The Other Paris

Luc Sante
Excerpt

The Other Paris

Paris, the City of Light, the city of fine dining and seductive couture and intellectual hauteur, was until fairly recently always accompanied by its shadow: the city of the poor, the outcast, the criminal, the eccentric, the willfully nonconforming. In The Other Paris, Luc Sante gives us a panoramic view of that second metropolis, which has nearly vanished but whose traces are in the bricks and stones of the contemporary city, in the culture of France itself, and, by extension, throughout the world. Drawing on testimony from a great range of witnesses—from Balzac and Hugo to assorted boulevardiers, rabble-rousers, and tramps—Sante, whose thorough research is matched only by the vividness of his narration, takes the reader on a whirlwind tour. We’re pleased to present this excerpt from the first chapter of The Other Paris.


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In Julien Duvivier’s 1937 film Pépé le Moko, set in the Algiers casbah, the two leading characters are waxing nostalgic about their native city. Gaby (Mireille Balin) was gently reared, while Pépé (Jean Gabin) is working-class.

Gaby: Do you know Paris?
Pépé: It’s my village, Rue Saint-Martin.
Gaby: The Champs-Élysées.
Pépé: The Gare du Nord.
Gaby: The Opéra, Boulevard des Capucines.
Pépé: Barbès, La Chapelle.
Gaby: Rue Montmartre.
Pépé: Boulevard Rochechouart.
Gaby: Rue Fontaine.
Both: Place Blanche!

She names places in her city, he names places in his, and then they both agree on a square that straddles the border—the site of the Moulin Rouge and the place where the honky-tonk of Pigalle locks eyes with the gentility of the Quartier de l’Europe. Gaby’s list defines the top edge of the pie slice of western Paris, a quarter of the whole at most, that then housed the gentry: the northwesterly course of Rue Montmartre that is picked up by Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and then Rue Fontaine, and then goes on to merge into Avenue de Clichy. If she had been thorough she might have mentioned the other leg, on the Left Bank: Boulevard Saint-Germain, Rue de Sèvres, Avenue de Suffren. Pépé’s list is far less comprehensive, but that’s at least in part because in 1937 there was still so much more of his city than of hers.

Other ParisMireille Balin and Jean Gabin in Pépé le Moko, 1937

This book will not be much concerned with Gaby’s city. It has changed far less, for one thing. It retains the greatest concentration of money and power, and in that way common to old-money neighborhoods in many cities, it has probably preserved more of those small businesses, cafés, and such than have the more vulnerable neighborhoods elsewhere, because the rich have the power to save the things they love. That wedge of western Paris has changed primarily in that its composition now includes not just the old families and the nouveaux riches but also a significant number of foreign and often absentee property owners who invest in a Paris flat the way they might buy art and warehouse it. That attitude might almost make you think fondly of the old families, who at least are or were connected to the city’s soil and history. But then you might recall how consistently inimical the western districts have been to the rest of the city over time, how they made common cause with the Prussians against the Commune in 1871; called for the extermination of the Communards, including women and children, during the Bloody Week in May of that year; and in 1938, after the Popular Front, “acclaimed Hitler in the cinemas of the Champs-Élysées at twenty francs a seat,” while even fashionable ladies joined in shouting the slogan “Communists, get your bags; Jews, off to Jerusalem.” It is no coincidence that the Gestapo office on Rue des Saussaies and the headquarters on Rue Lauriston of its French counterpart, the Carlingue, were both situated within that triangle.

But if Gaby’s city was all demure white façades, discreet traffic, and well-mannered exchanges, Pépé’s was undeniably rougher. The marketplace of the street brought all types to the fore, and they did not necessarily speak correctly or measure their tones or clean themselves up; they might not have wished you well. And the streets themselves held as many gaping eyesores as they did the sort of charmingly weathered houses you admire in Atget’s pictures. You can read Georges Cain’s description of the Marché des Patriarches, the now long-gone flea market around the church of Saint-Médard in the Fifth Arrondissement, and judge that it reflects the author’s class bias, as an antiquarian and museum curator slumming around while looking for forgotten architectural treasures: “Tumbledown hovels sheltering miserable enterprises: resellers of nameless objects, dealers in rags, vendors of dust. A side of beef is being butchered alongside a big factory wall that looks like a prison. And everywhere the air is poisonous with sulfuric acid, kippered herring, and cauliflower.” But nearly the same tone appears thirty years later, in a description of the area near Place des Fêtes, in the Nineteenth, by Eugène Dabit, the most self-consciously proletarian of writers:

A shoelace vendor, his face ravaged, looks as if he’s wearing a mask with a fake beard and red cloth lips. At the market on Rue du Télégraphe a woman selling thyme repeats in a piercing voice, “Give work to the blind.” People drag themselves from job site to job site, picking up wood, and from street to street, picking up rags; others are trusties or nightwatchmen. On their days out, the guys from the shelters, in their rough blue uniforms, tentatively hold out their hands, hoping to pick up enough for a package of decent tobacco.

