Glaeser: Paris, Now and Then

In Chapter Six, ‘What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?’, Glaeser is having some chat about Haussman. If you’re not familiar, Baron Haussman was a Frenchman who tore the hell out of Paris to rebuild it into the fancy-pants design we know and love today. “Do you enjoy the miraculous uniformity of all those five-story buildings that line Parisian streets? That’s Haussman too. The Opera? Haussman … Between 1853 and 1870, Haussman’s work removed more than half of the buildings in Paris. Haussman did, in fact, destroy a city to save it.” It’s a bit of a funny one for me – my introduction to Haussman was from the other side. There’s a persistent idea that his design for Paris was intended to make it easier to put down rebellions and riots and so on, so I’ve read a bunch of people bashing him for being a tool of the establishment or whatever. I’m not invested enough in the debate to tell you whether he’s a bad guy or not – point is, for better or worse, he’s the guy behind huge swathes of central Paris.

And obviously Paris has a bunch of other cool historical shit going for it. You’ve got all the artists and writers hanging round in the 20’s – Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian – it’s crazy, just the density of these towering figures. Part of what’s happening there is that France has a shit economy after the war – the franc has pretty low value, so it’s cheap for foreigners. But, as Glaeser points out, “what poor artists can afford to live in central Paris today?” You wouldn’t get the same bohemian kinda art circles, because Paris is just hugely expensive now – and a huge part of that comes down to Haussman – or rather, how we’re treating Haussman’s creation. “The modern desire to preserve Haussman’s Paris has helped turn the affordable Paris of the past into a boutique city that can today be enjoyed only by the wealthy.”

Glaeser’s solution for Paris is to chuck in some more skyscrapers and so on – create more living space to help keep prices down and make Paris more affordable. It’s the sort of thing that would obviously upset a lot of people who want to maintain the integrity of historical Paris, and again I’m not necessarily that invested one way or the other. Glaeser’s cute little manoeuvre here is pointing out that people are trying to preserve the legacy of a guy who tore down half the city. It’s a bit ironic, right – they’re idolising a guy who in Glaeser’s view would probably be okay with Paris continuing to evolve and grow. Well, alright – that’s Glaeser’s move, anyway, and like I say I’m not really invested one way or the other. I just appreciate the move.

More to the point, for me, is this line where the healthy desire to preserve a city’s history kinda tips over into something else. There’s a bunch of writing around the tourism problem, in places like Venice or, uh, Venice – just in the sense that there’s too many damn tourists and the city is having a fucking hard time being anything other than a tourist attraction. That second link there has a really fascinating description of Venice as an amusement park: “full of motion but devoid of energy.” Obviously the situations for Paris and Venice aren’t identical, but there’s definitely this underlying idea that they have this important thing that needs to be preserved, resulting in some serious problems for the city as a whole. Central Paris ends up largely restricted to the rich, or those able and willing to pay a fuckload of money for residence, and Venice ends up a tourist attraction, an increasingly hollowed-out museum city. Neither of those locations are going to encourage the clusters of artists that we saw in Paris in the 20’s.

And I mean yeah, there’s probably a broader conversation about whether we even should be looking to repeat those kinds of clusters – isn’t that itself a weird idealising of the past? I think for me, the distinction is between looking to repeat the past, and looking to develop new explosions of creativity and talent. We want our cities to work well, right. We want them to be productive and facilitate people meeting and connecting and making things better. That’s not going to happen in stagnant cities. It’s not going to happen in struggling Detroit, and it’s not going to happen in amusement park Venice. And I dunno, maybe that’s fine. Maybe you want Venice to be an amusement park. There’s definitely nothing wrong with wanting to preserve a place’s history – even Glaeser sets very specific limits on how and when older buildings should be demolished. Nobody’s debating whether our architectural history should be preserved. The question is only about the line where it starts to get excessive, where it negatively affects the future of a place.

Let’s finish again with a little postscript, moving in a bit of a different direction. It’s certainly fitting with a book like Glaeser’s, where each chapter has six different things that it’s trying to talk about. When we moved to Melbourne, I saw it as a kind of holiday – and I still see it that way. We’re working here now, and we’ll be here for the foreseeable future – I’ll probably start my PhD in Melbourne sometime in the next couple years. And in some ways I see our time here as a sort of tourism. When you go to a place, it’s easy enough to see the big sights – go to the zoo, the galleries, whatever else. I think what I like is getting to know the rhythms of a city. Back home, if you walk down the street with a dog, everyone smiles at you, and you smile back, and you’ll probably have people patting the dog whenever you stop at traffic lights. It’s a very shared experience. In Melbourne, people pull their dogs in close when they walk by – it’s as if they don’t want to bother you with an overly curious animal. Some of the older dogs, obviously a bit more accustomed to the process, generally don’t even look at you as you pass. Back home, every dog is always on the lookout for attention from strangers. They know that there’s potential pats with every passer-by. That’s not the case in Melbourne. And that’s the sort of weird little custom that interests me. I don’t really feel like I’ve visited a place if I can’t start to get a sense of those patterns – and that’s something that takes time. You’re not gonna reach it on your day trip to the Louvre.

To me, what we’re doing in Melbourne is proper tourism – we’re visiting a place for a long period of time, living and working in and around the city so that we can understand and appreciate it on its own terms, rather than with the breezy fly-by perspective of holiday-makers. I’m not sure I’d be able to have those sorts of experiences in central Paris, or in Venice – not in the same ways, at least. When a place starts to exclude long-term residents, either through soaring housing costs or massive overwhelming tourism driving out the locals, you’re losing a functional city. Most people won’t get a chance to live and work and play there – they’re only ever passing through. It’s a much more transitory space – that’s where the amusement park metaphor really kicks into high gear. What I’m saying, in short, is that anyone who holidays for less than two years at a time is a coward. Bring on 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s