We are tired of monumental Paris. No one lives there; it is a city that does not exist. We reject its many mythological metonymies. No more macarons, no more Champs-Elysées. No more accordion music, no more lovers, no more lovelocks.
But we are not tired of Paris. Spin it around, we ask anyone who would write about it in good faith. Show us what's beyond the Porte Saint Denis, the Porte Saint Martin. Show us what’s urgent in the urban landscape. Not the fashionable performance of love on a bridge, but the desperate need that binds people together. The Paris of Leos Carax, not Woody Allen.
This is the Paris Luc Sante unearths in his new book The Other Paris, which brings the approach of his 1991 book Low Life to bear on the City of Light. Which is to say, this is a trip into the shadows, into the “Zone”: “the city’s backside, the parts you weren’t really supposed to see,” the places where, as Victor Hugo wrote, you might say that “Paris had disappeared.” The result is a compelling, and richly researched, portrait of proletarian Paris, for the most part in the 19th and early 20th century. It is a necessary corrective to a popular image of Paris as inhabited exclusively by—as someone recently remarked to me—Gene Kelly and Amélie Poulain.
Intended as “a reminder of what life was like in cities when they were as vivid and savage and uncontrollable as they were for many centuries,” The Other Paris suggests that as a century of urban planning has “modernized” and sanitized cities, bringing them under the control of the bureaucrat, we have “forgotten” what cities are at heart, and they have consequently lost their “flavor,” their “fugitive lyricism.” The edge-lands of our cities have much to teach us about the vanished fabric of the city. That other country is rife with danger and discomfort, the kind of place you’d rather read about than inhabit, but it’s left us a rich archive of song and image, lore and gore.
It’s a fascinating read, but a problematic one. Sante deconstructs the romanticized view of Paris, peering into the dark, dirty underbelly of the city, where the roaches and rats live, and those little hard-backed beetles. “The past,” he writes, “whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed.” He de-mythologizes one view of Paris, then re-mythologizes another.
Sante uncovers, for instance, the dark history of the Fort Monjol, close to the Boulevard de Villette in the 19th arrondissement, a stone’s throw from where we walk our dog, where aging 19th-century prostitutes went to ply their trade to those poor and desperate enough to seek them out; according to one contemporary source, “every skin disease of humanity seemed to have met up there: mealy psoriasis, purulent acne, flabby boils, inveterate staphyloccocus and streptoccocus, tumors, scabies—all flourished in the saltpeter of those stinking walls alive with vermin.” Where the Bolivar metro stop now stands, west of the Buttes-Chaumont (a park that is today full of picnicking hipsters swilling bottles of rosé and bumming rollies), there once stood a gibbet where up to 50 people could be hung at the same time.
All this sounds pretty grim. Given this context, Sante’s lament for the old ways can sound like a nostalgia for a system which keeps some people oppressed, manipulated, and in abject poverty. He evinces a strange attitude, for instance, toward the issue of gentrification and public health. Weirdly, he suggests everything was better before because there were fewer people “which made for more space and less competition for scraps.” He describes the misery of the bidonvilles, “where violence was perpetually imminent and (…) fires could erase the whole patch at anytime,” while writing about how delightfully close to nature they were “because while the Zone was a netherworld, a gray area, a borderland teeming with the sorts of shadowy activities that thrive on margins, it also at the same time represented a door to nature (….) You could drink and dance and smoke and swear while surrounded by garlands of flowers and Japanese lanterns under the trees.” The bidonville-dwellers may have found much joy in their surroundings (Sante has them, at one point, hunting for escargots), but does that make up for the fact that their lives were highly precarious?
Today, Parisian low-income public housing consists of post-Corbusier buildings, “monolithic high-rises with all the charm of industrial air-conditioning units,” and Sante rightly criticizes a public policy that banishes the less fortunate members of society to these “inhuman, soulless, windswept” places. In the past, he says, “the poor were left to hustle on their own, which might mean accommodating themselves to squalor, with accompanying vermin,” while today they are offered “well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures” but at the cost of their “ability to improvise, to carve out their own spaces, to conduct slap-up business in the public area if that is what they wish to do so.”
Residents of the Other Paris are currently “corralled and regulated in ways no nineteenth-century social engineer could have imagined.” And yet I bet the women who look after those up-to-date fixtures in the windswept places are very glad they aren’t roughing it in flimsy temporary structures while the men are off actualizing their freedom. There’s a real risk of romanticizing the downtrodden here, and leaving women out of it altogether, at home cleaning the shanty. Or—as is the case in the only chapter where women much figure—out walking the boulevard in search of a john.
In a city that has been sanitized by fears “of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions,” Sante worries this has created “the conditions for stasis… to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds.” I get what Sante is after, and he raises important questions about how we want to live together in urban spaces. But he does somewhat overstate his case. It is certainly all to the good that there are no longer any scabies-ridden enclaves of aging prostitutes in Paris. (At least not that I’m aware of.) Take a walk through Belleville today, and you’ll still find it’s home to all sorts of people, from all sorts of places. Paris is constitutively prone to surprise, for no amount of surveillance or real estate development can iron out the human—and very French—instinct for chaos and subversion, contrarianism and carnival, that has always thrived here, and always will.