How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
by Joan DeJean

Reviewed by Killian Quigley


Published by Bloomsbury, 2014   |   309 pages

About two and a quarter million people live in Paris. Include its suburbs, and that figure more than quadruples. The Boulevard Périphérique, which encircles the twenty inner arrondissements, is the busiest road in Europe. Yet for all its bustle, the city at its geographic core is a memorial. The river Seine and its banks, from the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro Gardens in the west to the Île Saint-Louis in the east, comprise a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Cultural Site. This puts the heart of the French capital in league with places like Burkina Faso’s eleventh-century Loropéni ruins, and the Neolithic settlement at Choirokoitia, in Cyprus. Paris’s central aesthetic and historical aura are fundamental to its allure, but its degree of commitment to the past can feel zealously, counterproductively conservative. Attempts to remodel its profile – such as the recently approved, fierily controversial Tour Triangle – tend to meet resistance as stony as the pierre de taille that sculpted all the stately grandeur.

This is an irony, because four centuries ago, Paris was at the bleeding edge of urban development. In Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris, the light of the modern breaks over the banks of the seventeenth-century Seine. It radiated brilliantly: in the 1600s, a dazzling cavalcade of transformations and innovations lined the bridges, sidewalks, gardens, and quais of la capitale. Paris wasn’t simply a city in flux – it was a city inventing itself, not to mention an indefatigably enthralling myth of itself. Ever since, Europe and its heirs have fashioned and refashioned themselves in – and sometimes against – Paris’s physical and philosophical image. Today’s city might not be indistinguishable from its ancestor, but it has hewed astonishingly close to these long-rooted designs. In DeJean’s telling, modernity arrives in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Paris as a splendid, violent eruption, destroying what came before, and laying a new landscape for posterity. We who inhabit the future do not so much transform modern ground as work upon it, and as we do so, DeJean might say, we are always spreading the seeds of parisianisme.

One of the commonest Parisian tales – UNESCO even paraphrases it – is that the city came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century. How Paris Became Paris revises this legend. When we set the grand act of Parisian urbanization during the reign of Napoléon III (1852-70), we tend to place a French senator named Georges Eugène Haussmann in the beau rôle. From 1853 to 1869, Haussmann organized the demolition of large parts of the city center, and their subsequent replacement by a streetscape of avenues and grand residences that has come to seem definitively Parisian. Obviously, middle Paris is astonishingly, gorgeously coherent – today’s boulevards and bâtiments present an uncanny uniformity, which we regularly describe as “Haussmannian.” But in DeJean’s rewriting, the nineteenth century’s grand reforms were made possible by the visionary imaginations of two monarchs from the early Bourbon dynasty: Henri IV (1589-1610) and Louis XIV (1643-1715). By the time Napoléon III deputized Haussmann to revamp his capital, the French Bourbons were finished, but their distinctly modern genius had already conjured the city as it was, and as it was to come.

That genius still sparkles at Henri IV’s Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, which links today’s first and sixth arrondissements via the western end of the Île de la Cité. Upon opening in 1606, its balconies set pedestrians to admiring the city, and the Seine, when they weren’t otherwise diverted by vendors, vaudevillistes, and the variegated spectacle sauntering by. From the Pont Neuf, Paris and its tourists discovered the aesthetics of cityscape, finding not only that urban space could be beautiful, but that persons like themselves were integral to the panorama. Travelers continued to make for Rome to wonder at sculptures, ruins, and monuments and to contemplate the classical past, but in Paris, residential architecture and city planning made for cutting-edge art. The same went for Parisians: when the redesigned Tuileries gardens opened in the 1660s, visitors strolled and lolled in an unprecedented ambience of fashionable display. André Le Nôtre’s designs, which still stretch between the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre Museum, gave Europe its first great public gardens, and haute couture its grandest public showings.

From DeJean’s vantage, Louis XIV is the consummate modern reformer. Among his most powerful – and most subtle – achievements was to make Paris the greatest city in the world for walking. DeJean has a great knack for description, and for iteration, and her book’s central image is of Parisians from all corners stepping out to work, hear the ripest gossip, or simply go for a ramble. In the final decades of the seventeenth century, as France expanded and Paris became more secure, the Sun King ordered the city walls (enceintes) – stark reminders of the capital’s medieval past – torn down. From the rubble spread a cours, or giant, tree-lined promenade. Actually and symbolically, this was a titanic shift: Paris was literally opening to its hinterland, replacing an emblem of violence and separation with a space dedicated to safe, civilized encounter and exchange. The cours nourished pedestrians, a distinctly Parisian set of characters who’d been born on the Pont Neuf and came of age in the Tuileries gardens. Linger upon any broad, tree-lined urban boulevard or avenue, anywhere, and you are participating in its legacy.

