When Paris Became . . . Paris


Robert Zaretsky reflects on 160 years of urban renewal:

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the event that transformed Paris into the city that frames so many of this year’s Oscar nominees. It was in 1852 that President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, fired by the memories and myth of his uncle’s earlier reign, proclaimed the birth of the Second Empire. Keen on creating a city worthy of its new imperial ambitions, the new emperor appointed a technocrat, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, to remake Paris. In one of his first acts as emperor, Louis-Napoleon called Haussmann to his palace and showed him a map of Paris on which he had slashed a number of straight lines across the dense squiggles of streets and alleys that formed a still mostly medieval city.

Haussmann assumed his task with ruthless efficiency. He proceeded to disembowel, as Haussmann proudly described his work, the center of the city. The Ile de la Cité, the small island anchored in the middle of the Seine, was entirely razed. More than 30,000 inhabitants in the thick hive of tenements that sprawled to the walls of Notre Dame were forced out, and the island was transformed into a lifeless platform for the cathedral.

The same logic of urban renewal played out elsewhere in the city: Haussmann sought to check nearly a millennium of largely unplanned growth with the imposition of rectilinear street patterns and broad boulevards lined by apartment buildings with uniform facades and uniform height.