France, Paris

Paris – Not Quite a Eulogy

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
― Oscar Wilde

Sometimes Paris doesn’t work. Aside from the fact that the French don’t like to work as is (and this is a true stereotype, I’ve found), the city itself just doesn’t hang together properly. Aside from 6 decades of failed immigration policy, 5 governments since the founding of the Republic, the incessant onslaught of developpers trying to ruin the city, problems with crime, Islam, post-colonial guilt, the echos of WW2, Muslims, the decline of the French language in popular use (it as once literally the linga franca of Europe, no more), the loss of her religion, the increasing wealth gap, the development of a new underclass, the fact that soldiers have to patrol my neighborhood, and, lastly, the fact that Anne Hidalgo thinks that skyscrapers will work within the city itself (hint: no one but real estate developers want that) – aside from this the city just feels wrong sometimes. It feels angry and ambivalent all at once.

It’s difficult to explain but think of the last time you walked into a room and something just  fell out of place. Now thing of a time that you have walked into a room after a tenuous truce had just been made between enemies and their anger still hung in the air. that is a decent approximation of the Parisian atmosphere on many days. It is not just the looming and ever present threat of terror, nor the gaping wounds that last attacks opened. It’s something else; maybe the city changed to quickly, who knows? But it is palpable, not always but when it is, it is a thick viscous feeling that that slows everything down and makes the city repugnant.

But it is not always like this. And during the moments when the weakened but enduring spirit can pierce the fog that has fall – those moments are incredible.

It is during those brief moments that one can understand why the city used to capture the imagination of the greater part of the worth. In these moments the City of Light is dimmer but shining nonetheless. You can’t prepare for these times, sometimes you can’t even stop to enjoy them – they pass like one of those rare strangers with whom you make an immediate connection but never see again.

Artists drawing in museums.

The odd couple on a lonely quai.

Children yelling bonjour monsieur to you as they go to school you to work.

In and of themselves they mean little, but together with a million other tiny, indescribable details, the picture of the old spirit comes together. I can no more tell you how these moments come to be than describe why Marat’s posture in Jacques-Louis David’s painting makes such an abhorrent man so pathetic.

These moments are unpredictable but they tend to lie where the stone better bore the weathering of time. At Sunday organ concerts at Saint Eustache, where Parisians line up to listen to a half hour of music on one of the most beautiful organs in the world. When you attend mass at Saint-Nicholas-Du-Chardonnet, a mass performed in the old way and a congregation whose faith would have been more home in the 12th century than in ours. It can be found in lost corners of museums, on roofs in the 6th, on quais in the 4th, in cafés in the second. The sap of the old city varnished some of these places, so it is harder for the problems of today to penetrate and rot what soul remains.

This is perhaps the most interesting time to live here since the Germans marched down Champs-Elyéee and the future of the city as hurled into doubt. But whatever her ails may be right now, the city comes out of hiding when she feels playful or reminiscent.

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Paris

Heritage and Height Limits: A Parisian Problem

A city of tradition, revolution, and reaction, Paris has managed to be both charmingly old world while simultaneously extremely progressive and forward thinking. Paris proper, the twenty arrondissements encircled by the périphérique hasn’t undergone a major change since Hausmann and Napolean III set to work making the city what it is today. They widened boulevards and streets and redid architecture down to minute details like the newstands. Since then the city has been loathe to change.

When the era of skyscrapers can and massively changed cities like New York City and London, Paris relegated them to a suburb, La Défense. The business district of Paris actually exists outside the city itself. The center retained extremely strict height limits and historically important buildings were more or mess untouchable. The Eiffel Tower being a very rare exception that was built to celebrate 200 years of revolution. However, several buildings and structures have gotten through these limits. And they are almost amways greeted with hatred.

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Tour Montparnasse

The most notable is the uniformly detested Tour Montparnasse. Easily the second most prominent building in the skyline of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). This uninspired black mark on the city inspired even stricter restrictions after it’s construction. Other monstrosities have made it through, with slightly less opprobrium than Tour Montparnasse: Centre Pompidou and the Louvre Pyramid.

After Tour Montparnasse the city had a kind of ‘never again’ moment and imposed even stricter height limits on the city. However, this is changing again under mayor Anne Hidalgo. Since views of the city are so expensive and sought after (the city alone contains 30% of the real estate value in France), developers really want to build things that are over the old height restrictions so that owners can have beautiful views of the city (before it fills with other buildings full of people seeking similar views… then suddenly the city is as ugly as London). Mayor Hidalgo recently got the City Council to lift height limits to over 500 feet and to approve a building called Tour Triangle. Described as ‘having a dialog with the city,’ a polite way of saying ‘it is glaring different and will not fit in at all.’

Paris is not the most visited city in the world because people want to see garish modern architecture. They could see that in any major city. People come to Paris to see what major cities of Europe used to be like before the World Wars destroyed most of them (Paris was spared by being declared an open city).

There has been quite an outcry against this move and the building has yet to be built. But does the city really need another Tour Montparnasse to know that it should be more careful and selective?

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