Dear Marais …

Postcards from Paris


Postcard #1: Beach Time, 24 July 2014

Dear k.,

I am decisively a fan of Paris-Plages. Here I am, writing to you from a beach chair, facing the Seine. It’s late afternoon, a typical July scorcher. Children are splashing in the fountains that line this promenade along the right bank of the Seine — the southern edge of the Marais. Adults are strolling by; young, singles, couples, squads. The city’s bicycle-sharing program has just expanded its fleet with the brand new P’tit Vélib — free bikes for kids this summer! They’re undeniably cute and come in different sizes, including a dandy horse option.

Every summer since 2001, traffic on the high-speed Voie Georges-Pompidou has been detoured and the road transformed into a public beach intended to benefit those who cannot afford (time-wise, money-wise) to vacation on the coast. It’s a €2 million operation, subsidized by the City of Paris, which pays thirty percent. Sponsors cover the rest, but they’re forbidden to visually pollute the “beach” by putting up logo-carrying banners. Their names appear only in press releases and in fine print on the maps and pamphlets distributed by the plagistes, the young city employees in charge of smooth sailing. What I appreciate most, besides the lack of visible corporate identity, is the lack of commercial activities: everything is free, not just the mini bicycles! And there is a lot to do along the promenade.

For example, five thousand tons of sand (donated by the Lafarge Group) is poured onto the pavement, making places to build sandcastles, to play, to sunbathe. There are plenty of activities (some sponsored by the gear store Décathlon) for those who are sportif: rock climbing, volleyball, table football, ping-pong, skating and rollerblading, pétanque, badminton, trampolines, etc. There are massage and yoga booths, sponsored by athletic stores and associations. There are cultural offerings: watercolor workshops, a traveling library (sponsored by Flammarion editions), and a Louvre pop-up featuring (reproductions of) paintings of bathers and swimmers. And there are street artists and performers, plus weekly concerts of popular bands (paid for by the FNAC) on the parvis of the Hôtel de Ville —­ the plaza of the city hall.

In short, one would be hard-pressed to find any opportunity to pull out a wallet here, except for the retrieval of an ID card, needed for the exchange of badminton racquets, or pétanque balls, or a library book. A few products carrying the Paris-Plages logo — tote bags, t-shirts, beach towels — can be purchased. These are sold with exclusive rights by the association Paris-Musée, which must return fifty percent of the net profit to the city. But the presence of sales points is hardly overwhelming. The public infrastructure (Electricité de France, Eau de Paris) includes drinking fountains, steam pools, and lighting along the promenade.

And that’s not all. On Paris-Plages you will find toilets, first-aid posts, police units, security services, recycling and garbage removal, ashtrays, multilingual info booths, maps and pamphlets, handicap ramps, way-finding graphics, beach umbrellas, picnic tables, ample seating, and hundreds of potted palm trees. The success of the event is characterized less by the sheer number of participants than by the diversity of its four to five million annual visitors. About a quarter are international tourists; all the rest are local and national and they represent an amazing range of class backgrounds and ethnicities. Commercial profits are sidelined in favor of social profits and the main goal is to generate a dynamic and inviting public space where you can while away the hot summer days.

Sure, some people complain about the inconvenience of rerouted circulation, but what divides those who are in favor from those who are against Paris-Plages has less to do with functional issues than ideological ones. Of course, the right wing denounces it as an excessive public expense. Paris-Plages was launched following the socialist victory in the municipal elections of 2001. Since then the municipal government (first under mayor Bertrand Delanoë, now led by mayor Anne Hidalgo) has greatly invested in public infrastructure and public transportation, parks and culture, and it certainly shows.

Only haters wouldn’t enjoy this.

x, m.


Postcard #2: Heterotopie, 23 August 2014

The ship is the heterotopia par excellence.
— Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, 1966

The total body soon reveals its ambiguity, its twofold composition as a body occupying a space and a body producing a space.
— Henri Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment, 1973

Dear k.,

The French seem to hate Paris in August. Shops, restaurants, even patisseries are closed. Only tourists are left. And the disenfranchised. The bourgeois residents have left town to consume their five-week-minimum paid vacations, and hand-written notes are posted on storefronts: congé annuel, will reopen on September 1.

Personally, I love it this time of year: it’s surreal. In the Marais, this suspension of reality is especially extreme. Everyday life is sidelined; only tourists are catered to. It’s the perfect heterotopia, à la Foucault. It’s as if the district becomes its own island within the city, a checklist destination for every visitor, even those on the two-day package tour. Romantic honeymoon setting; urban museum; LGBT haven. A space of otherness — contre-espace — defined in opposition, for better or worse, to the “real spaces” of everyday life.