In a setting like the cours, Parisian women and men, within and outside the loftiest social echelons, came to think more intently than ever about self-presentation in public space. French fashion was becoming an industry, and this meant that more – and more affordable – garments were available than ever before. New opportunities for anonymity, disguise, and hence social mobility were up for sale in the clothing shops and second-hand stalls springing up throughout the city. You might have been born to one walk of life, but with just the right outfit – and the requisite panache – you could strut in another. This empowered not only thieves and confidence tricksters, but also previously disenfranchised persons – notably Parisian women – to navigate their milieu with newfound freedom. In one of her history’s briskest sections, DeJean presents character sketches of coquettes and aventurières, the Parisiennes who punctured traditional boundaries and achieved personal and financial independence through fashion, business acumen, and amorous intrigue. Their Paris would have been unrecognizable to those who pose for nuptial photos along the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, thinking the scene a metonymy for surety and permanence in love. DeJean’s courageous coquettes and aventurières lent the seventeenth century city true romance by charging its atmosphere with transience, secrecy, and play.

DeJean’s modern upsurge was propelled by entrepreneurship and individualism, and the incipient free market was one of its primary products. In the 1600s, the lifeblood of French commerce shifted from Lyon to the capital, and provincials eager to elevate their position came knocking. Some of them became the parvenu financiers and real estate developers who would wrest control over the Parisian economy from the iron grasp of the aristocracy and, in so doing, help make the city modern. Though many among the era’s nouveau riche acquired capital and influence through what we might indelicately call war profiteering, DeJean’s primary aim is to recuperate these figures from their strident detractors, apparently as copious and critical in the 1690s as they are in the twenty-first century. She implicitly warns her reader against repeating the errors of late seventeenth-century conservatives, who bristled with a “rabidly anti-financier mood” while refusing to recognize that developers and investors “became wealthy because they had successfully exploited [the economic] system, [but] bore no responsibility for it.” Without them, she argues, the Île Saint-Louis (then the Île Notre-Dame) might yet be inhabited by sheep, and the Seine that washes it might be streaming with sewage.

DeJean insists that changes like these tended to dramatically curtail social inequality. Consider that in April 1612, about a quarter of Paris’s population turned up to celebrate the engagements of two young French nobles – Élisabeth de France and the future Louis XIII – to a couple of similarly junior Spanish royals. A public fête on this scale required a coming-out party of another kind: spectators flocked to the grounds of the newly-opened Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges), an area explicitly designed for popular recreation, and the first such site in all of Europe. Fifty years later, an early attempt at a public transportation system for the city went into operation, as did a scheme for renting torchbearers to light one’s way at night. These were not free services, but DeJean accords them a democratic essence. How Paris Became Paris credits nascent capitalism with spurring innovation, as well as establishing a modicum of social equality, but does not ignore its unsalutary consequences: the Place Royale, for instance, had by the 1650s been effectively cordoned off by the well-to-do. In DeJean’s history, the democratic energy emitted from modernity’s upwelling usually begins to disperse as capital starts to pile up.

Early last month, Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, triumphantly announced that the city council had greenlighted construction of the Tour Triangle, a 42-story triangular glass tower on the southern edge of the 15th arrondissement. This may represent the beginning of a dramatic new phase in the city’s life: after putting a stop to skyscraper-building in the late 1970s, and easing those restrictions in 2010, Paris seems poised for a material and visual transformation the like of which it has not seen in a century and a half. What is certain is that those who debate the Tour Triangle’s merits do so through concepts that DeJean’s seventeenth-century subjects might have found familiar. The architectural historian William J.R. Curtis, for example, has complained in The Architectural Review that the project represents “an inflation of commerce,” “a devaluation of civic monumentality,” and the potential destruction of “collective memory and meaning.” DeJean’s book might help Curtis, and the rest of us, understand that when we talk about what the modern means – and debate its course – in 2015, we’re often extending sixteenth- and seventeenth-century threads. How Paris Became Paris teaches us a great deal about the origins of the modernity we have, and spurs us to contemplate the modernity we want.

Killian Quigley is an outsized Irish-American and mediocre boulanger ordinarily resident in Nashville, Tennessee, but currently holding against the wind on Ireland’s south coast. For the 2014-15 academic year, he taught English literature and language at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, in Paris. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University, where he reads 18th century British and Irish literature.

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