How much do we actually know about the towns and cities we live in?
I recently read The Other Side of Paris by Luc Sante. It’s a book that does away with the chic, romantic characteristics with which the city is so often associated, dealing instead with the darker, poorer aspects of Parisian history. The book covers such topics as disease, prostitution, crime and insurgency. But in doing so, it also draws attention to those people and places whose stories are rarely heard, or that have been buried by history.
Parisian Boulevards Were Not Always Welcome
Luc Sante is certainly not a fan of many modern Parisian landmarks. He refers to the Montparnasse tower as “a giant upended turd purposelessly dominating the Left Bank”, labels the Pompidou Centre “aggressively repellent” and says the François-Mitterrand library “looks like a housing project on the moon”. I must say, I’m with him there.
What’s interesting, though, is that he explores how Paris’ trademark Haussmannian boulevards – often considered one of the city’s most beautiful characteristics – were once new, and that they too sparked a lot of backlash. Speaking of the boulevards, which were built in the nineteenth century, the Goncourt brothers (co-authors who wrote in the first person) are quoted as saying: “My Paris, where I was born, the Paris of life as it stood between 1830 and 1848, is passing away.”
The boulevards introduced by Haussmann may be beautiful, and they may have pre-empted Paris’ need to accommodate the automobile, but what we never really consider is that they cut straight through and even flattened longstanding neighbourhoods throughout the city.
The Curious Names of Places…
Anybody who has ever travelled south of Paris on the RER line B, perhaps to the Orly airport, may have noticed a stop that has a distinctly non-French name: Robinson. I had never gone so far as to look up the origin of the name, but now I know. In 1848, in the southern suburb of Plessis-Piquet, a fan of Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1812) was inspired to build a cafe in the trees, in the form of an elaborate tree house. A competition ensued, with others following suit and, in 1909, the area was officially renamed Plessis-Robinson.
Up until the nineteenth century, an integral aspect of Parisian life involved ragpickers, who trawled the city’s streets for scraps of food, clothing and other waste that could be recycled and used to make money. In the 1800s, however, ragpickers were threatened as the authorities began to introduce municipal rubbish collection. In 1884 Eugène Poubelle, prefect of the Seine, decreed that all houses be supplied with lidded containers for refuse, their contents to be collected by municipal authority. Poubelle became, and remains, the French word for dustbin.