If Paris-Plages reminds me of the Croisette, in Cannes, with its pin-up girls and beautiful posers, then the Marais calls to mind a cruise ship that’s come to port — the Love Boat, in which we residents are cast as extras, enlisted simply to populate the scene. What Foucault called the “politics of the gaze” dominates social interactions, dictates social hierarchies. Café terrasses are packed with spectators who are in turn on display: they unabashedly stare at the flâneurs while conscientiously doing their duty and adorning the public sphere, creating a seamless mise-en-scène of medieval buildings and contemporary urbanites. Camera crews and equipment crowd the streets every day, deploying the photogenic architecture as the setting for feature films or fashion layouts. But the social codes of the prolonged gaze are complex; the ambiguity of sexual orientation shuffles the rules of commodification; eroticism might not correspond to oversimplified sexualization. Desire is not so much directly expressed than endlessly reflected into a mise-en-abyme that transforms eyes into mirrors. Narcissism prevails: it is me I look for in this crowd. Urbanity as the original selfie-stick.

Roland Barthes opposed readerly and writerly texts — the former passive, the latter practiced, co-authored, co-created. The former about pleasure, the latter yielding jouissance — that provocative French term that defeated even Henri Lefebvre’s translator, who rendered it as “enjoyment” and thus lost its sexual connotations. And as Michel de Certeau explains, in The Practice of Everyday Life, the city, like a text, can be read passively or practiced actively. The active co-creation of the neighborhood, of its image and atmosphere, is what upgrades plaisir to jouir. We can be subjected to “the city” — in which built reality is understood as the materialization of state strategies. But we can also subject the city to our practice and occupy its spaces as we please. Walking the city is a writerly act; the Marais is co-written by a heterogeneous community of voices.

Most days, I revel in my participation in this creation, but sometimes, as with any collaborative project, I’m not fully confident that I want my name on it, so I stay home and glance out the window.

x, m.


Postcard #3: Manif’s & Heterochronies, 29 September 2014

Opposite these heterotopias that are linked to the accumulation of time, there are those linked, on the contrary, to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival. These heterotopias are not oriented toward the eternal, they are rather absolutely temporal.
— Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, 1966

Allons enfants de la party!
— Hymn, Techno Parade, 2014

Dear k.,

La rentrée is here. When vacations are state coordinated, back-to-school becomes a national event. Les grandes vacances, the long summer break originally instituted during harvest time to enable children to assist in seasonal chores, is over. Ever since the 1930s — due to the decline of agricultural production, the establishment of paid holidays, and the rise of tourism — early September marks the return to work for everyone.

The return of the routine is like the return of the real — or have I internalized the irritable Parisian as more “real” than the blissed-out tourist and honeymooning vacationer? In any case, the gears are squeaking and the urban machine is restarting. Lefebvre set up an opposition between the technocrats — who focus on “the ‘real’: needs, services, transport, the various subsystems of urban reality, and the urban itself as a system” — and those he described as concrete utopians — who assume “as a strategic hypothesis the negation of the everyday, of work, of the exchange economy.”

If beach-time is the season of the utopians, the return to work reawakens the traditional French forces of contestation: strikes and protests are on hold while the Parisians are on holiday, but September sees a renewed commitment, a rekindled urgency, to matters of social justice. And so manif season is back too. So many issues, old and new, must now be addressed — a reminder that the world as a whole has continued to dysfunction while we were sun-tanning. The sites of manifs — demonstrations — are usually chosen for their symbolism. A march denouncing the politics of the housing crisis, on the Hôtel Matignon, home of the prime minister. An assembly seeking justice for Michael Brown, at the Fontaine des Innocents. A protest against the censuring of the internet, in front of the Assemblée Nationale, where a new law is about to be voted. Plus gatherings in solidarity with Palestine, with Greece, with the Kurdish resistance in Syria, with undocumented workers, with hospital employees in light of austerity plans, with mourners in memory of the migrants who drowned crossing the Mediterranean — these are just a few of the issues that have mobilized the people and disheveled the flow of traffic since la rentrée.

But the most significant manifs follow the historic route between the Place de la République and the Bastille along the Boulevard Beaumarchais, contouring the eastern edge of the Marais. Last Sunday, somewhat unconventionally, the People’s Climate March circled the Marais counter-clockwise, from République down the rue de Turbigo and rue Beaubourg, ending at the Hôtel de Ville.

You might sometimes struggle to tell the difference between a political manif and a festive parade, like the Marche des fiertés, the gay pride parade held in June. The floats, the parties and associations, the banners and DJs: all are so similar that the confusion is forgivable! And the atmosphere of the manifs is generally festive, while the parades are usually socially themed. The Techno Parade two weeks ago, for example, saw over 350,000 revelers dancing their way from Place de la Nation to Bastille via République under the banner Liberté, Diversité, Rythmicité — a call for tolerance in the wake of public acts of discrimination.

And sometimes the political march and the music festival purposefully join forces, tapping into the affective power of ambient exultation. Take the latest version of the Fête de L’Humanité. Held every year since 1930, this three-day fundraising party for l’Humanité, the newspaper of the Parti Communiste, has become the biggest festival in France, attracting more than half a million spectators, with performances over the years by Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, Pink Floyd, Patti Smith, Manu Chao — you know, the politicized ones.

