October 2015

Lauren LeBlanc


The Other Paris by Luc Sante

Is it possible for a flâneur, the quintessential artistic wanderer, to call today's Paris his home? Would Baudelaire find like-minded souls on the street, or has café culture become a nostalgic artifact, a backdrop for bankers on holiday? Despite its long-standing history of revolution and culture, Paris is rapidly becoming, like many other global cities, a sterile playground for the rich. What do cities lose when they become a series of monumental glass boxes?

In 1991, Luc Sante's Low Life: Lures and Snares of New York explored the seedy underbelly of New York City from the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. Sante's thorough research provided the basis for a colorful narrative, which set the bar for reconsidering urban histories. Beyond that era's rarified world of the robber barons, New York was also a city of thugs and pleasure-seeking characters, as well as working class immigrant populations struggling to create a home within the city. Expanding urban history to spotlight the poor and working class democratizes our notions of urban planning and cultural vibrancy. Through this more inclusive focus, one recognizes the influential role that all social strata play in the development and evolution of global capitals.

Beyond that, a more inclusive urban history speaks to the danger that cities face when gentrification sweeps out the working poor and creative classes. The inherent charm and personality of a city are found in her characters and the communities they create. As mass gentrification occurs on a scale never before imagined, driving the creative class out along with the lower- and middle-class citizens, how will the authentic soul of cities survive? Without a tangible understanding of a city's heritage, how can one expect this often transplanted, moneyed class to participate in greater civic engagement, or work to preserve the historical spaces and the traditions that were created there?

With his new book, The Other Paris, Sante steps beyond the glass and steel architectural feats of contemporary Paris to delve into the city's oldest cobblestone-lined neighborhoods, largely constructed through commerce and community. Here he chronicles the lives of political radicals, prostitutes, criminals, immigrants, entertainers, sexual deviants, and the poor. Sante's extensive research brings him back to the city streets. He stresses, "The city is not just a palimpsest -- it is a mass of intersecting and overlapping palimpsests. Even as it becomes more homogeneous, many of its streets and houses continue to bear witness to former circumstances." Beginning with an examination of the city's original boundary and its expansion, he traces its character through these geographic markers.

Throughout the book, Sante drives home the significance of Paris's evolution through control over the function and form of city structures and neighborhoods. Speaking of the manner in which neighborhoods incorporated ancient structures into contemporary use, he comments:

[O]ver time this curve and that angle, having no evident logical sense, developed, as it were, personalities. They colored the ideas and habits of those who lived on the street or used it every day, allowed for dark corners in which dark thoughts could be stored, and created off-kilter rhythms that prevented monotony. And then those subtle turns and nudges slowly and invisibly engendered all sorts of things: beauty, curiosity, ambition, skepticism, discontent.

The book provides a rich and complicated portrait of all walks of life in Paris. It is a wistful tribute to earlier times when a person of any means could make a home in Paris. Sante's book celebrates the lives of these Parisians through the wide-ranging cultural traditions that were nurtured in even the most destitute of corners. His steady attention to detail shows the manner in which the physical character of Paris depended on all of her inhabitants. Even the stone faces lining Notre Dame were drawn from the faces of the common folk of Paris, consequently making their mark for all time.

Those who dream to experience the Paris they only know from literary and artistic traditions will not be disappointed by the juicy stories Sante weaves throughout The Other Paris. His account of the rise of Parisian musical performers draws a line from illicit carnivals, bals, and dance halls to the worldwide fame of chanteuse Edith Piaf. Yet beyond incredible storytelling, Sante also provides lucid and thoughtful accounts of complicated and brutal historical moments such as the Paris Commune, the German occupation of France and subsequent Jewish deportation, as well as the Algerian crisis of the mid-twentieth century. Altogether, this irreplaceable cultural history is not only a complete portrait of a beloved city, but a compulsive read.

Returning to the ever-significant role of the flâneur, Sante reflects that, "the flâneur must [...] have an intuitive suss for things about to occur without warning and things that are subtly absent and things that are silently waving goodbye." He goes on to add:

The past is hardly a single era, after all, but the combined, composted layers of a thousand eras, and any given moment includes some proportionate blend of all those eras. The future is a threat or a sales pitch, the present flies around you like the landscape as seen from a moving car, but the past is what you stand on, lean against, breathe in. The very spark of the new that distinguishes an era will be fully visible only in retrospect.

While the flâneur is capable of accepting change, Sante tirelessly advocates for greater respect for preservation -- one that holds the diversity of Paris's inhabitants to be as valuable as that of its most valuable architectural and artistic feats.

The Other Paris by Luc Sante
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374299323
320 pages