bar—sounds impressive in the mouth of Jean Gabin, but overuse in films and detective stories has turned it into a cliché. The poor were never picturesque. Several generations of social historians have produced a convincing, disabused view of nineteenth-century poverty. They have shown how the population of Paris exploded, how the indigent crowded into slums, went hungry, succumbed to disease (especially devastating waves of cholera), and died in droves with every downturn of the economy. Sante does justice to these themes, but he does not take them far beyond the point where they were left long ago by Louis Chevalier in Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle (1958).


Instead of imparting original research, Sante invokes the past to indict the present—not the new forms of poverty, compounded by unemployment, racism, and police brutality, in the banlieues or outskirts of the city, but rather the general tendency to redesign Paris that began with Baron Georges Haussmann. From 1853 to 1870 Haussmann sliced apart the bodies of old neighborhoods and built the boulevards that are celebrated in the guidebooks of today. Along the way, he improved the city’s hygiene, but his main purpose was to clear a path for troops and to eradicate the threat of insurrection from crowded areas with narrow streets, where the poor built barricades and rose against oppression in 1830, 1832, 1834, 1839, and 1848. The story of Haussmannization has been told often, sometimes sympathetically, as in David Jordan’s Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann (1995). Sante breathes new life into it, not merely with vivid prose but also by pointing it in a new direction.

The spirit of Haussmann, he argues, can be read in the urban projects that have disfigured Paris since World War II: the disappearance of Les Halles, the city’s central food market, replaced by a soulless, subterranean shopping center; the “aggressively repellent” Centre Georges Pompidou at Beaubourg; the Bibliothèque nationale de France (also known as the Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand), “which looks like a housing project on the moon”; the Bastille Opéra, “which looks like a parking garage”; and above all the Tour Montparnasse, a “giant upended turd.” These projects were not intended to block revolutions, but they express étatisme, an assertion of state power, similar to Haussmann’s mauling of Paris in the service of Napoleon III. By serving Charles de Gaulle, Sante argues, Georges Pompidou and André Malraux completed the work of Haussmann and set examples for further devastation in the name of progress. Their monuments proclaim the glory of rulers in a style the French call pharaonien.

Sante does not merely object to the architecture. He sees two contending forces in the new cityscape: on one side, “reformers and moralists and commission chairmen”; on the other, “vagrants and eccentrics and clochards.” The former have won, but the latter deserve the recognition of posterity, because they represent a marginal, dissident culture generated from the bottom layers of society.

Put so bluntly, the argument can seem romantic and far-fetched. Sante refrains from making it explicit, preferring to let it show through a dense account of roughly related topics: urban geography, low life and the lower classes, immigrants and street people, disease and death, prostitution, booze, bohemianism, boulevard theaters, popular songs and singers, crime and famous criminals, revolutions and insurgents, feminists and anarchists. The subjects come and go, helter-skelter, blending into one another without adhering to any distinct structure.

The Other Paris has no introduction and conclusion, no central thesis, no discourse on method or discussion of historiography. Instead of announcing an argument and outlining its constituent parts, Sante plunges into his subject and sweeps the reader with him. Without knowing where we are going, we are at his side, inspecting the horrific garbage dump of Montfaucon with 12,000 dead horses. We follow the itineraries of ragpickers and their hopeless stand against municipal trash collection. We wander through flea markets, pausing to examine the inventory of a stand from the 1890s: “Two fragments of Turkish carpet, some bracelets made of hair, a lot of watches and chains in need of repair, three portraits of Napoleon….” Back in the streets of the poorer arrondissements—but as Sante rightly remarks, poverty was vertical before Haussmann: the higher your room, the lower your status—we take in the work of le business (prostitution), and we learn what the horizontales charged from a menu of their services: “An ordinary hand job cost thirty-three sous, upped to fifty for the additional insertion of the pinky into the anus….”

The details, served up straight with a great deal of offbeat erudition, produce a shock effect, in accordance with a peculiarly French style of provocation: épater le bourgeois. It is unsettling for anyone located safely in the middle class to wander into the world of the poor, even vicariously by reading about those who died a century ago. Sante evokes that world so well that his success as a writer poses a danger for the reader: voyeurism. Flânerie can degenerate into slumming.


Sante acknowledges the peril of “a voyeuristic fascination with other people’s miseries.” To avoid it, he adopts the hard-boiled tone used in some detective stories: don’t expect any sentiment, reader; you’re getting nothing but the facts. Yet he lets his own sympathies show through. In a chapter on crime, he rejects all “honor-loyalty-virility guff,” and he notes that by 1830 crime had become a threat to the ordinary poor. But in stringing together anecdotes about famous murderers, prison escapes, shoot-outs, and executions, he presents the underworld as a vital aspect of life at the bottom of society. Criminality and poverty—la pègre and les pauvres—grew together symbiotically in the slums.