I love the freedom of expression continuously on display in this city, although I’ll admit there’s something confusing about mixing celebration and discontent. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that everything is political, including a synthesized beat born in Detroit. In any case, they both transcend the routine and liberate me from the “real.”

x, m.


Postcard #4: Les Francs-Bourgeois & the Politics of Dominical Labor, 19 October 2014

To the uncertainty of [the flâneurs’] economic position corresponded the uncertainty of their political function.
— Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 1935

I keep in my office a beautiful book of architectural drawings, Monuments modernes de la Perse, published by Pascal Coste, a French architect who studied the cities of Persia in the 1800s. It contains an illustration of a fabric bazaar in Isfahan. … Sketch in a Starbucks and you’d think you were looking at Woodfield Mall.
— A. Alfred Taubman, Threshold Resistance, 2009

Dear k.,

It’s Sunday. The Voie Pompidou is closed to traffic — a weekly, low-key version of Paris-Plages. No sand, no palm-trees, hardly any tourists, but lots of Parisians doing Parisian Sunday things: jogging, rollerblading, walking. Mini-cyclists trying to wean themselves off training wheels, parents pushing strollers, etc. In short, it’s family QT by the Seine today.

Actually, the whole of the Marais is closed to motorized traffic on Sundays, although it’s hardly as pleasant in the neighborhood as on the riverfront. You see, whereas the banks of the Seine turn into a public park, the streets of the district — especially the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois — turn into a crowded outdoor shopping mall. That’s because beside the Marais, only the stores of the Champs-Elysées, Montmartre, and Saint-Germain are open on Sunday, so shoppers are limited in their retail choices. This is the outcome of a very long controversy …

In 1906, France passed a law that institutionalized rest on Sunday by making it illegal to work on the day — and which actually had more to do with secular notions of family, leisure, and social hygiene than with any religious concerns. So for most of the 20th century, Sunday was, throughout France, sacrosanct as family time. Until a couple of decades ago, that is, when it became yet another battlefield in the ideological wars; in effect the 1906 law privileged those who valued their Sunday leisure time against those who saw it as enforced idleness and resented being regulated from fully competing in the global marketplace. And that’s when the law was challenged through an historical act of disobedience. From 1988 and well into 1993, the Virgin Megastore on the Champs-Élysées was open every Sunday. As the only destination for devout consumers — for in France as elsewhere shopping has become the great urban rite — Virgin reaped profits so high that they far outweighed the cost of the fines levied against the corporate chain. Next thing you know, Ikea, Louis Vuitton, et al., followed the lead. Before long, and with the election of a right-wing government, stores located within zones of tourism, as well as those which could claim “cultural” value, were exempted from the Sunday shopping ban.

The Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, the main route traversing the Marais, spans from the Archives Nationales to the Place des Vosges via the Musée Carnavalet, qualifying it as a tourist zone. Add to this the fact that in recent years most of the small businesses have gone under and been replaced by the multinational chains, and you can see how fully the neighborhood has been transformed into yet another generic retail destination. The Marais covers almost exactly one square mile — does it really need six branches of Zadig & Voltaire, or eight (!) Kooples?

In 1991, in an interview on public television, French businessman and deregulation advocate Alain Minc exclaimed: “When I step off this studio floor, I’m going to buy a record at the Virgin Megastore to contribute to the financing of their penalty fines.” Thus we see belief in action; short of genuine top-down law enforcement, to shop or to not shop on Sunday is a political act, a kind of referendum.

Not only do I leave my wallet at home on Sundays, I purposefully avoid shopping between 1 and 3 PM on a daily basis. What ever happened to the sanctity of naptime?

x, m.


Postcard #5: Les Hôtels Particuliers, 2 November 2014

As long as we have books, we are in no danger of hanging ourselves.
— Madame de Sévigné, Lettre à Mme de Grignan, 23 Septembre 1671

Dear k.,

I may have misled you to think that luxury, or high fashion, or bling consumption were new arrivals to the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. Amusing, considering the centrality of the Marais in the ancient setting of these trends … an historical storyline that ended in a revolution.

In fact, the contemporary presence of stunning and stylish women shopping on the Francs-Bourgeois pales in interest, intrigue, and elegance to the scene staged by the same architecture centuries ago. Henri IV may have been the monarch who planned the old Place Royale — today’s Place des Vosges — but its glorious development occurred after his assassination, on the occasion of the young Louis XIII’s engagement to Anne d’Autriche, in 1612. Thus it happened that in the 17th century, under the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the Marais was established as the residential headquarters of the French aristocracy. And it was then that the hôtel particulier emerged as the dominant typology. Today over a hundred of these mansions still exist — they are the reason the district landed on the list of protected urban patrimony, created in the mid 20th century by Andre Malraux during his stint as minister of cultural affairs. And they are certainly alluring in the way they embody architectural paradoxes; as Colin Rowe contended, years ago, they are simultaneously solid and void, texture and object, functional and symbolic, compromise and archetype, local and autonomous, a “Gestalt condition of ambivalence.”

