Thirza Vallois offers an overview of a city of perpetual change, a hectic building site of destruction and reconstruction.
A journey into the depths of Paris is what ‘Around and About Paris’ is about, an invitation to scratch beneath its surface of dazzling vistas and imposing monuments and to probe into the souls and lives of the restless people, both high and low, who throughout the ages have never ceased to shape it and reshape it.
For Paris is a city of perpetual change, a hectic building site of destruction and reconstruction, of restoration and renovation, a city in perpetual motion. Its rounds of pleasure are periodically broken by maelstroms of social fury and whose throbbing pulse has always exerted a magnetic power on creative minds from far and wide who have bequeathed to the world great schools of art and thought.
Continual waves of newcomers have come to Paris in search of livelihood, spiritual nourishment or political shelter. As the population of the city grew and craved elbow space, they helped bring down its successive walls — from that built by Philippe-Auguste in 1190 to the last wall built by Adolphe Thiers and demolished in 1919 – always pushing out the boundaries of Paris farther from its original nucleus, l’Ile de la Cité.
The escargot of arrondissements
Thus developed the arrondissements, which spiral outwards clockwise like a snail shell (escargot), keeping Paris conveniently compact, yet endowing it with infinite potential for growth. In 1795 Paris was divided into 12 arrondissements, but in 1860 the number was increased to 20, when Baron Haussmann incorporated the bordering villages into the capital. This change was part of the modernization that had started with the French Revolution.
The Paris created by Baron Haussmann is largely still the Paris of today. Supported by some, deprecated by others, he carved through the medieval city, doing away with many insalubrious streets to make room for the present bright broad avenues. By now, however, Haussmann’s Paris is overlaid with the patina of time, medieval Paris is more of a film set than a reality, and the fragments of ‘villages’ that the sharp observer can still spot here and there tend to blend into the more recent overall unity of their respective arrondissements.
Today the administrative life of every Parisian, from birth to death, is regulated by and revolves around his arrondissement which, in a way, has replaced his old parish. Its centre of gravity is the Mairie, where every resident is registered upon arrival on earth and upon his departure, where couples get married, children are enrolled in school and social welfare is provided. By now each arrondissement has its history, its economic, social and cultural heritage and its own local colour and character, even though the uniformity of modernization has rendered the differences indistinguishable to the unpractised eye.
As you make your way through the arrondissements, you will get a better grasp of the city as a whole and its development. The names of streets, the geographic location of monuments, the social and ethnic distribution of the population, will become meaningful and coherent. You will understand why the wealthy are drawn to the 7th or the 16th arrondissement, for example, and publishers to the 6th.
Why haute couture began in the 1st and shifted to the 8th. Each arrondissement has compelling stories to tell and therefore none has been given priority. They tell stories of humble craftsmen and great rulers, of everyday tragedies and of outbursts of rejoicing or social confrontations, stories of adulation and scorn, of scandals, gossip, passion and crime. Some of the stories may be apocryphal. All are part of the city’s lore.
The modern metropolis
Although the past has been searchingly unearthed, the ebullient present has not been neglected. The speed with which the French capital has leapt forward into the modern age is stunning.
As architects and town planners set out to renovate chunks of the French metropolis, small neighbourhood shops made way for supermarket chains. As women began to hold jobs, home cuisine made way for pre-cooked meals. The banks of the Seine, once the home of fishermen and winos, and the promenade of amorous couples, have been largely taken over by fast cars. Old-time homely French restaurants are hard to come by now that the colourful French working-class is all but extinct.
In an upwardly mobile society a medley of Third World nationals have taken their place and introduced their own homely restaurants, equally colourful but not French. The nostalgic among you may be grieved by the multitude of fast-food chains and even Starbucks, but rest assured: the open-air markets, the book-stalls, the odd street organ are still there. Many French people still eat baguette and camembert, and men still like a good game of boules.
Furthermore, if you are a forward-looking optimist, you will appreciate that more and more young people are articulate in foreign languages.
By the time you will have reached the end of your journey, at the end of the ‘snail-shell’ of Paris, it may strike you that Paris has always been a city in the making, born out of the latent or explosive tensions between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress, and out of the necessities of time. A city willed by authoritarian regimes but also the spontaneous emanation of its headstrong people, it is the very expression of the vitality of French society.