Urbanities

David Garrard Lowe
Urban Lessons From Paris
Winter 1996

By eight in the morning, the August sun is warming the Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres, brushing with gold the facade of the eleventh-century Romanesque church that gives the square its name, brightening the trees that surround the Picasso sculpture honoring the poet Apollinaire, turning up, as it were, the house lights for those fortunate enough to be having their café au lait on the terrace of the Deux Magots. Paris appears to sparkle; in fact, it does sparkle. The capital of France has about it the squeaky-clean aura of a just-scrubbed porch, a feeling one almost never experiences in New York. The reason is not difficult to discover.

There at the edge of the Boulevard Saint-Germain is one of the explanations. Dressed in pale green, a man is vigorously sweeping, pushing along the debris of the pavement and street with the help of a foot-wide stream of water flowing in the gutter. Parisians have begun calling the sweepers vertes— “greens.” Similarly, a few years ago, the Parisian version of the meter maid was dubbed aubergine—eggplant—after the color of her smart new uniform. At first glance, the sweeper seems to be wielding a broom of twigs like those used by French peasants, but the brooms are in fact bundles of green plastic imitation twigs, now that the Paris Department of Sanitation has discovered that plastic brooms cost one-fifth as much as ones made of real twigs and last seven times as long.

The Paris Department of Sanitation has a reputation for being one of the most innovative in the world. This is, after all, the city of the mechanized municipal pooper-scooper, a Rube Goldberg marriage of motorcycle and vacuum cleaner. It is the city of the Gyrolave, a vehicle developed by the Department of Sanitation working with private manufacturers to deal with the animal-fat residue left by the open-air street markets, such as that in the rue de Buci, one of the shopping centers of the Left Bank. The Gyrolave mixes steaming water and soap and then directs it onto the markets’ pavements. Afterward, it sweeps the street. The sanitation department has also, in cooperation with private manufacturers, come up with a truck that shoots a stream of water under parked cars to remove litter, allowing the streets to be cleaned when cars are in place. In contrast, those unwieldy behemoths, the New York City mechanical street sweepers, can only be used on days when cars are not permitted to park on one side of the street or the other.

“The biggest difference between New York and Paris is the fact that Paris is clean,” a New York editor now living in Paris observes. “The fact that Paris is clean gives Parisians a sense that things are not falling apart, that society is not doomed, that there is order in the universe and in municipal government.”

The municipal authorities in Paris believe so strongly that public cleanliness is a statement of civic health that they spend 10 percent of the city budget, more than $2 billion annually, on sanitation. In contrast, recent cutbacks in New York's Department of Sanitation budget have produced the disgusting sight of overflowing trash baskets in midtown Manhattan. To stem the deluge, employees of the Grand Central Partnership, a private Business Improvement District, are now emptying the trash containers around Grand Central Terminal and bagging the refuse, neatly piling dozens of bags around the municipal litter baskets before the garbage trucks get around to hauling them away. The pervasive appearance of disarray, some think, has begun to damage New York’s position as a world center of commerce and culture.

Paris’s devotion to civic cleanliness teaches another lesson. Although Paris’s Department of Sanitation has developed highly sophisticated equipment for some jobs, unskilled laborers still accomplish the essential task of sweeping the streets. Almost all of Paris’s 4,500 sweepers are Arab or African immigrants. Here in New York, where unskilled workers abound, this is a lesson worth remembering.

Stretching for some 80 acres behind the French Senate—the palace that Salomon de Brosse designed in 1615 for Queen Marie de Medici—the Jardin du Luxembourg exemplifies Paris’s belief that municipal authority should be used to socialize and to civilize the populace by giving them a glimpse beyond the man-made, urban world to the natural order. “We are attempting to give the people of Paris something that people in most large cities lack,” Paul Rissel, one of the Luxembourg’s chief gardeners, explains: “contact with nature.”