Rowe never got past the formal paradoxes; but it was the social paradoxes at play in this architecture that allowed the emergence of a powerful female literary scene and ultimately gave rise to the modern city. For if the space of the street was then predominantly male, the interior of the hôtel particulier was organized around a suite of rooms arranged in enfilade, along a long corridor — the ruelle, or “little street” — which culminated with the private bedroom of Madame. It was in this private space, around the bed, far from the public sphere of the street, that the spatial realm of the urban intellectual was produced … by women. While the early ruelles featured conversations about etiquette and the refinement of language, by the mid-17th century the chief topics were literature, philosophy, and the arts, along with romantic love and the question of marriage, which was increasingly perceived as an oppressive institution. Thus the emancipatory politics of the ruelle transformed a subordinate space of domesticity into a more expansive arena of cultural and intellectual authority, reorganizing the societal role of women along the way.

The highly cultivated courtisanes who dominated the society of the hôtels particuliers used their liaisons with powerful men to heighten their cultural power. Indeed, the stones of the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois hold an abundance of juicy stories. The Hôtels de Rohan, de Soubise, de Coulange, and d’Albret, among others, were financed by Louis XIV either for his mistresses, often with the approval of their husbands, or for his illegitimate offspring. My favorite remains the Hôtel de Beauvais, which was built with the surplus stones left over from construction at the Louvre and given by Anne d’Autriche to Catherine Bellier, wife of Pierre de Beauvais, in return for Catherine relieving her son, then the young king, of his virginity.

Today the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois is a long succession of shops exemplifying the multinational corporate world, the luxury industry, as well as the (self-) objectification of women. Yet I can’t help but remember that the street was once home to extraordinary women who established themselves as prominent free thinkers, as powerful public intellectuals. Oh, how curious I would be to hear the Marquise de Sévigné describe the transformation of her neighborhood, were she to be resurrected for a day. Her famed wit would surely not fail her! I walk down the street with her voice in my head, and I laugh.

x, m.


Postcard #6: Réinventer Paris, 30 November 2014

When the French were presented with a new ministry called the “Quality-of-Life Department,” this was nothing but an age-old ruling-class ploy, designed, as Machiavelli put it, “to allow them to retain at least the name of what they have already lost.”
— Guy Debord: “Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film ’La Société du Spectacle’,” 1975

Dear k.,

On the very day I mailed you my last missive, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, along with Jean-Louis Missika, deputy mayor in charge of “town planning, architecture, the Greater Paris projects, economic development and attractiveness,” announced a new international architectural competition that’s the buzz of the town: Réinventer Paris. Twenty-three sites within the city limits are up for grabs. I was initially excited to relate this news to you, because one of the sites is the nearby Hôtel de Coulanges on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, which currently houses the Maison de l’Europe. What an amazing opportunity to rethink the use of such cultural capital! Sadly, however, it seems unlikely that the competition will reward programmatic experimentation and economic diversity; proposals will be considered only if they include the commitment of a financial investor, thus encouraging public-private partnerships and bestowing upon the financier the privilege — heretofore held by the administration, with the counsel of planners and architects — of deciding upon a program. I’m not expecting much risk-taking. The more I read about this competition, the more it feels as if the city is pawning its patrimony.

“Each team is invited to present its ideas on how to bring added vitality to exceptional Parisian sites,” the mayor announces. “The winners will then be able to purchase or rent the terrains in order to carry out their projects while simultaneously conducting an urban experiment on an unparalleled scale.” Needless to say, it’s the investors who are contacting the high-profile architects, and not the other way around — and the high-profile architects are being remunerated for their services. Architects, always at the service of power, see no problem in helping the banks acquire prestigious city property. If it doesn’t become a luxury hotel, the Hôtel de Coulanges will likely be impressed into the service of the fashion or art business, simply because nothing sells better here than the culture industry … and anyway, hasn’t this beautiful hôtel particulier already served for too many decades as the office for low-end state functionaries?

The hôtels particuliers have oscillated back and forth between the private and public domains, and this latest change in direction accurately indexes the current state of the economy and the dominant value system. The era of the literary salons didn’t last long for the hôtels particuliers of the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. When Louis XIV relocated the court to his new estate at Versailles, the Marais lost much of its appeal to the aristocracy. After the revolution, the hôtels particuliers were confiscated by the state and, as with many properties once owned by the nobility or the clergy, quickly sold and turned into sites of light industry. During the second half of the 20th century, with the growing focus on architectural patrimony and historical preservation, the state acquired and renovated many of the old mansions, which were then used to house municipal or state institutions.

