Grand, Gai Paris

Ten years ago I was eighteen and living alone (off of my parents) in Paris. Ah… youth, treasure only gods may keep… Anyhow, Paris was a dream city; not the darkish, seedy Baudelarian urban dreamscape, or even the fleeting Benjaminian fancy. New Millenium Paris for me was a fleshy and flushed Disney-musical-featuring-Julie-Andrews kind of day to day rêverie: absurdly lovely and innocuous. I remember early morning strolls and limestone and birds chirping and leaves turning red and buttery pastries that literally melted in your mouth. Since I was eighteen, I had to feel alienated too, so I wore black all the time and grew my hair long and put on a sullen face every time I went out. I listened to Fiona Apple and sat on bridges alone for hours till my ass froze. That was pretty much it.

I guess for the untrained eye it’s really difficult to notice how Paris can be alienating. First, just because it’s so f-ing beautiful. Second, because central Paris is caught up in a solipsistic detachment that only fluctuates between the gentle, romantic silliness of Amélie Poulin and the voluptuous, tragic silliness of Juliette Binoche in Trois Couleurs: Bleu. Third, because for all of its rocking political heritage, Paris seems convinced it has done enough for the improvement of mankind, content with milking the glories of yesterday and keeping the nasty spots well hidden under the rug. Those daily demonstrations on the Place de la République were just a great big hoax to me, particularly when my famille d’accueil kept a picture of the long-lost family country estate hung over their kitchen table, and they excused themselves for how rundown the street had become since all those “blacks” moved to the neighborhood, or when friends they had over for dinner tried to convince me that the very best thing that could’ve ever happened to us Mexicans would have been to spare Maximilian and remain a French protectorate. Never mind the horrid soirées rallye, pure pre-revolutionary pop.

Paris is patrician, classist, and reactionary to the pretty core, and Parisians know it. It has to be one of the most seamlessly segregated cities in the world. So, even though M. le Président’s call for a “Grand Paris” has tinges of boldness, the plot to make metropolitan Paris (tout compris, meaning the burning banlieus too) more sustainable, livable and equal by way of architectural and infrastructural Grands Travaux amounts to little more than Sarkozy trying to get his game back after loosing the title of young, brazen, charming guy-in-charge to Obama, or simply following Barack's lead of announcing great things and then scaling back. In the long run, marrying Carla Bruni might have a greater impact on the collective conscience of the French.

It's not that the proposals are necessarily poor or perverse in themselves. It's not that green belts and vegetable growing buildings and "urban substance stimulatrors" and techno-infrastructural corridors and a polycentric café-centered urban culture are necessarily bad things. Heck, some of the proposals are indeed quite poetic (even explicitly, calling for "poetic" tram-oriented transport to complement high-speed transit). It's just that in Paris, poetry is more than often a trap.

Despite Roland Castro's and the rest of the teams' good intentions, even the grandest of urban desgin schemes wouldn't be enough to pull Paris together. Not by a long shot. More than an urbanistic version of Paris je t'aime, what planning in the city needs is a François Bégaudeau-type urban antihero. The genius of Entre les mures is that it demonstrates that good intentions never cut it. There are no truly appalling conditions shown in the film. No poverty porn. The setting is a decent, modern, clean, multiculty high school (no graffiti or obtuse racial prejudice or vicious decay one can fight against and prove oneself against and overcome. This is no Stand and Deliver, certainly not Dangerous Minds), and the students are clearly well fed and surprisingly well-dressed. The teachers seem to be doing pretty okay too. Still, there is an unbreachable divide between the two groups, growing deeper by the minute as the movie rolls on. The kids find it impossible to cope with life, and the teachers can't do anything about it. Nothing. They are left to themselves, to their false yearnings and comings of age and their fake (urban) tribal belongings and their sense of needing something else but not knowing where to find it or even where to start looking. We're not faced with a purely outward, practical, spatial, functional problem here; but rather an all-encompassing malaise, a case of cultural exhaustion. It's not only that Paris is broken and divided: the real problem is that it's children are lost.

1 comment:

Chantal Martin said...

Thank you for this enlightening post and for taking such a realistic stance on the future of Sarkozy’s plans for the urban renewal of Paris. While certainly the President’s efforts to come up with initiatives to make the city “more sustainable, livable, and equal” seem to correspond with those of France to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as mandated by Kyoto, I also found myself questioning Sarko’s real motivations for spear-heading such a project. Indeed, the feasibility of implementing any of the recently unveiled proposals seems extremely unrealistic considering the current economic situation and general unhappiness among the Parisian population with “President Bling-Bling.” Furthermore, while the environmental ambitions of the proposals may be viable, as you mention “even the grandest of urban design schemes wouldn’t be enough to pull Paris together.” As someone who spent considerable time in the capital city last year, I am in complete accord with your statement that “to the untrained eye its really difficult to notice how Paris can be alienating.” Having lived with my own famille d’accueille in the 9th arrondissement, I rarely ventured outside the city limits; it was so easy to become enthralled with the centuries-old architecture and historical sites that I regularly forgot about the Paris of the banlieues just minutes away on the RER. Even with the international coverage of the monumental riots that occurred in 2005, many people outside of France do not realize the extent of the segregation in the capital. That being said, at the end of your post you claim that the origin of the problem in Paris is due to “an all-encompassing malaise, a case of cultural exhaustion.” It seems as though you are implying that racial rationales for tensions have become somewhat obsolete. If so, what then would you propose as a solution to the division of the city, which so harshly isolates the banlieues from the more affluent centre-ville? Do you think that any of the ten architectural firms’ proposals could provide insight as to how this problem may be solved in the future?