Jim Holt

Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 11 1999 9:30 PM

Jim Holt

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Sometimes, walking along the Seine at sunset, Paris looks so wonderful that you almost wish Hitler or Le Corbusier had succeeded in destroying it. Actually, the Parisians themselves have done a pretty good job of that from time to time. During the Paris Commune of 1871, mobs pulled down or set ablaze the Tuileries Palace, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Palais Royale. The edifices standing on those spots today are modern re-creations. Thanks to Baron Haussman, the Isle de la Cité--the site of Lutetia, Paris' Roman precursor--was razed in the late 19th century. Only two medieval monuments were spared, Nôtre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, and the latter ended up immured within coarsely scaled government office buildings.

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Strolling around Paris today, you can see some parts of it being actively demolished and others simply falling to pieces. Just down my street, the rue de Verneuil, in the city's most expensive arrondissement, the 7th, a handsome pre-revolutionary immeuble is about to topple over on its side. It can't be saved; it can't be pulled down; it just sits there at an angle, propped up by enormous beams, blocking traffic. The Bastille Opéra, a grand project from the '80s, is sheathed in netting because its façade is falling off. That massive piece of art-filled multicolored plumbing, the Beaubourg, is undergoing yet another endless renovation effort to keep it from disintegrating. Meanwhile, wrecking balls have reduced old areas in the north and east of Paris to graffiti-covered bomb sites.

But who am I fooling? Paris is not crumbling. It is not getting less nice. It is getting too nice--so much so that only the bourgeoisie and the well-to-do from abroad can really afford to live here anymore. As one resident put it, Paris is threatening to become "a little museum where the rich and the foreign can live costume-part lives under the daily inspection of tourists."

For Americans, the folklore of Paris is that it consists of two contrasting halves: the Left Bank (intellectual, bohemian) vs. the Right Bank (commercial, comme il faut). Parisians divide the city differently, based, inevitably, on real estate: Paris-West (expensive, established) vs. Paris-East (less expensive, up-and-coming)--an opposition in ways of living, eating, dressing, and amusing oneself that is referred to as Le match Est-Ouest.

In the western part of the city, which includes Left Bank neighborhoods like the Faubourg St. Germain as well as Right Bank ones like Parc Monceau, the complaint you hear is that the petits commerçants are being driven out by the high rents and Armani boutiques, so that soon one will have to take a taxi to get a baguette. In the eastern part, which includes the currently chic rue Oberkampf area as well as quartiers populaires on both sides of the Seine, the fear is that the ubiquitous "improvements"--high-rises, mall-like shopping areas, sterile parks--are destroying the old urban tissue, driving out the young, ethnic, and artsy elements, and leading to general embourgeoisement.

To distract Parisians from such anxieties, the authorities do a very clever thing. On the first Thursday of each month, at 12 noon sharp, a vast network of warning sirens is activated throughout Paris. For several minutes, the city is pervaded by an ominous, keening din. Then it stops--and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief that the Germans are not invading again.

Advice to Americans who think they might go to the movies while visiting Paris: Learn the French for "I can find my own seat," "I am not going to tip you," and "Why don't you get a real job?"

And now I am off to lunch at Paris' most celebrated temple of haute cuisine, Arpège, where I fondly expect to have a tomato for dessert. I'll report tomorrow.