I think we’ve taken for granted the extraordinary architecture of our public services: the National Archives at Hôtels de Soubise and de Rohan, the fire station at the Hôtel de Chavigny, the public libraries at the Hôtels de Lamoignon and de Sens, the administrative courts at the Hôtels de Beauvais and d’Aumont, the National Center for Historical Monuments at the Hôtel de Sully, the Paris Historical Museum at the Hôtel Carnavalet, the Picasso Museum at the Hôtel Salé, and so on, not to mention the Académie d’Architecture at the Hôtel de Chaulnes, or the public schools lodged in the Hôtels de Vendôme, de Gourgues, and Lafont.

In fact, the luxury of housing public functions in these splendid environments may well have contributed to the popularity of the 4th arrondissement, and by extension to its soaring property values. The recent trend towards their incremental privatization is in line with the changing political climate. More and more you read about the sale of historic monuments to international investors and transnational corporations; headlines that might have been seen as contentious not that long ago are now just common news. (The recent transformation of the Molitor, near the Bois de Boulogne, into a high-end luxury hotel did break a lot of hearts, but that’s because the old art deco swimming club figured in the childhood memories of so many Parisians. Meanwhile the transformation of the Société des Cendres into the Uniqlo flagship yielded unbounded enthusiasm.)

Once again, I can’t help but think about the old aristocracy and that moment of no return when paradigms shift radically. No matter how easy it is to revisit the past from an enlightened historical perspective, it seems that what is common to all pre-revolutionary eras is a deep sense of denial about the coming insurrection.

x, m.


Postcard #7: Je Suis Charlie, 17 January 2015

When passions cannot be mobilized by democratic parties because these parties privilege a “consensus at the center,” those passions tend to find other outlets, in diverse fundamentalist movements, around particularistic demands or nonnegotiable moral issues.
— Chantal Mouffe, For an Agonistic Public Sphere, 2000

Dear k.,

Everyone here, not just in the city but also in the country, seems to be waking up from a severe hangover, from a collective emotional high. What just happened? I know, I know, over the course of three days, three French jihadists killed seventeen people in the name of Al-Qaeda, including their primary targets: five cartoonists known for their irreverence toward Islam.

This in itself didn’t produce the hangover. Tragically, terrorism is not all that novel here … France has seen its share. Remember the anti-Semitic shootings at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, by twenty-three-year-old Frenchman Mohammed Merah? That was two years ago. And remember also Jo Goldenberg’s, the Jewish restaurant down the street where we had our Thanksgiving dinner in 1995, now converted into the trendy blue jeans store, Le Temps des Cerises? One summer day in 1982, four men walked in at lunchtime and threw a hand grenade and then, as they ran away, tossed another at the crowd while randomly shooting passersby with machine guns. Two years before that, a bomb had exploded in front of the synagogue on rue Copernic. And let’s not forget the wave of bombs that exploded in the metros and trains in the mid ’90s, mostly in the name of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group. All together, scores of civilians have died, and many hundreds have been severely injured in recent decades. The crisis is real; it’s not new, and I don’t have answers. But it’s not these horrific acts to which I am referring.

What is new, and alarming, is what followed the terror: a collective hysteria, branded by a designed logo and a catchy hashtag that sacralized the act of blasphemy. It flattened a complex landscape of religious and national identities into a hegemonic, almost robotic voice that celebrated its unity — and its conviction of unanimity — in the name of free speech. Any resistance to the limited black and white palette of its discourse was instantly shut down as an apology for terrorism. And so, in Charlie’s name, we have been witnessing a creeping totalitarianism, on the left and right, starting with the teachers who defended freedom of expression and then silenced their students when they dissented from dominant opinion.

Passion — collective and unbridled — is truly awesome: that is, daunting and ominous. A million and a half people walked from Place de la République to Place de la Nation last Sunday night. Between 1.2 and 1.6 million, according to the government. But what is a margin of error of 400,000? It’s the slip between idea and experience. Feelings are overflowing, and reason — especially dialectics — is too often being dismissed as inappropriate. The fine-tuning of a gray spectrum of opinions and ideas has been replaced by emphatic sound bites and populist epistrophes. The immediacy of experience warrants the public display of emotion and eclipses attempts at reflection, gestures of hesitation or suspended belief.

I have a difficult time reconciling the Marais — which, as I told you in an earlier postcard, provided the stage for the age of reason — with the mass hysteria we’ve been witnessing. And which far exceeds, in scope and intensity, the previous public reactions to terrorism. I hear disturbing intonations of thinly veiled pride in the declarations that this is France’s 9/11 — a catchphrase produced by sensationalistic media, taken up by crowds, and used to justify the intensification of France’s war on terror.

This morning, I walked down the Rue Vieille du Temple towards the Francs-Bourgeois — you know, the block with the Galerie d’Architecture, Muji, the Paul & Joe store. I wondered if anyone in sight was thinking about that night in August 1944, the day after the liberation of Paris, when a vengeful Hitler ordered that the remaining Junkers of the Luftwaffe fly down from Belgium and bomb the city. That night 213 people were killed and 914 were injured, a third of whom lived on this very block. I wondered whether that event was forgotten because it lacked a memorable media branding campaign, a very public memorial design competition.

x, m.