“Nature” in the Luxembourg plays by strictly French rules, of course. The garden’s plants are carefully bedded arrangements of geraniums, dahlias, and petunias. At the center of the garden is a basin where children launch model sailboats, while around them adults sun themselves on those simple but superbly designed iron French garden chairs. The chairs, single, movable, some with arms, some without, in a way symbolize French individualism, but those who occupy them also play by the rules: though movable, the chairs remain in rows—ragged rows, but nevertheless, rows. People read or speak in low voices; usually on warm days, a band made up of members of the Paris fire or police department plays under a grove of trees on the side of the park nearest the Pantheon. The melodies are almost always by Gershwin or Porter or Kern. There are no loud radios, no running, no panhandling, no homeless asleep under the trees.

Two factors are at work here. The first is that Paris is one of the best-policed cities in the world, with some 21,000 police officers, or around one cop per 100 Parisians, compared with one per 270 New Yorkers. In the Luxembourg, one is very aware of the pairs of policemen routinely walking by. Second, the Luxembourg has more than one gardener for each of the park’s 80 acres. The orderliness of the park, reinforced by the formal planting and the inescapable presence of the police, contrasts with New York’s Central Park, which, with its radios and the electronic music of “The Summer Stage” turns what should be a calming, civilizing oasis into a jungle of noise. And though private agencies such as the Central Park Conservancy have valiantly attempted to step in where the city has failed, Central Park too often looks irreparably shabby. The labor-intensive rotation of flowers in Paris, which strikingly marks the seasons, gives way in New York to the bare maintenance of greenery.

In the self-denigrating lexicon of modern America, words like “progress” and “optimism” are forbidden. But a civilization that does not employ them, does not believe in them, is doomed either to the static condition of pharaonic Egypt or to the disintegration of nineteenth-century Venice. The French government embraces the idea that Paris—as well as the other cities of France—must give concrete evidence that conditions are improving, and that inhabiting a city makes ordinary human life better, not worse.

This is achieved in ways both large—such as the astounding expansion of the Grand Louvre —and small—as in the recent regilding of the 18 magnificent lamp standards gracing the Place de la Concorde. An outstanding example of an urban administration using its imagination to improve the lives of its citizens and to enhance a neighborhood is the recently refurbished Viaduc des Arts. Consisting of 60 high brick and stone arches, the viaduct carried a train line from the Place de la Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes from 1853 until it was abandoned in 1969. The vaults then quickly became a neighborhood nuisance, sheltering tramps and some noisome auto repair shops. The question was whether to demolish, at a high cost, the handsome, well-built structure or to find a practical use for it.

The solution was the Viaduc des Arts. The brick facades were cleaned, the soaring interior spaces were opened up, and the viaduct became a center for métiers d’art, that is, for the very craftsmen that cities need, but who all too often depart because of high rents and inhospitable locations. Now, in the vaults that once carried steam trains to the southeast corner of Paris, silver flatware is made in the Ateliers du Cuivre et de l'Argent, antique linens and laces are repaired at Marie Lavande, Atelier le Tallec has 12 painters who decorate and fire Limoges china for Tiffany & Company, while in still another vault rare musical instruments, including glorious French hunting horns, are sold and repaired. And, as always in Paris, there is a restaurant, Au Pere Tranquille. The Viaduc des Arts, running along one side of the Avenue Daumesnil from numbers 9 to 129, has brought life, commerce, and style to a once-dull neighborhood.

But the real surprise of the recycled viaduct is the garden on top of it. Reached by both stairs and elevators, it is the creation of Philippe Martheux and Jacques Vergely. The breadth and length of the viaduct surprises; the views, some four stories in the air, are sensational. Here is the fin-de-siecle Gare de Lyon, a new pastel-colored school, and an astounding postmodern police station topped with a couple of dozen gigantic copies of a single Michelangelo sculpture, The Slave. There are benches, fountains, tree-lined walks, places for children to play. It seems a modern version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

This creative use of an obsolete urban structure is a lesson that Gotham could learn. After the Second World War, for example, when plans to demolish the Third Avenue Elevated were first announced, Buckminster Fuller and other imaginative urbanists suggested that, once the trains ceased to run, the structure itself should be kept. Paved over, they said, it would be a glorious pedestrian mall, separating people from the vehicular traffic in the street below. And since it was clearly foreseen that, once the El stopped running, Third Avenue would be rebuilt, the new structures would be required to have garage and delivery entrances at street level, while their lobby entrances would be at the level of the former Elevated. But the Elevated was demolished, and New York lost its chance for a unique urban amenity. Today, in a similar vein, neighborhood opposition, political infighting, and a general lack of vision have stymied a proposal to turn the spectacular vaults under the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge into a market and shops not unlike those of the Viaduc des Arts.

