Hard truths for Paris and Venice

Paris’ new socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, wants to prevent the core from becoming a “ghetto for the rich” (I don’t think she gets the concept of a ghetto, but that’s neither here nor there). According to Feargus O’Sullivan, the city has made a list of hundreds of addresses so that, if an apartment there goes on the market, Paris will have the option to buy them first, a right of first refusal. They’ve set aside over a billion dollars, so they must mean business.

The reason they’ve taken such a step is because of gentrification. It’s turning Paris’ old working class neighborhoods into upper class ones. “The idea is essentially to give Paris the ability to act as a social-mix monitor, steeping in to prevent social segregation in the public interest if they feel it is under threat,” O’Sullivan wrote.

It goes almost without saying that I oppose the plan, but I do sympathize with the Parisians. I also know what happened that has caused this problem. Paris is too beautiful.

In American cities, which are ugly and mostly made of parking lot, it’s easy to point at people who are opposed to development and call them NIMBYs. Because they are. But take a genuinely beautiful city like Paris and the struggle over whether to allow new development makes a lot more sense.

Unlike London, which had effectively never been designed in the first place, and in the second was heavily damaged by bombing during the Second World War, central Paris was designed by Baron Haussman in the nineteenth century. Most of the medieval city was demolished and the cream-colored, mansard-roofed blocks we know and love went up in its place, along with the boulevards and avenues. His reasons and purposes have been debated, but the design is now as beloved as the Eiffel Tower. He was dismissed by Napoleon III in 1870 and the last boulevard was completed in 1927.

And Paris has basically been the same ever since.

While this stasis has done some good — central Paris wasn’t paved with parking lots of replaced by Gehryesque abominations — it has meant that the city hasn’t kept up with demand. Buildings that need to be replaced haven’t been and while the population has been fairly constant over the past few decades, household sizes have declined, increasing the demand for housing.

Of course, outside the historic core things are a little better in terms of development. Skyscrapers have been allowed in La Defence and most of the population of the Paris metropolitan area lives in the banlieues surrounding the capital. But while this has been important for its growth, the city and its suburbs have been divided by the Boulevard Periphique and with Metro lines largely stopping there.

“If the suburbs are a dumping ground, the city core risks crystallizing into a museum piece, an antique butterfly secured on a pin. Compared to London, the city has done brilliantly in preserving small businesses and markets, but it’s becoming increasingly staid, living on its past, with a sense that its identity fixed hard and permanently decades ago,” O’Sullivan wrote.

This is the real danger for a Paris that has been satisified with its beauty: it could end up like Venice.

Venice is the most beautiful place in the world. An unparalleled acheivement of masons, sculptors, architects and capitalism. But it hasn’t functioned as a city for centuries. It’s been devoted to tourism since the 18th century. While Venezia remains wealthy and productive, Venice itself has lost population to terra firma, has become all but unaffordable to most and even its ruin and decay are thoroughly documented by tourists. All while it continues to sink.

Venice and Paris both need to change to live, but to change they will have to give up some of what has made them beloved. But it was their life that made them great.

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