Postcard #8: Public and Collective, 15 April 2015

Today, there are architects who assign a compensatory character to the space occupied by housing (the habitat). From their point of view, the (bourgeois) apartment becomes a microcosm. It tends to replace the city and the urban. A bar is installed to simulate the expansive sociability and conviviality of public places. The kitchen mimics the grocery store, the dining room replaces the restaurant; the terrace and balcony, with their flowers and plants, serve as an analogue … of the countryside and nature.
— Henri Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment, 1973

As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.
— Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, 1966

Dear k.,

It’s yet another uncharacteristically warm spring day, and I’m writing to you from the Jardin des Rosiers-Joseph-Migneret, a new public park between the Rues des Rosiers and Francs-Bourgeois that combines the gardens of the Hôtels de Coulanges, de Barbes, and d’Albret. And what a lovely little park this is! Half an acre of hidden green, framed between 17th-century façades and an old fragment of the medieval city wall, started by Philippe Auguste in 1190 before he left to fight in the Third Crusade. It’s filled with children, the elderly, students, parents, nannies. Considering its invisibility from the street, I’m surprised by its popularity. But I shouldn’t be; it really is a neighborhood park, not a tourist destination. It juxtaposes, in enfilade, a flower garden, a playground, a neighborhood vegetable garden — in other words, it serves everyday demands not possibly accommodated within individual private realms.

The Marais is densely populated, and most apartments are tiny. Paris averages about 20,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, but the upper Marais — in the 3rd Arrondissement —houses well over 30,000 per square kilometer, the kind of density often associated with India or the Philippines. Consider too that one-third of Parisian apartments are under thirty-five square meters. This points to a simple observation: most residences serve only the most private functions of Parisian lives. Everything else is spatially decentralized, made collective, and regrouped per function. No wonder that public city services here don’t suffer from disreputable associations; they don’t lack popular support or public funding. After all, the mayors of both the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements are members of the socialist party, as is the mayor of Paris, who is responsible for all twenty arrondissements. The public libraries are for study, the parks for leisure, the museums and cinemas for culture and entertainment, and the banks of the Seine and Canal Saint-Martin for picnics. Please note I’m not implying here a recent trend of collectivizing domestic programs; I’m describing a mode of dwelling that long precedes the privatization that’s become standard in the bourgeois apartments described by Lefebvre.

Take the Parisian picnic. More than a playful summer practice, it’s become a ritual. It was started by college-age students in response to various factors: the shortage of personal space for the gathering of friends; the prohibitive costs of eating out; the cultural bias for outdoor eating; the increasing tolerance of lawn access; and the availability of public recycling bins, Today, all city lawns allow picnicking from mid-April to mid-October, and at dinnertime the riverfront morphs into an endless dining room, covered in colorful blankets and printed cloths upon which friends gather around bountiful supplies of shared food. The picnic adepts come well prepared, with coordinated home-cooked meals, ceramic plates, and Sunday silverware, while the amateurs collect takeout at the local bakery and often need to borrow a bottle opener from their more organized neighbors … yielding conversation starters, possibly further food sharing.

Here’s a sobering thought. If Lefebvre describes the bourgeois apartment as the microcosm that stands for “the city and the urban,” then a corollary emerges: in an era of rapid gentrification, an “urban” area that provides “bourgeois apartments” and privileges the privatization of leisurely functions over the maintenance of public amenities will undoubtedly annihilate the very things that define its urbanity. The urbanity that has long defined Paris is irrefutably tied to the limited size of its apartments.

x, m.


Postcard #9: Jeudi Noir, 28 May 2015

A house in certain parts of Paris is valued at many thousands of pounds sterling, not because thousands of pounds’ worth of labour have been expended on that particular house, but because it is in Paris; because for centuries workmen, artists, thinkers, and men of learning and letters have contributed to making Paris what it is today — a centre of industry, commerce, politics, art, and science; because Paris has a past; because, thanks to literature, the names of its streets are household words in foreign countries as well as at home; because it is the fruit of eighteen centuries of toil, the work of fifty generations of the whole French nation.

Who, then, can appropriate to himself the tiniest plot of ground, or the meanest building in such a city, without committing a flagrant injustice? Who, then, has the right to sell to any bidder the smallest portion of the common heritage?
— Piotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, 1892

Dear k.,

I take it back. My last missive presented the Marais as exemplary of a healthy urban life, but the density of the 3rd Arrondissement is more the exception than the rule. At the current pace of embourgeoisement, the lower Marais — the part in the 4th Arrondissement — will soon be a neighborhood-scaled hotel, right on the heels of the textbook example of Venice, with its 60,000 inhabitants and twenty-two million (!) tourists every year. Maybe it already is.