The decision to find a creative use for the former railroad viaduct was a direct result of the terrible lesson that Paris learned from the destruction in 1971 of Victor Baltard's seminal glass and iron “umbrellas” of the 1850s that once housed Les Halles, Paris’s central market. The loss of these majestic sheds, ordered by Napoleon III, and their replacement by the ghastly Forum des Halles, with its 200 shops and its cinemas, was an urban-planning disaster. The Forum des Halles, one guide has said, "manages to induce both claustrophobia and agoraphobia.”

Since the debacle of Les Halles, Paris has striven to reuse its vast stock of fine buildings. A prime example is the transformation of Victor Laloux’s ornate Gare d’Orsay into the Musee d’Orsay under President Valery Giscard díEstaing. The museum opened in 1986 as a space to display nineteenth-century art, and though the modernist brutalism of its interior by Gae Aulenti resembles an ambitious suburban mall, Paris has saved an important building, has preserved the Beaux Arts ensemble of the Quai d’Orsay on the Seine, and has gotten for itself an enormously popular new tourist attraction.

The imaginative recycling of structures, as well as Paris's desire to increase the number of green spaces within the city, has led to the hugely successful La Villette, site of Paris’s vast cattle market and abattoir in the far northwest corner of the metropolis. Work began in the 1960s on a gigantic new slaughterhouse to serve the entire city, but construction stopped halfway through, when the authorities decided to ban such unpleasant industries from Paris. Thus, the city was left with some 36 acres lying on two sides of an old canal, a gargantuan, partially completed structure, and several handsome, empty nineteenth-century pavillions.

Late in the 1970s, the authorities decided to transform La Villette into a “Parc Urbain du 21e Siecle,” a city park for the next century. The 20 concrete piers of the unfinished abattoir, each 80 feet tall and linked by 200-foot-long steel girders, were roofed and glazed, and the space converted into the new Museum of Science and Industry. The alluring hands-on displays, geared to appeal primarily to schoolchildren, include a delightful gaggle of robots, a transparent model of a particle accelerator designed to explain nuclear reactions, and a full-scale replica of an American space station. In front of the Museum is La Geode, a glistening 18-foot-high polished stainless steel sphere that shows documentary films on a 10,000-square-foot curved screen within its dome.

Impressive ingenuity has also transformed the Grande Halle aux Boeufs, the former cattle market erected in 1867 by the architect Jules de Mérindol. The architects Bernard Reichen and Philippe Robert have kept its superb 24,000-square-yard iron and glass shed, reminiscent of Les Halles, and they have subtly tacked on bathrooms and other service areas needed for modern use. Now the Grande Halle is a much-sought-after venue for trade fairs, exhibitions, and popular music concerts. The park of La Villette, designed by Robert Tschumi, head of Columbia University’s School of Architecture, is studded with pavilions of a deconstructivist design made of bright red enameled metal. Termed “Follies” by Tschumi, to recall the pagodas and Grecian temples that dotted the parks surrounding eighteenth-century French chateaus, the pavilions, practical as well as playful, serve as refreshment stands. An unqualified success, La Villette attracts thousands of children each year, as well as a growing number of Paris's 20 million tourists.

Over the decades, New York has squandered its capital of magnificent structures, mindlessly demolishing Charles McKim’s staggering Pennsylvania Station, the resplendent old Metropolitan Opera, and Joseph Urban's wondrously chic Ziegfeld Theater on Sixth Avenue. There are signs, though, that even in New York the era of barbarity might be over: Trowbridge and Livingston’s former B. Altman's department store, at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, has metamorphosed into a center for the New York Public Library’s economics and business divisions, and plans to convert McKim, Mead & White’s main post office building on Eighth Avenue into an Amtrak station are under consideration.

