Authors: Eric Hazan
The Invention of Paris
Translated by David Fernbach
Ouvrage publiÃ© avec le concours du MinistÃ¨re franÃ§ais chargÃ© de la cultureâ
Centre national du livre
This work was published with the help of the French Ministry of Cultureâ
Centre national du livre
This paperback edition first published by Verso 2011
First published in English by Verso 2010
Â© Verso 2010
Translation Â© David Fernbach 2010
First published as
L'Invention de Paris. Il n'y a pas de pas perdus
Â© Ãditions du Seuil 2002
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the author and translator have been asserted
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âLost steps? But there aren't any.'
â AndrÃ© Breton,
To spot what has changed in Paris since the time this book was written, one should really have returned after a long absence. Instead of this, I have left the city for only short periods in the last ten years, and so I see it changing like the wrinkles on a beloved face that one observes every day. The city within the walls, the subject of
The Invention of Paris,
is now changing only slowly. Time is needed for a district of Kabyl cafÃ©s to be transformed into fashionable bars, for the Chinese rag trade to advance a street or two, or for what is called renovation to press the poor a notch more towards the PÃ©riphÃ©rique.
The physical transformations of Paris can be read as a ceaseless struggle between the spirit of place and the spirit of time. Take for example the nameless spot formed by the widening of Rue Mouffetard below the church of Saint-MÃ©dard. The ancient food shops, the market stalls, the immense trees that cast their shade onto the porch of the church, the remains of the little cemetery where the âconvulsionaries' danced on the tomb of Deacon PÃ¢ris in the reign of Louis XV (see p. 158), the two large cafÃ©s facing each other across the road â this whole panoply of eras, styles and events gives this place a spirit that cannot be compared with any other. Old Parisians are aware that under their feet flows the River BiÃ¨vre in its descent towards the Jardin des Plantes, and that this district was crossed by the main road towards Italy. As well as a spirit of place, therefore, the spirit of the time has also succeeded in making itself felt: the middle of Rue Mouffetard is occupied by an enormous floral parterre with a fountain at the centre. The combined action of the Voirie and Espaces Verts departments has attempted the impossible, to transform this area into one of those thousands of roundabouts that punctuate the roads right across France. For me, respect for the spirit of place has nothing to do with the sad idea of âheritage', any more than distrust of the spirit of time means rejecting the contemporary. Over the last twenty or thirty years, some innovations have
indeed managed to create a new spirit of place. I. M. Pei's pyramid, for example, gave life to Napoleon III's Louvre courtyard, formerly a dusty parking area for the museum staff, and not far away is a whole new quarter, with its good points and bad, organized around the Beaubourg centre. (I never say âCentre Pompidou', as the late president had deplorable artistic taste â his office decorated by Agam â and besides he was opposed to the Piano-Rogers project, which was only adopted thanks to the stubbornness of the jury chair, the great Jean ProuvÃ©.)
Conversely, I may say, the charm of certain places has evaporated in the last ten years without the historical dÃ©cor having changed. On the Place Saint-Sulpice, the CafÃ© de la Mairie used to be an establishment where it was pleasant to drink coffee in the first rays of sunshine â this was indeed where I wrote those pages in my book that discuss this spot, as a homage to Georges Perec who wrote his
Tentative d'Ã©puisement d'un lieu parisien [Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Space
] there (p. 99). The setting is the same, but I avoid it now because of its clientele, made up of smart tourists and elegant ladies taking a rest there after doing their shopping in the hautecouture boutiques nearby. Easy to avoid, but then where to go? The answer is difficult, given how rare now are terraces on the historic Left Bank that are worth a visit.
Among the active agents of urban deterioration in these last ten years, I would give top marks to the Service des Espaces Verts. What they call â
' runs rampant in every quarter, striking places that ask only to be left in peace. Along the line of the former wall of the Farmers-General (p.109 ff.), the Boulevards de Rochechouart and de Clichy (from BarbÃ¨s to Place Clichy via Place Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge on Place Blanche) used to be divided by a central reservation that was used partly for parking, partly by the local kids as a football pitch, partly as somewhere you could drink a can of beer on a bench, but above all by Eastern European tourists emerging from the neighbouring sex shops and kebab joints. In sum, an undefined space, just what is needed to give the city some air. But the
is not fond of such spaces. Right along the length of these old boulevards, the Service des Espaces Verts has established plantations hemmed in by metal grilles, with plants of a particular ugliness that are found now throughout Paris, selected so that they never flower and get rapidly covered with an unpleasant dust.
is effected by shrubs in tubs or enormous pots, as for example in the Rue des Rosiers in the old Jewish quarter of the Marais: in combination with the newly laid paving and its central gutter, these sickly stems have given the coup de grÃ¢ce to this street, which ten years ago still kept something of its Ashkenaziâproletarian past.
But I shouldn't exaggerate. These last few years have not known any disaster comparable with the destruction of upper Belleville in the 1960s, or the ravaging of the Bastille by the installation of Carlos Ott's opera house twenty years later. They have even seen a number of successes, like the walkway on the old viaduct leading to the Bastille station, or Marc Mimram's footbridge which cleverly links the Orsay museum with the Tuileries gardens. In point of fact, the very widespread impression that Paris has changed a great deal in recent years is quite correct, but what has changed is not so much the mineral and vegetable setting as the way in which the city is inhabited.
This development can be precisely located. On the Left Bank there has been scarcely any change. Apart from the great Chinatown of the 13
arrondissement, the population has remained almost uniformly white and bourgeois. The Blacks are street sweepers, the Arabs are grocers, the police are rarely seen and the historic streets are as clean as in the pedestrianized zones of the provinces. Everything is just a little older than when I started to write
The Invention of Paris
: the friendly beggar whose pitch had always been the five metres between the La Hune bookshop in St-Germain-des-PrÃ©s and the newspaper kiosk nearby now has grey hair and wears glasses to read the books that the bookshops pass on to him. Nothing happens anymore on the Left Bank, whereas in my youth we hardly needed to cross the Seine: the Right Bank was like a faraway desert.
Today the Right Bank is no more homogeneous than it was back in the insurrectional days of June 1848 or during the Commune. In what are rather ironically called the â
' â let's say west of a line that runs from Les Halles to the flea market via Rue PoissoniÃ¨re, Rue du Faubourg PoissoniÃ¨re and Boulevard BarbÃ¨s â almost nothing has changed in ten years. The Batignolles, Plaine Monceau, the Faubourg Saint-HonorÃ©, Auteuil and Passy slumber peacefully. The Avenue des Champs-ÃlysÃ©es has gone downhill â I wrote in the closing years of the last century how it evoked âthe duty-free mall of an international airport, decorated in a style that is a mixture of pseudo-Haussmann and pseudo-Bauhaus' (p. 121); this is still the case, but the airport is now more down at heel, and you can scarcely find a table to have a drink except in the chains of faux pizzerias, genuine fast-food outlets, or pseudo-1900 cafÃ©s.