Is Paris Dead (Yet)?
For a change of pace, this post will consist of a book review.
Cole Stangler, a French-American journalist who covers French labor and politics for a variety of publications, has published a new book assertively entitled (in its US version) Paris Is Not Dead. Curiously, the book’s UK edition features a somewhat less apodictic title, Paris Isn’t Dead Yet, which suggests at best a moribund capital in its final agony.
The note of hesitation or uncertainty was presumably injected by the British publisher, not the author. In the text Stangler shows himself to be a reporter indefatigable in seeking out the signs of a vibrant, living city beneath the dry husk of museumification, Disneyification, touristification, and neoliberalization, to name the chief evils (as the author sees them) that rear their heads at various points in the narrative, which is enlivened by the author’s well-honed reportorial skills.
His Paris is a long way from the statistics-encrusted notebook of an urban planner or the programmatic manifesto of a political visionary. He brings neighborhoods to life by peopling them with individuals whose mental maps of the city reflect the shifting fortunes of the neighborhoods that the author singles out as representative of the living Paris, such as the northern slope of Montmartre in the 18th Arrondissement: “Soumia [one of the author’s many ‘native informants’] considers that neighborhood [la Goutte d’Or] to begin a few blocks further south, near all the fishmongers and butchers at the Marché Dejean. Instead, she says she lives around ‘Marcadet’—the name of her street. It’s about smack dab in the middle of the 18th, itself in the northern reaches of Paris.”
What makes Soumia a representative figure for Stangler is that, despite her deep attachment to this minority-majority section of the city in which she grew up, her ability to go on living there is threatened by “hypergentrification” (as the American subtitle has it, while the British, this time opting for relative restraint, prefers “gentrification”). The first section of the book elaborates this ongoing tug of war between “bourgeois” encroachment, which is steadily driving up rents, and “native resistance,” which tenaciously hangs on, as Soumia’s story indicates, even as friends and relatives decamp to less expensive suburbs on the far side of “la Périph,” the ring road that demarcates the city limits of the French capital.
The book’s second section is an historical excursus, which traces the ebb and flow of this tug of war all the way back to the French Revolution. Readers unfamiliar with the history of Paris may find this to be a useful primer.
The third section of the book shifts attention away from the inexorable economic forces of gentrification that threaten Soumia’s “Marcadet” to the social and political resistance that has arisen in the form of social movements to support the French citizen’s “enforceable right” (droit opposable) to decent housing and to oppose eviction as well as to create affordable housing in neighborhoods which, left to their own devices, might prefer to avoid the “social mixing” that is assumed in these pages to be both a source and a sign of urban vitality.
Stangler’s empathetic understanding of the characters he singles out as the victims of bourgeoisification is evident. No less evident is his antipathy to conspicuous consumption in any form. At times this antipathy verges on outright hostility to any and all manifestations of prosperity: “Today, Saint-Germain-des-Prés has become one of the more odious places in all of the city, hitting that sweet spot where bourgeois ostentation, luxury fashion, and mass tourism manage to collide.” Odious is a rather strong word for a neighborhood where one can easily shop at the rue de Buci street market after attending a lecture at Sciences Po, having lunch opposite the recently restored church, and later in the day taking in a concert under its newly painted arches.
The rivers of cash that fertilize “les Prés” and have begun to gentrify the slopes of Montmartre have always flowed through Paris, as Stangler himself shows in the middle section of his book. Without them, Paris would not be Paris. Stangler’s gaze is intense but partial. He cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the prosperous quarters, too, are alive with a vitality of their own, and that, without them, the different kinds of vitality that meet with his approval, from the “Senegalese restaurant [where] mbalax music buzzes out from an old TV” to the artists’ squat in Montreuil. would be in even more dire straits than they already are.
Stangler’s well-researched and well-told story of selected parts of the French capital is worth reading for its vivid descriptive prose and militant sympathies, but it isn’t the whole story of Paris, the phenomenon of gentrification, or the economics of urban life under contemporary capitalism.