Lessons from Another Paris

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One of the characters from the annals of urban history that intrigue me the most is ‘Baron’ Haussman (1809-1891) – his title is in quotes because he is said to have given it to himself. He must surely be one of the great pioneers of modern urbanism, and the first grand master of the art of debt-financed city building. One can only imagine the urban future that he must have contemplated in 1852 just before implementing Napoleon III’s mandate to transform Paris into a “modern city”.

It was a job that obsessed him for over 20 years and which entailed forcefully ramming his ‘boulevards, gardens, railways, gas pipes and aqueducts’ through the teaming slums of Paris. (This was the man that that has been credited with inventing the story that slums are evil because that is where vampires live and come out at night to suck the blood of middle class children.) The massive debts he ran up to finance it all most certainly catapulted Paris into the post-1850 Victorian Boom,  but the risks he took lost him his job in 1870. The destruction of ‘Old Paris’ was so brutally disruptive that a year later the revolutionaries that lost their lives trying to set up the Paris Commune were in fact trying to re-create a sense of community and re-occupy the spaces that had been so forcefully cleared to build the grand boulevards for the boomtime preening bourgeoisie to show off their new found wealth. There are surely lessons here somewhere that speak to the current historical moment.