Paris, for the aware, is packed with lessons in sagacious urbanity. Walking up the gentle slope of the rue Soufflot from the Luxembourg Gardens toward the imposing dome of the Pantheon, the pedestrian receives a surprise as he approaches the rue Saint-Jacques. Automobiles, like ants leaving an anthill, stream out of the ground. They have been parked in one of the underground caverns the city has excavated beneath its boulevards, parks, and squares, including the tony Place Vendome, the enticing Place Saint-Sulpice, and the Tuileries Gardens, which now, after years of being a construction site for Mitterand's Grand Louvre, are getting a much-needed restoration. In each of these projects, the Paris city fathers succeeded in preserving the grace and tranquillity of these splendid historic sites. These garages are no real solution to the problem of a population addicted to the automobile, but with parking choking streets ranging from the narrow rue des Saints-Peres on the Left Bank to the broad Avenue de l’Opéra on the Right, at least it is a constructive attempt to house cars off the street. New York might do well to imitate Paris and commission a survey of potential underground garage locations, beginning with the embarrassingly shabby park in front of City Hall.

Paris, like all world cities, is a place of breathtaking contrasts. It is a city both of charming corners where the very essence of civilized existence is concentrated into a glass of red wine and a yellow cat asleep upon a cash register and also of modern quarters whose banality makes one wonder if there are secret competitions among architects for the ugliest building.

Start with one of the most delicious experiences of city life anywhere: a stroll down the rue de Seine to the Louvre. The street opens with the flourish of an open-air market at the Boulevard Saint-Germain and then proceeds, like some wily conjurer, to present to the pedestrian an astonishing repertory of wonders: art galleries selling African sculpture and rare photographs, jewelers’ windows filled with carnelians and carved jade, intimate cafés with brilliantly colored liqueurs glistening in tapering glasses, pharmacies dispensing cough drops laced with enough codeine to stop the heart, and charcuteries with mouthwatering displays of lark paté and cassis cakes. All are housed in the first floors of those tall, thin seventeenth-century French buildings that lean together like old maids at a dance.

At the river end of the street, one slips, like Alice, through an unobtrusive door into the elegantly curved courtyard of the Institute de France and enters a more expansive world. Behind looms Louis Le Vau’s masterpiece, the high dome of the Institute, while ahead the rhythmical iron arches of the Pont des Arts carry one across the Seine to the side of Louvre called the Galerie du Bord de l’Eau. Passing through the Renaissance exuberance of the palace’s Cour Carrée, one emerges onto the rue de Rivoli. There, a gigantic metallic plant bearing glass blossoms marks one of Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrances to the Métro.

Slip down into the spotless, art-filled Louvre Metro station and hop on a glistening, comfortable subway car. The trip to La Défense, on the city’s western rim, takes scarcely half an hour, but aesthetically it spans centuries. Left behind is the alluring human scale of the rue de Seine, the playfulness of the Pont des Arts, the classical balance of the Institute and the Louvre. La Defense is a visual cacophony of glass and metal office towers. Its centerpiece, La Grande Arche, completed in 1989 to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution, is a 360-foot-high window of white marble designed by a Dane, Johan Otto von Spreckelsen. It resembles an awkward Danish modern side table from a discount store.

Despite its execrable design, La Defense teaches a valuable lesson in city planning. It exists because Andre Malraux, Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, decided to limit high-rise construction in the historic heart of Paris. Had he not made that prescient decision, the absurd structures of La Defense would have been scattered along the rue de Rivoli, the Boulevard Saint-Germain, even the rue de Seine, just as cousins in London have been permitted to obscure the view of Saint Paul's Cathedral from the Thames and, in New York, to destroy the splendid classical limestone ambience of Fifth Avenue, which once made it the retail and hotel glory of America. With wise planning, the energy so destructive to Fifth Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s could have created a new city west of Times Square.

Part of the planning lesson La Défense teaches is how to use a subway system to channel development. Until the beginning of the 1990s, the only way to reach La Défense was to take the Métro to the l’Etoile stop at the Arc de Triomphe and then transfer to a suburban railway line, rather like a New York commuter changing from the subway at Grand Central or Penn Station. Now the Metro’s No. 1 line extends to La Defense itself. This new ease of access, combined with the need of companies such as the automaker Fiat and the giant oil conglomerate Aquitaine for vast floor space and twenty-first-century computer cabling has led to a surge in rentals.