The population of the 4th has dropped steadily for a century; this year it’s fewer than 28,000. It’s difficult to imagine that in the mid-19th century well over 100,000 people occupied this same district. I’m not suggesting that such density (68,000 per square kilometer) was desirable; but the district’s slum days are clearly long gone, and property values are among the highest in the country, if not the world, now around €14,000 per square meter. For the working class, such costs are prohibitive, and well-off Parisians prefer the more spacious environs available on the periphery. The upshot is that the 4th Arrondissement has become the privileged realm of pied-à-terrisation.

In other words, the housing crisis is reaching new heights. Paris has lost over 20,000 apartments to non-resident investors in the past five years, and over fifteen percent of the apartments in the 4th are now vacation homes. Meanwhile the shortage of housing for Parisians exceeds all previous records, and those who work or study in the city are constrained to live in a widening periphery. The increased ease and popularity of short-term rentals through online platforms for collaborative consumption has further limited the availability of convenient work places: property owners can collect three to four times more from tourists than from long-term tenants. The city is torn between its various allegiances, and while tourism is often prioritized, some measures have been taken to help the housing situation. For one thing, Airbnb, et al., are now illegal in the Marais (unless you rent out your primary residence for fewer than ninety days per year). Other programs are attempting to promote economic diversity, such as “solidarity rentals,” a tax-free rental plan managed and subsidized by the city to temporarily accommodate low-income families on the waitlist for social housing.

Sadly, many who own vacant apartments are neither concerned with nor interested in France’s internal housing or economic crises — a disregard that has inspired militant activism. Members of the Jeudi Noir collective, for example, practice what they call “civic requisition.” For more than a year they occupied the Hôtel Coulanges on the Place des Vosges, once the childhood home of Madame de Sévigné. “La Marquise,” as the squatters dubbed the place, had been vacant since 1965. After months of contestation and lawsuits, and despite public and political support, the three-dozen squatters — architecture, geography, and sociology students among them — were forcibly evicted. That was in October 2010. The 2,000-square-meter hôtel particulier has been empty ever since.

When I was growing up, my mother instituted a house rule: books belonged to those who read them. Ownership was a much more abstract notion than usership, which seemed sufficient to justify entitlement. Similar to the difference between those who purchase books they never read and those who study from books they can’t afford to own, the growing disjunction between those who own the city and those who actually use the city — those who should be credited for its urbanity — yields only an increasingly artificial form of authenticity tourism and the commodification/aestheticization of urbanity itself.

x, m.


Postcard #10: Beached Cruiseship, 15 July 2015

Tourism is essentially a passive activity. You set yourself in a certain surrounding — expecting to be excited, amused, entertained. You need bring nothing to the situation — the surrounding is sufficiently charged.
— Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947–1963

There’s something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling that you deserve the dislike at the same time that you resent it.
— David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” 1996

Dear k.,

School is out. Already many Parisians have left town for the summer, and the tourists have landed en masse. The latest iteration of Paris-Plages is under construction. The bi-annual state-regulated sales are on. Between shoppers and vacationers, the flux of pedestrians spills over the neighborhood sidewalks into the streets. Just when it seems like maximum visitor capacity has decisively been reached, Paris announces its official candidacy to host the 2024 Olympic games. Remind me to be out of town that month.

Is there is a physical limit to the number of people who can claim a moment of Parisienneté? Does it have to do with the ratio of performers to spectators? And yet, in the heterogeneous show on display out my window, everyone — even the tourist — has a role. My own presence at the balcony is no less active. To look at or interpret the world, as Jacques Rancière points out, “is already a means of transforming it, of reconfiguring it.” The street, my street, is a perfect theatre, with its stage, its balconies, its designed sets, its sequenced acts, its actors and extras.

The Rue des Écouffes, featured in a line of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” — his poetic tribute to modernity and the Parisian quotidian — lies at the heart of overlapping urban identities. Absorbed and appropriated by the shopping and gay districts while historically integral to the Pletzl — the Jewish neighborhood — the street hosts a sub-culture of each; it’s now the zone for North-African Sephardic markets among the larger ensemble of Kosher businesses, for lesbian bars among the male-dominated gay neighborhood, for low-income residents among an increasingly luxurious housing market. Along the Rue des Écouffes, payot-sporting Hebrew school boys skateboard past men wearing high-heels, while elderly tenants on rent control since 1948 drag their chairs onto the sidewalk to chitchat in the shade and kvetch about tourism.