So, you might ask, why should we care that those people or their contemporary avatars have vanished from the city? Isn’t it pleasant that Saint-Médard has been so nicely cleaned up and aired out that now it looks like the parish church in Anyville? And isn’t it at least sanitary that Place des Fêtes has been so artfully landscaped? And if it is surrounded by monolithic highrises with all the charm of industrial air-conditioning units, doesn’t that at least mean they are designated for low-income housing? Because, after all, if the low houses that ringed the square before urban renewal claimed it had been cleaned and repaired instead of being razed, no one living there could today afford the neighborhood. There are indeed a few places in Paris where the poor can live, but the requirement is that those places be inhuman, soulless, windswept. In the past the poor were left to hustle on their own, which might mean accommodating themselves to squalor, with accompanying vermin; the bargain they are offered today assures them of well-lit, dust-free environs with up-to-date fixtures, but it relieves them of the ability to improvise, to carve out their own spaces, to conduct slap-up business in the public arena if that is what they wish to do. They are corralled and regulated in ways no nineteenth-century social engineer could have imagined.

Flea MarketThe flea market called Marché des Patriarches, Rue Saint-Medard, circa 1910

The relative intimacy of a city, any city, of a hundred or more years ago is as hard to overstate as it is to convey. There may have been nearly as many people, but they were more highly concentrated, in neighborhoods that were as delimited and self-sufficient as country villages, and where the absence of voice- and image-bearing devices in the home caused people to spend much more of their time in the street. There were no commuters to speak of, at least before the 1920s; everyone you saw, barring the occasional tourist or trader, lived right there in town, usually in the very neighborhood in which you spotted them. Every parish had its eccentrics, its indigents, its clerics, its savants, its brawlers, its widows, its fixers, its elders, its hustlers, its busybodies. Most of them had known one another all their lives. The income spectrum may not have been excessively wide, but on the other hand, the rich were right over there, in the next street.

Before Haussmann’s reconfiguration of the center, the neighborhoods were tightly interwoven; afterward they were more separated, but the classes still met on common ground: on the squares and the boulevards. It was said that when cafés began to feature open terraces, the poor discovered what and how to eat from passing by and observing the diners as they ate. And the rich always had the opportunity to absorb the culture of the poor from their markets and entertainments. For that matter, the practice of mixité flourished for at least a century: a house of six or seven stories would feature a shop on the ground floor; the shopkeeper’s dwelling on the mezzanine level; a bourgeois family upstairs from the mezzanine, on the “noble floor”; then each succeeding story would house people of progressively lesser income. People trudged up as few flights of stairs as they could afford, and as a result, every such house was itself a microcosm of society as a whole.

This is not to imply that society was just or kindly; it was brutal, generally. Nevertheless, there was room for the full range of classes, and everyone was somehow equally involved in the common task of constituting a city. It was an ecosystem in which every aspect of the physical fabric was employed and drained and periodically revitalized, in which everything from rags and bones to ideas and fads was recycled and where nothing was disposed of until it was completely spent. So much of life was conducted in public that an entire education could be procured just by walking around, from riverbank to market to square to boulevard, from “the great poem of display” (Balzac) to the performances of the mountebanks, from the dance halls to the public executions, from the news vendors to the dandies, from the prostitutes to the bill posters, from the east to the west.

The geography and topography were critical. The city grew in concentric circles as determined by its successive walls: under Philippe-Auguste, around the turn of the thirteenth century; Charles V, in the fourteenth; the Farmers-General, just before the revolution; Adolphe Thiers, in the 1840s; and, on the footprint of the latter, the Périphérique highway, completed in 1973. With every succeeding wall, some more of the surrounding countryside and its villages were absorbed into the city; what had once been periphery was directed toward the middle. Meanwhile, the center gradually moved. It did not go all that far, maybe a couple of miles over four or five centuries, but it entailed a larger movement of fashion. That began with the Louvre when it was a royal residence, slid east to the Marais in the seventeenth century, and then moved west again, serially along Rue de Rivoli and Rue Saint-Honoré and their parallel boulevards higher up, while the center of modish residence, by that time removing itself from commerce, glided northwest toward the Plaine Monceau and then farther, to Auteuil and Passy. Much of the center was shared and then disputed; even after Haussmann’s reconfiguration, the gentry could not claim Saint-Denis or the Plateau Beaubourg or Les Halles. The rocky heights of Montmartre and Belleville and Ménilmontant were firmly of the people, as was the nebulous south: Maison-Blanche, Croulebarbe, Glacière, Butte-aux-Cailles, Grenelle, Montrouge.

The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds. The reformers and social activists of the past, faced with the urgent task of feeding the hungry and housing the unsheltered, failed to anticipate that the poor would, in exchange, be surrendering the riches they actually possessed: their neighborhoods as well as their use of time, their scavenger economy, their cooperative defenses, their refusal to behave, their ability to drop out of sight, their key to the unclaimed, the scorned, the common property of the streets. As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was. There was a flavor to the city that has now been eradicated. It had a fugitive lyricism almost impossible to recapture.

The Other Paris

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Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium. His other books include Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Kill All Your Darlings. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award for Writing from the International Center of Photography, and Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships. He has contributed to The New York Review of Books since 1981, and has written for many other magazines. He is the visiting professor of writing and the history of photography at Bard College and lives in Ulster County, New York.

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  • Celtic Tiger

    Fascinating. But isn’t the Church of St. Medard outside the “old” walls of Paris, near Clichy not in the 5th Arrondissement? If so, maybe FSG needs a little tighter fact checking?