A TrIP through Haussmann’s Paris: Creatively Investigating the Emergent City Modern

MedievalParis_Haussmann

A map of Paris before Haussmann redesigned the city.

“It is not, I think an accident that social critic Victor Hugo—one of thousands of republicans exiled under the empire—used the images of sewers to animate the persecution of Jean Valjean in his 1861 masterpiece , Les Misérables. Nor was it an accident that the new boulevards became a central character in the paintings of the Impressionist school and on the picture postcards of the era. The city’s transformation aroused the pain and the wonder of the population.

ModernParis_Haussmann

A map of Paris showing the Haussmann system’s implementation of boulevards, new buildings and other public works.

In 2000, I spent two months living in a neighborhood bounded by two great Haussmann* boulevards—Boulevard Saint-Michel and Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  Every day I walked through the old city into the new, examining the manner in which Haussmann had cut the great boulevards at an angle through the urban fabric and had pasted the new Paris over the old.”

~Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It

Caillebotte_Impressionism

Boulevard Haussmann in the Snow, Gustave Caillebotte, Completed 1881. Caillebotte’s paintings of Parisian urban life were somewhat controversial for their exaggerated perspective. Critics speculate this was a technique used to convey a sense of loneliness and alienation as the emerging edifices of the modern city came to engulf the city’s inhabitants.

As Dr. Thompson Fullilove states above, Parisian creatives of the time responded to their changing urban environment through writing and painting among other forms of artistic investigation. Charles Baudelaire’s poem The Swan is particularly well-known as a monument to the altered Parsian cityscape now inescapably Haussmann’s Paris.  Years later, Walter Benjamin’s essays on Baudelaire would popularize Baudelaire’s flâneur or the wanderer of the modern city – an urban spectator/investigator and symbol of the alienation of both the city and capitalism.  Below is an English translation of the poem:

ANDROMACHE, I think of you! The stream,
The poor, sad mirror where in bygone days
Shone all the majesty of your widowed grief,
The lying Simoïs flooded by your tears,
Made all my fertile memory blossom forth
As I passed by the new-built Carrousel.
Old Paris is no more (a town, alas,
Changes more quickly than man’s heart may change);
Yet in my mind I still can see the booths;
The heaps of brick and rough-hewn capitals;
The grass; the stones all over-green with moss;
The débris, and the square-set heaps of tiles.

There a menagerie was once outspread;
And there I saw, one morning at the hour
When toil awakes beneath the cold, clear sky,
And the road roars upon the silent air,
A swan who had escaped his cage, and walked
On the dry pavement with his webby feet,
And trailed his spotless plumage on the ground.
And near a waterless stream the piteous swan
Opened his beak, and bathing in the dust
His nervous wings, he cried (his heart the while
Filled with a vision of his own fair lake):
“O water, when then wilt thou come in rain?
Lightning, when wilt thou glitter?”

Sometimes yet
I see the hapless bird — strange, fatal myth–
Like him that Ovid writes of, lifting up
Unto the cruelly blue, ironic heavens,
With stretched, convulsive neck a thirsty face,
As though he sent reproaches up to God!

II.

Paris may change; my melancholy is fixed.
New palaces, and scaffoldings, and blocks,
And suburbs old, are symbols all to me
Whose memories are as heavy as a stone.
And so, before the Louvre, to vex my soul,
The image came of my majestic swan
With his mad gestures, foolish and sublime,
As of an exile whom one great desire
Gnaws with no truce. And then I thought of you,
Andromache! torn from your hero’s arms;
Beneath the hand of Pyrrhus in his pride;
Bent o’er an empty tomb in ecstasy;
Widow of Hector — wife of Helenus!
And of the negress, wan and phthisical,
Tramping the mud, and with her haggard eyes
Seeking beyond the mighty walls of fog
The absent palm-trees of proud Africa;
Of all who lose that which they never find;
Of all who drink of tears; all whom grey grief
Gives suck to as the kindly wolf gave suck;
Of meagre orphans who like blossoms fade.
And one old Memory like a crying horn
Sounds through the forest where my soul is lost . . .
I think of sailors on some isle forgotten;
Of captives; vanquished . . . and of many more.

~The Swan, Charles Baudelaire, 1857

*Georges-Eugène Haussmann was selected by Emperor Napoleon III to redesign the urban landscape of Paris between 1853 and 1870.  The extensive development program erected new boulevards, parks and public works throughout the city.  Haussmann’s system arguably improved the quality of life in Paris combating the spread of disease, improving traffic circulation and updating many of the city’s buildings.  It is estimated that 60% of the city’s buildings were affected by the project with much of Paris’ medieval structures dismantled arguably transforming what was once a medieval city into a modern metropolis still recognizable today.

Critics of Haussmann argue that the development projects which were alleged to also help the lives of the poor simply dispersed lower-income residents to the suburbs so that bourgeoisie housing could be built in place of neighborhoods the poor formerly inhabited (a phenomenon many refer to as urban renewal or gentrification).    Lewis Mumford additionally claimed that the widening of Parisian streets was also a tool for the authoritarian regime to better control the populace and more easily quell social resistance.  The displacement of working-class communities also arguably led to a significant social disruption that made it more difficult for these communities to organize and challenge policies that negatively affected them.

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