The Parisian authorities constantly and effectively use the Metro to improve life in the metropolis. A new, fully automated train, for example, now connects Orly Airport with the Métro system, and a new line is under construction to serve Bercy, on Paris’s eastern edge, a development begun to counter the city's relentless push to the west.

Though New York’s subway system has made improvements to its constituent elements—especially by purchasing new, air-conditioned cars—the total system remains, to say the least, haphazard. After all, the subway began at the turn of the century as separate private companies, each serving a specific section of the city. It might have been expected that Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, after he took them over in 1940, would have corrected their astounding lack of integration. But no. There is still no east-west subway link in Manhattan above the southern boundary of Central Park. Anyone trapped in the arteriosclerosis-like flow of traffic from the East Side toward Lincoln Center as curtain time approaches will glimpse the enormity of this urban planning disaster.

Cities are more than the well-scrubbed cobblestones of the Place Saint-Germain, more than the perfect roses in the Luxembourg's parterres, more than the rubber-tired Metro trains silently sweeping to La Defense. Cities are also the monument of—the celebration of—civilization. “It was divine nature which gave us the country,” Marcus Terentius Varro wrote in the first century B.C., “and man’s skill that built cities.” The ocean, a mountain, a grove of trees—all these make man aware of his limitations. How different is the sensation created by the Parthenon’s Doric columns, Michaelangelo’s dome floating above Saint Peter’s, or the mast of the Empire State Building flooded with light rising through the clouds. All these structures bespeak man the creator, man the innovator, man the reasoning being who has shaped and formed civilization.

Paris is a city overflowing with the monuments of civilization: Notre Dame, the Invalides, where Napoleon sleeps in his red porphyry sarcophagus, the Eiffel Tower. But Paris also celebrates the civilization of France, of Europe, of reasoning mankind in the most direct and logical of ways: in the names of streets and squares. To move up the Champs Elysees toward the Arc de Triomphe is to review a lesson in history, for the names reverberate with the power of cannons fired in an enclosed space: Place Clemenceau, Avenue Winston Churchill, Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, rue Lincoln, rue Washington, Avenue George V, Place Charles de Gaulle. Paris has thoroughfares named for writers—Proust, Voltaire, Victor Hugo—for painters—Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas—for scientists like Pasteur and Alexander Fleming, for musicians like Poulenc and Berlioz, and even for quintessentially French performers Maurice Chevalier and the “Little Sparrow,” Edith Piaf.

In striking contrast, New York suffers from civic amnesia when it comes to honoring such greatness. Perhaps it is not surprising that no street or square commemorates Henry James or Edith Wharton. But what can explain the fact that John Adams, who lived in the city when he served as vice president, rates not so much as an alley, and the street named for Thomas Jefferson is barely more than that? Such neglect says much about Gotham's civic consciousness.

The contrast between Paris and New York in this matter is perfectly exemplified at the Civic Center in Lower Manhattan, the city's administrative heart. Some of the center's buildings, such as Magnin and McComb's handsome City Hall and McKim, Mead & White's grand Municipal Building, are ranged along Chambers and Centre streets, but the focus of the government complex is an open space, designated a "square," which is surrounded by edifices housing various federal, state, and local courts. This square, little more than an unkempt traffic island, bears the name of a Tammany saloon-keeper friend of Al Smith's, one Foley. It is as though Adams or Jefferson or John Jay or Robert Livingston or even Chester Arthur or Dwight Eisenhower had never trod these streets and breathed this air.

Thinking of the first primitive settlement of the Gauls on the Ile de la Cite, Victor Hugo wrote: “To have once been Lutetia and to have become Paris—what could be a more magnificent symbol: to have been mud and to have become spirit.” That spirit is revealed by things as complex as the Gyrolave squirting soap and steaming water beneath the stalls of the rue de Buci market or as simple as a name—Stendhal or Marie Curie—on a street sign.

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