Real World-Class Cities: Paris

In the nineteen-seventies, the beau monde decided that Toronto was a “world-class city”.  Only those who had been born here, and never wandered farther afield than Tonawanda, N.Y., could possibly have failed to recognize this as jingoistic flapdoodle.  Yet the mantra continues to be intoned to this day by local politicians, multi-cult cultists, and self-lauding residents alike.

The essays that follow are intended for those who might be interested in a few thoughts about real world-class cities.  (A version of the first, on Paris, was originally published in The IDLER in 1985.  But then real world-class cities don’t change much over a mere quarter-century…) 



      Paris is a city of style.  Now style is to beauty what art is to nature.  Specifically, style is to be distinguished from beauty because it requires that beautiful elements be also beautifully arranged.  Helen of Troy was beautiful.  For Helen to have had style, Paris would have had to have kidnapped her to, well, Paris, and taken her on a spree on the Rue de la Paix.

      The visitor to Paris discerns no single regnant fashion, except elegance.  It is remarkable, for instance, that both Parisian men and women are fascinated by such North American vulgarities as punk and urban grunge; but neither can pull them off.  They insist on civilizing their essential brutality (they are Parisians, after all), and so transform them beyond recognition.

     The exigencies of style affect every aspect of behaviour.  To Parisians, walking is less a means of transit than of self-expression.  There is no manifest intention of getting somewhere, as with other urbanites.  Down the sidewalks or across the streets, Parisians proceed more or less as Narcissus would if he were sipping cognac in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

     There are, in fact, numerous reasons for the Parisians’ slowness of gait.  1. You do not tell gorgeousness to move along.  2. There are constant disembarkations at the terasse.  (Parisians need to be fed coffee before exerting themselves to roll over in bed at night.)  3. Such is the vestigial sway of courtoisie, that on the sidewalks Parisians are always stopping to excuse themselves, under the moral anxiety of brushing another pedestrian’s arm.  (The contrast with North America is dramatic.  In New York or Toronto, pedestrians would never say excuse me, even if they were on their way to confession.)

     Neither courtesy nor caution applies to the driving of cars, however, where style demands danger, and the top-of-the-line Peugeot unleashes floods of masculinity.  H.G. Wells, the world-class atheist, once said that he did not dare to drive a motorcar in the streets of Paris for fear of succumbing to temptation and running over a priest.  Among native Frenchmen, there has been no abatement of anti-clerical sentiment since the Revolution.  And motorists in Paris continue to drive as if it were still a cathedral town, and every pedestrian hid a tonsure beneath his chapeau.

     From atop the Eiffel Tower, certain intersections in Paris resemble a giant game of Pac-Man.  Traversing the Place de la Concorde is either an act of Promethean bravado, or final submission.  If the welfare government in France were truly caring, it would install a psychotherapist on every corner (about sixteen) to try to talk pedestrians down.


     All of this is rather daunting to the tourist, I’m afraid.  But Paris is not for tourists, at least not that part of it that depends upon the goodwill of the natives.  The tourist does not visit Paris; it occasionally grants him an audience.

      The museums, for instance, might be open, or they might not, depending upon how they feel when they get up in the morning.  The first time I went to the City of Light, the Louvre guards were out en greve; the next time, the doors were shut in solidarity with a national truckers’ strike.  Just before the time of writing this (March, 1985), my visit was aborted by a student day of action against government “austerity” measures.  (When it comes to the eternal protest against putative threats to the nanny state, no one can doubt the wisdom of the French expression, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.)

     It is thus part of the Paris style, it seems, to be generally exclusive.  Do not try, for instance, to eat in Paris.  When a North American enters a French restaurant he is treated as Australopithecus would be by the Dean of Admissions at Harvard.  The Revolution issued promissory notes for liberte, egalite, and fraternite; but egalite and fraternite are non-negotiable by the non-French.  Foreigners are extended the liberte to be themselves, which is to say, unequal, and therefore, unfraternized.  If President Roosevelt had walked, chest-proud, into a Paris bistro immediately following the liberation of France, he would have been led to a table by the kitchen.

     All in all, it may be best for the tourist to forget the Parisians.  This is not to be taken as the ossified Anglo-Saxon prejudice against the Frogs, which is at best an inverted snobbery.  I offer it as a general prophylactic when visiting world-class cities.  After all, the people will come and go; the buildings (and in Paris, the buildings are considerably more friendly) will endure more or less forever.


     Someone once said that architecture is the science of style built to last.  There is certainly a sense in which Parisians, generation after generation, are shamed into their gorgeousness by the buildings.

     I admit that I find old buildings titillating.  There are others of similar orientation in every quarter of the globe; but as a group, we have yet to come out of the closet.  Many of us are forced to lead a double life.  On my first trip to Europe (my honeymoon), I took seven hundred slides of buildings and six of my wife.  During each of these essays in family portraiture, I aimed the camera affectionately in her direction; but the truth is, I used her for scale.

     What is it that makes European cities so seductive?  That they are old?  This is part of it; but then the Canadian Shield is old, and to the lovers of architecture, such untutored grandeur succeeds merely in inducing frozen fits of agoraphobia.  Rather, that they offer the visitor that reassuring sense of enclosure promised by his gestation.

     In European streets the eye is freighted down an unbroken line of facades.  Humbly, individual buildings march up to, but not beyond, a solid street wall, under an ancient urban obligation.  This is a visual datum with which the semi-rusticated inhabitants of Toronto or Atlanta are unfamiliar.  In such a neoteric birthplace, the infant will tumble directly from the womb into an open-concept daycare centre, his trauma later reinforced by widened sidewalks, herniated streetscapes, concrete office plazas, low-density-zoning set-backs, fully-detached homes, freeways, parking lots, and commercial towers that (in deference to the sun) retreat from corners like Dracula from the Cross.  (Professor Eric Arthur, remarking on the amount of “open space” in the downtown core, said that Toronto reminded him of London after the blitz.)  In North America, what we have are half-cities, hybrid monsters of architecture’s me-generation, meccano-assembled by town planners with claustrophobic inclinations, Arcadian fantasies, sociological backgrounds, and suburban minds.


     Paris, by contrast, offers the visitor an almost perfect urban snugness.  There are streets here so narrow that the anorexic models have to turn sideways.  In some quarters, like the Marais, you don’t walk down the streets, you slip them on.

     There are also superhuman vistas here, the kind that make one think that if God had wished to design an approach to the Primum Mobile, he might have hired Mansart or Vicomte–when the visitor perches on the banks of the Seine, for instance, or when he turns around to look back at the Hotel des Invalides, or the Palais de Luxembourg.  But even these vast expanses are relentlessly enclosed, making one feel humble, but not hopeless, a free agent, but not abandoned to the existential void.

     Preserving the seamless Parisian streetscape was the probable cynosure when France surrendered early in Wold War II.  Other great European cities must put up with anachronistic intrusions until the next world war.  Passing one of those high-tech piles heaped up by post-bellum modernists in their experimentation on the natives of Berlin, a bus tour companion asked trenchantly:  “What’s the point in bombing out whole sectors of a city if you’re only going to replace them with stuff like that?”

     Ironically, nothing so inspires a love of the past as an unlovely present.  Thus North American tourists, who profess to love novelty, flock to such cities as Paris as to havens from it.  Here, there are only a few gleaming glass boxes, and modernity, when it is suffered, is usually exiled to the periphery, where it stands like the crested helmets of some new envious barbarism.