Sunday, March 16, 2014

Joan DeJean's "How Paris Became Paris"

Joan DeJean is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of many books on French literature, history, and material culture, including The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. She lives in Philadelphia and, when in Paris, on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.

DeJean applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, and reported the following:
I decided to write How Paris Became Paris because I was so frustrated every time I heard someone say that Paris became a modern city only in the 19th century and only after Haussmann destroyed the medieval city still in place in 1850.

In fact, what we know and love about Paris today actually originated in the 17th century.

Take the example of the boulevard. When Haussmann chose the boulevard as the principal sign of urban modernity, he was simply copying a design invented in 1669.

Page 99 of my book opens when what I describe there as Paris’ “first large-scale planned reconstruction” was in full swing. In 1669, Louis XIV, the architect of Paris, and the city’s municipal government decided to tear down the fortifications that had shut the city off from the outside world for centuries. In their place, they built a gigantic thoroughfare and walkway, which they called “the boulevard.” This was the world’s first boulevard. It was 120 feet wide and had double rows of elm trees lining each side. As I say on page 99:

“Every parkway, every grand avenue in today’s major cities has its origin in that rampart of green for which they laid the groundwork in 1669.”

In this country alone, both the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia are modeled not on Haussman’s boulevards but on the original boulevard, the one designed in 1669. In How Paris Became Paris, I use 17th-century maps to illustrate the integration of the earliest boulevards and the first avenues such as the Champs-Elysées into the fabric of Paris. The resemblance with the way cities from Chicago to Philadelphia are laid out will, I hope, be evident.

Anyone interested in how that basic unit of urban space, the street, evolved and still functions today should enjoy page 99 in my book – and hopefully the rest of How Paris Became Paris as well.
Learn more about How Paris Became Paris at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue