A Walking Museum

Sometimes walking through Paris feels like walking in the past. One feels like they could see a Model-T Ford on the street or even a horse and carriage. Everything from the menus in the cafés to the cobblestones seems to hail from another time. Paris, the most romantic and beautiful city, the city of myths and love stories and one surrounded by an aura of perfection, is dressed in a hundred and fifty-year old façade. This façade was built by one man: Georges-Eugène Hausmann.

The cream-colored buildings and slate-blue roofs that occupy every street in Paris are all alike and look like wedding cakes lined up for delivery. The Eiffel Tower, constructed for the 1900 Universal Expedition, peaks out between these buildings and can be seen from many places in Paris. She looked over the tops of the buildings when you sit and read in the Tuileries or any time you walk along the river. Though she was not built during the Haussman renovation of Paris, the wide boulevards he created plowed the way for her near-constant supervision of the city.

Haussmann’s renovation, or the “Haussmanization” of Paris, took place between 1853-1870 at the request of Napolean III. Haussmann widened the streets to create the look that is now customary. His work was also commissioned to aid the progression of public health projects; the hampered neighborhoods of the middle- and lower-classes were often disease-ridden.

Parisians at the time were impressed or outraged, or both. Primarily, the project was exhausting. Paris was under construction for over twenty years. Many people were interested in the work and applauded Haussmann for the enormous feat of city planning which he completed; he redesigned the entire city and cut new streets, drives, and literally paved the way for the now landmark places such as the Arc de Triomphe or the Boulevard St. Germaine.

One of the greatest criticisms of Haussmann’s work was that it knocked down various pieces of history. The Paris that Balzac and Voltaire wrote of was gone, and the historic streets on the Ile de la Cité were demolished in favor of a large, open space in front of the Cathedral Notre Dame. Charles Baudelaire especially dwelled a great deal on Haussmannization and its consequences. His poem, “Le Cynget” (The Swan) is one of his most famous and shows a swan who had escaped from a menagerie and was lost, without a place to go or its old surroundings. Such was the poet in this new Paris.

The Parisian tendency to dwell on the past and the glory of the old city is reflected in their reluctance for change. It has now been over one hundred and fifty years since the beginning of Haussmannization, and the city still looks almost entirely the way Haussmann planned it to. Only La Défense and the Tour Montparnasse, largely regarded as an eyesore, reflect the architecture of today. The Grand Palais and the Tour Eiffel are also constructions from a different era, but Paris is in large part dominated by the beige buildings, cobblestone streets, and blue street signs.

Though the Parisians resisted the change proposed by Haussmann, their descendants resisted the Eiffel Tower when it was built. Why are the Parisians so resistant to change? The Eiffel Tower is now one the symbol of France, but more importantly, one of the most recognized symbols and monuments in the world. Haussmann’s buildings, plazas and monuments feature starring roles in films which draw tourists to the city and generate income.

Perhaps Paris’s tendency to live in the past is central to the culture. Art is highly praised here, and museums and galleries themselves suggest a kind of reminiscing. They preserve the art of a period that has past the moment the piece is finished. Paris is itself a kind of museum: this café is where van Gogh ate, this is where Hemingway lived, Napoleon’s grave watches over the entire city in his dome, etc. It’s impossible to be here and forget the past, but at the same time this romanticization glosses over the truth and pain of the history. There are plaques honoring the World Wars dotting the city, some even in metro stations, but the sheer presence of memorials shrinks the magnitude of the event they commemorate.

There is no denying that Paris is beautiful, but it seems stuck in the Romantic era. Perhaps this is why Americans travel here and expect their lives to become perfect. It’s ridiculous to believe that a place could be so beautiful that problems stop existing there, but the myth persists. The romantic nature of the buildings and the architecture makes Paris a walking museum, a visit to the past that takes place in an international and influential city. It is at once fantasy and reality. Because Paris is first and foremost a city, real life is as mundane and basic here as anywhere else. But the myth of the romantic nature of the city protects the citizens from the prosaic banality of life. You can travel to Paris on business and feel as if you may turn a corner and fall in love with someone in a boulangerie. That Paris is a utopia is a myth that drives millions of people here. Like America’s celebrity culture, perhaps the “perhaps” magical turn of events lingering beyond reach is what people need in order to survive.

On the metro, musicians step into the cars to play for money (as in New York). Often they are accordion players, who never fail to begin their sets with a rendition of “La vie en rose.” This song is so iconic and so associated with Paris that when it plays, it fits and adds to the environment– even the stingy metro. But the sheer presence of this song demonstrates the city’s clinging on to the illusion of beauty and perfect. Parisians seem to want the world to see their city as perfect, or they capitalize on the fact that people already do. Even the musicians, with their dirty pants and hole-ridden shoes playing underground, shout this message from the literal underbelly of the city.

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