Monday, January 19, 2009

The History of Paris, part I

I have been reading old Encyclopedia Brittanica articles on the history of great cities. The good old 11th edition, from just before World War I, is a scholarly monument (I have a 14th edition, 1939, which is a modification of the 11th), but this is not exactly serious research. Just getting the lay of the land.

History gives a lot of help to thinking through principles. I will just mention in passing now (though I should lay it out in full sometime) the Copernican first chapter of The Economy of Cities, in which Jane Jacobs lays out the anthropological evidence that in the first great agricultural revolution, about 10,000 BC, farming could only begin because of a preexisting network of trading-post cities: you cannot farm, cannot even get the seed you need for farming, without dense centers of trade. Urban life predates the farms, and, contrary to popular assumptions, it is the farms that are parisitic on cities, not vice versa -- right from the beginning.

We will have to save that agronomical argument for another time. Today I'd like to show how the history of one great city illuminates a parallel theme.

Like most cities, Paris was founded at a crossing of great roads. At its heart, Paris is an island, still called the île de la cité. Here is an aerial photograph, almost too rich:
This is a view from the Northeast. At the center you can see the two islands in the Seine. The larger one, to the right, is the original île de la cité. The smaller one, the île St. Louis, was constructed from two uninhabited islands during the reign of Louis XIV (the seventeenth century). I believe the large park on the near side of the river, at the right edge, is the Louvre and environs. The rest is a bit hard to make out at this resolution.

The city was founded on an island because islands are easy to defend--and therein lies Paris's first lesson about the relation of city to countryside. Agrarians, distributists, and country enthusiasts of all stripes paint a romantic picture of rural peace as against the crime of the city. And surely, in our current political situation, there is reason for that picture: through terrible liberal mismanagement during the last century, our cities have been allowed to fall, at times, into chaos. (Though again I point out that in Philadelphia, known as "Murder City," the homicide rate per hundred thousand persons is 11.8 -- and far lower for white people. In the US as a whole, the traffic fatality rate per hundred thousand is over 14. If you are worried about your safety, avoid cars, not the city.)

But historically, the first reason for cities is precisely safety. Nowhere is as unsafe -- from robbers, from forces of nature, including animals, and especially from marauders -- as a farm. Cities around the world were built as fortresses, places for even the rural population to hide during times of invasion. We are fortunate to be free from such invasions now. But the rise of cities reminds us that strength is in numbers: we are safe now because we watch out for one another. There is no safety in isolation, no life at all without safety. (And indeed, it is now well established that the greatest danger in cities is precisely bone-headed efforts to keep people "off the street," thereby making cities places of darkness and isolation, rather than places where your neighbors are always watching out for you.)

(Full disclosure: The most dangerous city in the country is Detroit, where the murder rate is about 45/100,000. That is far more dangerous than Philadelphia, or the freeway. But even in Detroit, experts say upwards of 65% of murders surround drug dealing. If drug policy were better managed -- more on that another time -- the murder rate would be about equal to the national traffic-fatality rate. And it is easier to avoid drugs in the city than to avoid crazies on the freeway.)

So Paris was intially a fortress, a place of safety in numbers against the dangers of the world. Once that fortress was established on the island, however, the faubourgs began to spring up. Faubourg roughly translates as suburb, but we need to be careful about the parallel. In all of history prior to about World War II, a suburb was not what we think of, a huge tract of houses with yards, but itself a small urban center, where work, leisure, and home were within walking distance, and where people were physically close enough to watch out for one another: a tight little community. Pre-modern "suburbs" were also very close to the urbs itself. Reading about the original faubourgs of Paris is almost humorous, for in modern Paris these would hardly even be considered separate neighborhoods from the city center. On one afternoon's walk on the Right Bank (the bottom of the picture above), I walked through four or five of these old faubourgs.

And here is Paris's second lesson for us about the nature of cities. I live today in a neighborhood called Rondo, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, there is nothing to distinguish Rondo from the neighborhoods around it, except titles on a couple public buildings and parks. To call it a neighborhood seems almost arbitrary.

But it is not so in traditional urban development. What are now considered neighborhoods in Paris were originally their own separate towns, with public buildings, public spaces, shops, and a local culture. This perdures. I have only ever spent a few weeks in France. But take the example of New York. What is now called Greenwich Village was once . . . a village, outside of the a small settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan called New York City. To the north of today's village is the neighborhood of Chelsea, which grew up, and eventually replaced, Thomas Clarke's old estate of that name. Next north is Hell's Kitchen, which was once an Irish shantytown. Etc.

The point is, these neighborhoods are not arbitrary little divisions of an otherwise undifferentiated metropolis. Rather, the divisions -- the villages, the neighborhoods -- predate the city itself. To the outsider, cities seem like an endless crowd. But real life in the city is far more local than even an old-fashioned small town. Indeed, part of what makes places like New York and Paris intimidating to modern tourists is their intensely local culture, indeed, their provincialism. A person who lives in Greenwich Village hardly needs to leave those sixty-some blocks bordered by 14th St., Washington Square Park, Houston St., and the river, where the farthest you can walk, from one edge to the other, is one mile. What further maddens visitors to a true urban environment is that, unlike the suburbs, where a strip mall clearly displays a full range of national chains, the visitor to an urban neighborhood -- even a relatively recent occupant of the neighborhood -- has to learn the grocery stores, the pizza places, the parks, etc. Life in the city is intensely local; it is on a far smaller scale than life outside the city.

And this is because a true city is in fact not a vast, undifferentiated expanse of interchangeable parts, but a network of villages. The old cities grew up this way: Paris did not just gradually expand outwards, but gradually extended its borders around self-contained communities in its orbit. And this remains the very nature of a city. Even our poor Rondo, subject as it is to a freeway -- not built for us! -- and countless efforts to stamp out individuality under the guise of making things more "rational" and "fair," continues to be its own reality, with a history and memory, a local culture of fairs, ways of relating, socio-economic class (Rondo is lower-middle-class black), and establishments. Other neighborhoods in our city, with stronger clout, have retained this reality even more. Neighborhoods like Saint Anthony Park, Summit Hill, and especially Highland Village (can't escape that last word!), but even including poor Frogtown, are distinct units, villages within the city, even though modern politics does its best to ignore them.

In the next post, we will look at the specific factors that gave birth to these village-neighborhoods.