Haussmann: His Life and Times,and the Making of Modern Paris
by Michel Carmona, translated by Patrick Camiller
Paris, still arguably the world’s most beautiful and livable metropolis, has not been lucky lately. During the early 1970s, the construction of the Maine-Montparnasse skyscraper, on the Left Bank, blighted the city’s hitherto harmonious center. In the 1980s and ’90s, President François Mitterrand presided over the addition of other atrocities, including the new opera house—a soulless, clunky box—and the dysfunctional Bibliothèque Nationale, where books, stored in the library’s glass towers, are vulnerable to sunlight and heat.
The mid-19th century renovation of Paris, under the leadership of Georges-Eugène Haussmann (a sort of French Robert Moses), offers an inspiring counterpoint to these late 20th-century depredations. In his eminently readable biography, Michel Carmona surveys Haussmann’s herculean campaign, an effort that ultimately transformed a medieval warren of dark, slum-filled streets and alleys into the airy City of Light with its tree-lined boulevards and handsome apartment buildings.
Carmona, a professor of urban planning at the Sorbonne, points out that Emperor Napoléon III (who reigned from 1852-1870 and was the nephew of Napoléon I) actually came up with most of the ideas for renovating Paris. It was he who drew up a color-coded map of the city, outlining his ideas for opening clogged thoroughfares, cleaning up squalor, and creating schools, hospitals and public parks such as the Bois de Boulogne. Haussmann, a career civil servant, would serve as the emperor’s main functionary in remaking the city.
A descendant of German Lutherans who settled in Alsace in the 16th century, Haussmann was born in 1809 in a Paris house that would be demolished during his renovation. After law studies, he opted for the civil service. In 1853, Napoléon III appointed him prefect of the departement of the Seine, making him in effect mayor of Paris.
Over the next 17 years, Haussmann razed much of the city. He laid out 12 grand avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe. He doubled the supply of drinking water, modernized the sewage system and rebuilt ten bridges. In the process, he dislodged 350,000 people. Most were poor families driven from slums to the suburbs. “The new Paris is made for people with money,” Carmona writes. Unlike in most large American cities, those who can afford to, still live in the center of Paris; those who cannot are consigned to the suburbs.
The author gives short shrift to the heartbreak of social upheaval on such a huge scale. But lovers of Paris will find Carmona’s chronicle a treasurehouse of urban lore.
Reviewer Joseph Harriss has lived in Paris for 41 years.