I watch from the window, veiled by my potted herbs, which more often serve as a Mashrabiya than as flavor for my meals. It is a safe position, one that shields me from hard questions like: What is my role in this act? My relationship to my street, and to the Marais as a whole, feels as multi-layered and dysfunctional as the neighborhood itself. The surroundings reflect my own conflicted desires back to me, and I am at once intoxicated and repulsed, charmed and overly critical. Why am I humiliated by the identities the place imposes upon me — a shopper, a privileged gentrifier, a foreigner? But then I delight in so many of its luxuries: in the aesthetic pleasures of everyday life, in an environment that refuses to be absorbed in a state of distraction, in being spoiled by a system that overindulges its favorites. Would you believe that I’m currently writing to you from the reading room of the Hôtel de Lamoignon, which has hosted the likes of Madame de Sévigné, Racine, and Flaubert, and now serves as a public library? And yet, how do I inhale their presence without falling into the trap of fetishism — the virus contaminating perceivable history? But how do I also escape the enticing spectacle of “escape”? I want to inhabit the present, real life, not perform on cue.

The Marais functions as an all too exemplary autonomous zone — somewhere between Apollinaire and Hakim Bey, between remnants of 19th-century village life and the new global lifestyle. It is both heterotopia and chronotopia. Its main defense against any single narrative exists in the multiple, independent modes of practicing this same space, from the most scripted to the most improvised. To resist any stereotypical image is precisely to resist that which feeds the lucrative market for authenticity, the main currency of the experience economy.

But as it refines and feeds its own branded image, and performs its own crystallized role, the Marais risks losing all possibility for an unaffected everyday life. No longer the Love Boat, but the ruined Costa Concordia. The empty shell of a poorly steered cruise ship, the wreck of an age of decadence and greed. As Madame de Pompadour, favorite of King Louis XV, would remind her royal lover a generation before the revolution: “après nous, le deluge.”

x, m.

[Image courtesy of Parisian Fields]

Postcard #11: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, 1 December 2015

The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to be convinced that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, in any case more rational and democratic.
— Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988

Dear k.,

The approaching wintertide is palpable, and I don’t mean only the early nightfall. Despite the official call to keep exercising our French art de vivre, the mood is tense, chilling. Last week, the simple explosion of a halogen bulb at one of the crowded bars on the Rue des Archives triggered a stampede throughout the narrow streets of the Marais, leaving trails of shattered glass behind.

The November attacks across the Canal-Saint Martin are difficult to process. I vacillate between feeling overwhelmed with despair about the state of the world, and feeling excessively critical of the world’s overly emotional response to events that would seem to demand more reflection than outcry, more reason than reaction … it’s exhausting. I think of these lines from Judith Butler: “Most people I know describe themselves as ‘at an impasse,’ not able to think the situation through. … It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you.” I am willing to take the time, but also suspect that “thinking it through” would be pure illusion.

You asked if all of my friends are safe. Friends of friends were lost — architects have decent social lives, it turns out — but no one I knew personally. Which is precisely why the victims are as abstract to me as those who died in Beirut the day before, or in Mali the week after, all mediated equally by a computer interface that distributes “the news” inequitably. On the one hand, the mediation facilitates immersion; on the other, it alienates, and we find ourselves drifting up to République and across the canal to the sites of the shootings on Rue Alibert, looking for immediacy in the very materiality of the artifacts, the candles and flowers that carpet the sidewalks. No matter that they mark the actual sites of violence, these are symbolic signs of support, as allusive as the Peace for Paris logos that are proliferating in the ether of social media. Only the bullet holes seem truly indexical; more real. Why are we so drawn to the burning flame of the inaccessible instant vécu? Why the urge to get closer, if not for the promise — the delusion — that it would help us “think the situation through?”

The ubiquity of logos and slogans is as disturbing to me now as it was in January; but if these so-called signs of solidarity are inevitable in our wired world, they do seem also to contain some untapped power. Instead of helplessly uniting us in reaction to past events, could this kind of branding logic help prevent future ones? At the U.N. climate conference here in town, Naomi Klein posed the question: why isn’t climate change the biggest headline of our daily news? If the headlines were proportional to the urgency of the problem, then climate change would be on the front page day after day. But mass shootings or terrorist attacks — the concentrated spectacle of violence — are so much news-worthier than the more diffuse violence of global weather.

A hurricane makes the news for a few days, but the political and social problems that so often amplify their intensity and localize their damage are intangible — too ambient, too invisible. So too acts of terrorism reify the pressures that globalized capitalism have exerted upon the countless human beings left behind by the system. The symptoms are concrete, but the causes seem abstract. But are they really that invisible — or are they all too pervasive?

In a statement after the attacks, Daesh declared that it was targeting Paris as “the capital of prostitution and vice.” These words echo in my head as I walk down to the metro and pass by the window displays of the BHV — the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville. The illumination of the city is in full bloom for the holiday season, and the Grands Magasins deliver as never before. But the once festive spirit that enchanted my childhood now reads as the residue of a dream world. Paris, capital of the 19th century; Paris, capital of luxury and fashion; Paris, capital of the fetish commodity. Such cognitive dissonance is hard to endure.

Sending heaps of love. Anything to warm up the air.

x, m.

Mireille Roddier, “Dear Marais …,” Places Journal, January 2016. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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