Bonjour! After a brief working sabbatical to gather new ideas for forthcoming French newsletters, programs and trips, I am sending out this latest French Affaires Weekly article on the development of modern Paris. More interesting topics are to come including “The French Coffee Table Book of the Decade,” “Luscious French Drawings” and more. Bonne lecture (happy reading) and as always, please send us your comments and thoughts on anything French!  Elizabeth New Seitz, French Affaires 

Rethinking Modern Paris

As visitors to the French capital know, Paris today is an amazing combination of beauty and charm, history and modernity, creativity and tradition all in one place. The city never ceases to attract huge crowds wanting to sample its many pleasures and sights. Such is the draw of Paris that it is tempting to take its legendary tourist status for granted.

But historical records tell us this wasn’t always so.

When then did modern, iconic, visitable Paris come into being?

Conventional accounts credit Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-1800’s with the development of the modern French capital that we know today – the grand boulevards, the public works, the parks and gardens, the 19th century apartment buildings. In reality, the development of modern Paris goes back much further. Professor Joan DeJean’s wonderful new book How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City recounts how Paris became a model of urban development back in the 1600’s and in so doing, it revolutionized the way people thought about and engaged with cities moving forward. This very readable volume highlights not only Paris’s road to physical modernity but also the evolution of its reputation into the mythical city it is today.

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This summer, I had the chance to sit down with Dr. DeJean (pronounced DAY-Jahn) in Paris and interview her about her new book. We met at one of her favorite hangouts, La Tartine, in the Marais where she lives when she is not teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

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ENS: How did you get the idea for your latest book?

JDJ: “How Paris Became Paris” started as a French history and culture course for my students at UPenn. I called it “The Invention of Paris.” I got tired of hearing that Baron Haussmann had invented modern Paris. He didn’t all of a sudden make Paris modern in the 1850’s and 60’s. He didn’t invent the big boulevards as so many claim. He was an agent employed by Napoleon III to update Paris, not an original urban thinker. The real boulevard got its start in 1676 under King Louis XIV and was actually called a “street” at first. It was 120 feet wide which is quite something when you think about that time period. It then morphed into an “avenue” or “boulevard,” two terms often used synonymously today.

ENS: Were other world capitals undergoing modernization in the 17th century as well?

JDJ: London probably could have gotten there but then the Great Fire of 1666 and also the plague decimated things for some time. These two events were greatly responsible for holding London back. London only becomes more populous than Paris after 1750. Likewise, Amsterdam’s population doesn’t keep growing so the city doesn’t move forward like Paris does. For the French capital, it was a fortuitous combination of timing, luck, money, a willing population, and a king – Louis XIV – who lived a long time.

ENS: What most interested you in all your research for the class and ultimately the book?

JDJ: I was fascinated by the notion of the boulevard and what it meant for Parisians’ physical and social space. I spent a lot of time doing research in libraries, archives and museums in Paris. The trend of painting cities started in the 17th century. For example, visitors to Paris would buy souvenir paintings to show their families back home what this splendid place called Paris looked like. So I pored over paintings of Paris showing boulevards and other urban projects.

The other thing I loved delving into was how happy the people of Paris were at these urban developments. Parisians were thrilled by the opportunity to socialize in public spaces, especially after long years of civil wars that kept them mostly indoors. They liked walking and strolling along the boulevards and on bridges. The new bridges were a huge commercial success – they cut down travel time across the capital – and they also provided a focal point for various social activities, including strolling, enjoying views of the river, theatrical performances, vendors, etc. It’s amazing to think that a bridge could so change a city as was the case with the Pont Neuf.

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ENS: Can you say more about what the Pont Neuf (‘New Bridge’) meant for Paris at the time?

JDJ: Instituted by King Henri IV in the early 1600’s, this new, wide bridge of stone replaced wooden bridges that were narrow and didn’t last. Now, two wagons or carts could cross at the same time without causing a traffic jam which was a major practical advance. This also meant that the speed of urban life just took a big leap forward. In addition, the planners wanted to make sure that pedestrians had a dedicated space to walk across so they made raised sidewalks. As such, carts and horses stayed on the road and didn’t crowd those on foot. And wonderfully enough, this bridge included small balconies spaced along the entire width of the bridge so people could pause and look out over the river. Prior to this time, the river wasn’t seen as something to view or enjoy; it was a conduit for commercial activities. You can see that the bridge revolutionized how people interacted with the city. Taking pleasure in the view became an attraction in and of itself which was quite a novel idea at the time. These dynamics just snowballed with multiple projects all around the city, so much so that Paris developed a reputation greater than the sum of its parts.

ENS: Do you see the same spirit of modernity and development in Paris today?

JDJ: Yes, there are always interesting projects going on in Paris. The recent opening of ‘Les Berges de la Seine” shows great creative thinking in how to use the spaces along the edge of the Seine river for public enjoyment and interaction. This sort of idea goes back to the 1600’s when sidewalks were developed and the Seine’s riverbanks were paved and shored up. One 17th century painting even shows a sort of ‘beach’ on the banks of the Seine where people could go swim.

ENS: An early version of today’s ‘Les Plages de Paris’!

ENS: How did you make France and French your career?

JDJ: I grew up in Louisiana so French was all around me. It seemed like a natural fit. And too, I love to teach and bring France to life for my students. This past spring, I taught a course on the French Enlightenment. And this fall, I will be teaching a course entitled “Marriage and the Novel” which is a fascinating topic.

In my opinion, How Paris Became Paris” is an engaging read and one of the best new books out on things French. In addition to the chapters on Parisian boulevards and bridges, Dr. DeJean describes many other modern advances in Paris that date back four centuries, including town squares, parks, street lighting, bus service, fashion, pocket guides to the city, and more. Reproductions of 17th century paintings, drawings and maps of Paris help illustrate her points. Reading her book puts the French capital in a whole new light – you’ll never think about Paris the same way again!

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City (March, 2014) – Available through major booksellers and amazon.com.

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

ISBN-10: 1608195910

ISBN-13: 978-1608195916

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For an even more in-depth experience on the development of modern Paris, I’ll be teaching a new class “How Paris Became Paris: The Development of the Modern City We Know Today” for the SMU Continuing Studies program in Dallas this fall. Below is the course description – registration opens on August 5, 2014 at http://www.smu.edu/CAPE. Make plans now to join us for the two-session series!

Paris continues to be the most visited city in the world. This iconic metropolis fascinates everyone from first-time visitors to regulars and begs the question – how did Paris become Paris? While some people are familiar with the modernization of the city that took place during the 19th century, many are unaware that Paris’s modern urban development actually began two centuries earlier with the efforts of such kings as Henri IV and Louis XIV. Join France expert Dr. Elizabeth Seitz for this captivating course which will explore the various facets of Paris’s 17th century remaking through illustrated lecture and lively discussion. The new book “How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City” by French scholar Joan DeJean and other sources will accompany our class sessions. You’ll walk away with a whole new understanding of Paris – and plenty of travel ideas for your next trip to the French capital!

Date: Two Mondays – November 3 & 10, 2014
Time: 7 to 9pm
Cost: $99 per person early registration. Advance sign-up through SMU Continuing Studies program – please click here to register.
Location: SMU main campus – Dallas, TX 75205. Classroom & parking information provided by SMU upon registration.