Sante does not go as far as Balzac and Hugo in imagining “an organized alternative society” among the criminals, but like Eric Hobsbawm he treats crime as social banditry. Robbery and murder appear as a form of rebellion against authority, not altogether different from fighting at the barricades. Sante describes famous crimes as “one-person insurrections,” and he writes short biographies of the most notorious criminals: Eugène François Vidocq, Pierre-François Lacenaire, Jean-Jacques Liabeuf, and Jacques Mesrine. They make fascinating reading, but what do they add up to?

Not an argument that crime fed into revolution. While preying on the poor, some criminals collaborated with the Gestapo. Others, to be sure, provided material for novels with a revolutionary message, above all Les Misérables, but they appear in all kinds of literature and appealed to all sectors of the political spectrum. They might best be understood as a staple of urban folklore. Sante favors that view in a short discussion of detective stories, which he treats as prime material for gaining access to the “Parisian imagination,” and even its “subconscious.” But the reading public of the série noire was not particularly proletarian. The frissons provided by penny dreadfuls went down many bourgeois spines, and it is difficult to detect a distinctly popular element in the literature that is commonly identified with popular culture. Can that literature be construed as a protest aimed against the oppressive, state-driven attempt to impose order on unruliness? I don’t think so.

That question hangs over Sante’s discussion of boulevard theater and cabaret music. He knows the subject inside out, and he regales the reader with mini-biographies of show people from Aristide Bruant to Édith Piaf. Far from warming over clichés about the wicked ways of Montmartre, he conveys the idiom of street singers who made names for themselves on the boulevards. He has an impressive mastery of Parisian slang along with the skill to translate it into English. He evokes “the quintessential sound of Paris” by showing how immigrants from Auvergne supplemented the accordion with the musette, a small, high-pitched bagpipe. He points to the seditious character of some popular songs, which were purged by censors under the Second Empire. Yet the bal-musette and café concert drew mixed audiences, and a few of their greatest stars favored the far right. Eugénie Buffet, the first chanteuse réaliste, sang for workers but supported the anti-Dreyfusards and the opponents of the Popular Front.

The difficulty of connecting politics with popular culture emerges most clearly in the chapter entitled “Insurgents,” where Sante confronts the phenomenon of revolution. It follows the chapter on crime and criminal literature and therefore poses a question: What is the relation of street violence to political upheaval? Passing from a discussion of faits divers (mainly anecdotes about murders in the popular press), the reader plunges into great events: 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871. The Commune brings the series to a climax. Sante tells the story well, although he cannot attempt anything comparable to the narrative of the most recent study, John Merriman’s superb Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (2014). Sante does justice to the horrors of repression and the reactions to it, which set the course of radical agitation for the rest of the century. Then he ends the chapter with a long account of murders and robberies by the Bonnot gang, a group of anarchists who shot up large parts of Paris in 1911 and 1912.

What is the common ground of all these subjects? Metaphorically at least, the streets of Paris. In his final chapter, Sante explains that one can stroll through the city as if one were playing a board game, the traditional jeu de l’oie, which leads from square to square, each one evoking an experience. In this fashion, the flaneur can call up spirits from the past, those attached to what remains of the city destroyed by Haussmann and the modern urban planners. It’s a game of chance, which exposes the player to surprises and spontaneity. Instead of following a laid-out route, the flaneur chases unexpected associations along paths that Sante calls dérives.

He takes this idea from Guy Debord, the author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and the prophet of the Situationist International, a leftist movement that inspired many of the student revolutionaries in May–June 1968. In his last chapter, Sante pays tribute to Debord as the last in the line that leads from the Communards through anarchism, Dada, and Surrealism to “the fever dream of May ’68.” Not that Sante sees straight lines in history or advocates a revival of the 1960s. He finds inspiration in Debord’s vision of Paris as a collection of “ambience units” or zones determined by the accumulated experience of their inhabitants.

The Other Paris is an attempt to encompass the city in this manner. Each of its chapters can be read as a dérive. The last stand of the Communards in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise flashes by along with sketches by Toulouse-Lautrec and graffiti such as “Mort aux Vaches” (Death to the Cops). The book streams before the eyes like a film, and that makes it a very good read. It succeeds in what it sets as its goal, not to straighten out history, but to help the reader apprehend an endlessly fascinating city.