Bastille Day Look at Haussmann’s Paris

Destination: Paris

Book: Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirland. (New 2014)

Here is a book that entertains as it educates, and will give you a peek behind the pretty face of Paris.

My headline repeats the commonly held belief that the shape of Paris today owes its classical beauty to the Baron Haussman.  Naturally, in a project so enormous, there were many players. In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland makes a strong case that Napoléon III should have top billing.

If you read I Always Loved You (reviewed here), you got a glimpse of what it was like to live through the rennovation of Paris in the 19th century. Aside from the disruption of muddy streets and buildings torn down, not everyone was delighted to lose the historic Paris-most notably Victor Hugo, who devotes a lengthy preface to the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the Medieval Paris that was passing away.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who was elected in a Republican form of government, but wrested power away from the people to become a dictator as Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire, wanted to bring Paris up to the standards of London, where he had lived in exile for thirty-three years.

As far back as 1749, Kirkland says, Voltaire had written:

We need public markets, fountains that actually give water, regular intersections, performance halls; we need to widen the narrow and filthy streets, uncover monuments that we can not see, and build new ones to be seen.

Kirkland also quotes a British guidebook to Paris, publised in 1839:

Paris is inferior to most of the other capital towns in Europe as for the width, cleanliness, and general appearance of most of its streets are concerned.

Even new world cities in America had better amenities by the middle of the 18th century.  As Kirkland says:

The air was foul, the drinking water was unsafe, and the traffic ws chaotic and dangerous. The city lacked key amenities, such as a proper market, a sufficient number of bridges, strutured embankments, and a reliable supply of drinking water.

 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was a liberal thinker, intent on changing that, and providing services for the poor and needy as well.

They say that one should never watch two things being made–sausage and laws.  In Paris Reborn, Stephane Kirkland shows us a third–the modernization of a city.  As you are standing on a Paris bridge at twilight, watching the lights twinkle on the Eiffel Tower, or strolling down the Champs Elysées, you don’t want to be thinking about the graft, favoritism, illegal takings by the government, greedy developers, insider dealing, use of brute power by a dictatorship, bribery, and other shifty politics that enabled Paris to become the most romantic city in the world.

Paris at night
Paris at night

On the other hand, I guarantee that you will learn things you did not know about the city, and feel more at home there, after you have read this book.

It was a long, complicated and expensive proposition, but at the end, Kirkland tells us, the Second Empire had

  • built 85 miles of new streets with an average width of eighty feet (three times as wide as the old streets);
  • built 420 miles of sidewalks;
  • increased street gaslights from 15,000 to more than 32,000;
  • increased the number of trees along roads from 50,000 to 96,000;
  • knocked down 27,000 buildings between 1852 and 1870;
  • built a new Opera House;
  • Created the Market of Les Halles;
  • displaced 117,553 families /350,000 people (20% of the population of Paris)
  • constructed and expanded parks
  • planned neighborhoods and streets to complement the new train stations.

Though there were dozens of people involved–architects, artists, developers, financiers, politicians–behind the plans were two main movers.

The Visionary: Napoleon III, who had a wall-sized map hanging behind his desk that showed his vision of a new Paris.

The Enabler: Baron Haussmann, who worked all the angles, from planning traffic patterns to financing with a never-say-die (although frequently compromise) attitude.

Now a book about city planning and politics could be deadly boring, so let me assure you again, emphatically that this Paris Reborn is lively and interesting. It deserves a place in any travelers’ library.

Note: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review.

There are links from book titles and cover to Amazon.com. A Traveler’s Library is an affiliate of Amazon.com, so when you shop through our links, we get a few cents. Thanks for the support.

The photo is my own.

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

3 thoughts on “Bastille Day Look at Haussmann’s Paris

  1. that’s a lovely photo — I imagine you have good memories of making it.
    I am just reading City of Darkness City of Light, a mystery set mostly in early 20th century Paris. not sure how the story will go but so far it’s very good at atmosphere, history, and place. it’s by Rhys Bowen.

    1. City of Darkness City of Light is a great title. Sounds great. Thanks for your comment on the photo, which actually made me laugh because when I looked at our night time photos of Paris, I said to Ken–when were we out at night? It was our first night there, and I must have been hopelessly jetlagged, removing all memory of our stroll along the Seine and across the Pont Neuf.

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