In Search of Lost Paris

Sante-1-122310_jpg_470x435_q85 Luc Sante in the NYRB:

Couldn’t an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centuries-long movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour? And does the flâneur do anything different?1

You might momentarily think that Walter Benjamin’s suggestion could apply to any city, but in just about every other case the narrative would be too diffuse, in both the spatial and temporal sense. Paris is exceptional for having grown in a particularly concentrated and directed way, and for having maintained the vigor of districts even after fashion went elsewhere.

Most cities spread like inkblots; a few, such as Manhattan, grew in linear increments. Paris expanded in concentric rings, approximately shown by the spiral numeration of its arrondissements. Its Neolithic center was fittingly located in what is now the First (leaking into the Fourth): the islands, the Louvre, Les Halles, the Hôtel de Ville. It then spread east to the Marais, north to the foot of Montmartre, west along the Seine, and tentatively south, across the river, to what would become St.-Germain-des-Prés. Its roughly circular form was maintained by a succession of walls, built under Philippe Auguste around the turn of the thirteenth century, Charles V in the fourteenth, the Farmers-General just before the Revolution, and Adolphe Thiers in the 1840s, that last one taken down beginning in 1919. But there is a wall even now, as Eric Hazan makes plain. The ring highway—the Périphérique—which was completed in 1973, is if anything even better at separating the city from the hinterlands than its predecessors were, and today that means keeping the immigrant masses at bay in their featureless housing project clusters, the vertical slums with rustic-sounding names that make up the banlieues.