I’ve been trying to uncover what I think about Paris…
We were only there for a few days and I quite loved it. It is such a graceful and liveable city, at least in the centre. Everyone walks so much slower there. You spend time in the sidewalk cafes, in the restaurants, in the bars. No one is in a hurry. The food is good, and so is the wine. Flowers line the wrought-iron balconies. Bookshops are everywhere. Style abounds. My god, the cheese alone is a wonder. You look at some of those everyday apartment buildings, and in comparison to the new insanely expensive glass-and-steel development mushrooming along the Thames, you think to yourself that those are really what is meant by luxury flats.
None of the new abominations that hurt my soul are to be found here in the centre. None at all.
And yet. In the words of Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘We are bored in the city’.
I think it is because they (in particular Haussman) have bulldozed the mystery.
The poor were moved out to the banlieues, places that seem designed to contain and suppress their energies. We didn’t make it out to them, it felt too voyeuristic somehow. Yet I confess in most cities I have lived in, our neighbourhoods are best for a little crazy colour, street vendors, rich smells of food, music, people chilling outside, general chaos.
And the built environment? Of course, I say to myself, of course it produced the Situationists. The yearning for alleys and corners and contrasts and wonder. Because most of that is gone.
Where the crazy alleys of The Mysteries of Paris once stood, where there was
a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.
Those teetering stairways so steep you needed a rope to climb them, those shacks and tenements and drinking dens of thieves have been converted to this:
I am not a fan of slums, no, but this is built for cars and the control of people. Stories of romance and adventure are impossible here.
Revolution has been erased, under the statue/entrance to the metro was once the guillotine and the Terror, unsigned:
In the Rue Transnonain barricades were thrown up during a worker’s uprising between 13-14 April, 1834 and twelve people were murdered by soldiers in response. It was intentionally erased to create a newer, wider boulevard. All of these wide and straight boulevards with their uniform buildings were created to prevent barricades, to allow soldiers and police the ability to steamroll across uprising, and to prevent escape or any cover of darkness. All that remains is one sign:
It is no longer a site of pilgrimage and memory, apart from this remaining street name chiseled into an old wall, all that remains is this telling depiction by Daumier, down to the dead child:
Daumier himself, one of my favourite artists who ruthlessly chronicled abuse of power and privilege, is rarely mentioned, has no museum or home or collection to remember him by that I could find.
The Paris Commune took their last stand in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Where soldiers shot dead over a hundred people, we found a simple plaque:
Simple is all right (facing it is the grave of the Lafargue’s, Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband who committed suicide in old age so as not to be a burden on the movement. Tragic in every sense). But let us compare it to the two massive monuments here to the soldiers who lost their lives putting down their own people, part of the force that shot those 100 of our comrades dead:
There can be no doubt of the politics of value here.
There are luckily still hints of past strangeness, another in the same cemetery (a wonderland of beloved figures to pay your respects to actually, more on that soon):
But it is the tomb of a Scot, well, someone descended from a Scot at least, name of Robertson. My sister in law’s family probably.
All this probably underlines the connections between the urban the cultural the political. Returning to Chtcheglov, he writes:
All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends.
Paris has done its best to erase the ghosts. You have to know your history to feel their absence.
It should not be forgotten that modern Urbanism has not yet been an art–and even less a setting for life–it has on the other hand always been inspired by Police directives; and after all Haussman only gave us these boulevards to more conveniently bring in the cannon (Lettrist International, Potlatch no. 5).
There was one curiosity, tied in to Police directives:
Perhaps this disturbing old bar sign also, it needs returning to in another post in terms of race and colonial politics. It sits alongside one of the older buildings sprinkled here and there, bringing relief when you find them:
A handful of stories that could be told:
We found the medieval home of Nicholas Flamel of philosopher’s stone fame, but were unable to face another meal:
We found a few remnants of the arcades so loved by Aragon and Benjamin, vilified slightly by Zola, all of them feeling like well-preserved leftovers and decidedly private — thus very closed on a Sunday.
Passage Vero Dodat seems quite magical despite that (and it is here that the police stumbled across Daumier’s print of the massacre at Rue Transnonain, which led to six months in prison for him):
But Passage Choiseul feels like nothing more than a mall really (and I thought to myself, Cardiff’s arcades are so much better…)
Even the sewers are memorialised and opened to public gaze in guided safety for a fee, in the most banal of surroundings:
Shut when I dragged Mark to see them despite all misgivings. Sadness.
Almost all surprise, strangeness, wonder is brought to Parisian streets by lively art, détournements everywhere both playful and clever. There is Paris under the sea, and more to come. There is much to love, especially the way that people live and play in public space, and I’ll explore that too.
While there are still some narrow winding streets to lose yourself in, always you find yourself back in broad boulevards of a sameness and the mystery is mostly gone. They couldn’t kill it entirely, it is too strong for that, but they have tried.
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