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Ideals: The Streets of Paris

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1. C. Marville, Rue Estienne, no date.
(Bilbliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris)

2. Hippolyte Bayard, Rue de la Condamine, (in reverse), 1845

4. A. Braun, Rue de Rivoli, 1855 or after.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

The 18th century has often been called the century of Enlightenment. It was a time of new ideas and new ideals. Much of the thinking of the enlightenment had to do with scientific reasoning and a reconnection to nature. This 'reasoning' was reflected in the city itself as people began to pay more attention to both the social and political health of the city. These ideals blossomed towards the end of the 18th century during the reign of Louis XIV and were carried on into the many building projects of the 19th century. In fact, many of these enlightened ideals are still prevalent today and help to define modern society.

The redesigning of Paris began under Louis XIV. During his reign Paris was still primarily medieval in its design with winding narrow streets and bad sanitation. However due to increasing population and many of the new ideals permeating society, new building was undertaken to expand the city. In 1783 it was forbidden for new streets to be built less than 30 feet wide, starting the trend of wider, more accessible streets (Roche, 32). Still this did not mean that the streets had to be straight. As the city grew more rapidly than planned building could be accomplished, people put up houses wherever and however they wanted. The first picture to the left is an example of how old Paris looked. The streets were narrow and unpredictable with little light and little space for walking.

The amount of light let into the city became a big issue for Parisians who felt the city air to be oppressive, heavy and bad for the health. As historian Daniel Roche puts it,

The street decided the nature of the dwelling, not vice versa, narrow streets and unhealthiness were inseparable in their thinking, which put the circulation of air at the top of medical values." (Roche, 101)

As seen in the second picture to the right,this value for light and free flowing air began to show in the city in the form of numerous gardens and wider, well planned streets, especially during the massive building boom of the 1820's started under Napoleon Bonaparte and continued throughout the restoration.

By the time of Louis-Phillippe, Paris already had a few open boulevards for the enjoyment of strolling and getting fresh air, most notably the Rue des Italiens, as well as the Champs Elysees, however much of the city was still in disorder by the time of Louis-Phillippe:

The Streets of Louis-Phillippe's Paris still wound through the city in medieval narrowness and disorder. Most were built for people instead of vehicles; the French capitol had the smallest streets of any major European city. (Kramer, 29)

These narrow streets proved to be a great burden to his government (as well as those that came before him) in that they proved to be a great advantage to Revolutionaries in times of revolt: they were perfect for barricades. Victor Hugo, knew the truth in this, and uses these old streets as the scene for his famous barricade scene in his Les Miserables:

Moreover the emeute was conducted according to the soundest military tactics. The narrow, uneven, sinuous streets, full of turns and corners, were admirably chosen; the environs of the markets in particular, a network of streets more intricate than a forest... A man, killed in the Rue du Ponceau, who was searched , had a map of Paris on him. (Hugo, 922)

The fact that one man was found to have a map on him shows that the insurgents purposefully used the city's layout to thwart the government. This was one reason Louis-Phillippe hired Baron Haussmann to redesign the city.

The "new Paris", seen in the last photo to the right, was an effective system for government control as the new boulevards were easy transport for troops as well as almost impossible to barricade in their width, straightness, and the new technology of pavement. However most people would come to remember it for its fresh air, and its friendliness to shoppers and strollers though both its wide boulevards and its vast gardens. All of these things were symbols of modernity, and signaled the switch to a bourgeoisie centered society. Hence forth Paris would be a city devoted to its streets and its street culture.

Rainy weather, dirty streets, and mud puddles did not keep Parisians at home, however. Indeed the Parisians went out into the boulevards to look for amusement and to look at each other. Indeed the best way to see the city was to take long walks in the streets and parks. Parisian Streets were a permanent parade in which every visitor and every resident participated at one time or another. (Kramer, 30)

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