Poor, vagabonds, destitute… the other Paris of the 19th century

Paris, the city of light? What a joke! Destitutes, vagabonds, destitutes, cellar rats, dragsters, beggars, gusts, pariahs, rattled teeth, bastards, penniless, starving, barefoot, bruisers, goupeurs, lawnmowers, wastelands, marquis of the stock market and Caesars from the bottom of the barrel, all have always had their streets, their neighborhoods, their Paris. That’s what Luc Sante, an American author, discovers with many 19th-century illustrations in “The Other Paris,” a beautiful book from 2015 that has inexplicably never been translated into French. From side to side, here is the exploration of the capital, in concentric circles, with its “officials, its old people, its scholars, its swindlers, its work ants”. And also in social strata, visited by Zola, Victor Serge, Hugo, Privat d’Anglemont, André Warnod, Léon-Paul Fargue. From Louis Chevalier’s alarm (“The assassination of Paris”, 1977) to the projects of the Lettrists who wanted to build footbridges over the city’s roofs, follow the guide in its 5414 streets counted in 1992 (i.e. 1200 more than in 1865 ).

“Vrrr vrrr vrrr… Trrra trrra trrra”: “I don’t care” in all its glory

The pleasure of strolling along rue Pavée-d’Andouille, rue de la Femme sans tête, rue des Mauvais Mots, rue Taille-Pain, rue Tire-Boudin… Gone, of course, but we still have rue de la Gaîté, with its shadows of carnivals and whores. What happiness, to have escaped the fixed idea of ​​Haussmann, who almost extended the rue de Rennes to the Seine, and Pompidou, who wanted to cover the Canal Saint-Martin with an eight-lane highway! That said, the first twenty thousand buildings (including the Carrousel district, Petite-Pologne and Butte-des-Moulins) toppled and obliterated the Cité, the heart of the city. The counter-history of Paris, described by Luc Sante, goes from the Zone, colonized by ragpickers and Apaches, to Montfaucon, where 25,000 m3 of human excrement were thrown away every day, and passes through the suburbs strewn with gas reservoirs and ramshackle slaughterhouses, where in 1932 lived more than two million inhabitants… Here hides Paris, a city of dead ends, poor devils, overflowing gutters, muddy courtyards, lost children (one in three children was “illegitimate” in 1830). Prisoners dying on the wheel, devastating diseases, armies of rats, what a sight! And who are the scapegoats? the Jews (there were 500 in the 18th century), the workers, later the Algerians and always this abomination: the rabble.

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Paris is a powder keg

Decadence was fashionable in the 19th century. Prosper Mérimée goes to the Hôtel-Dieu to look at the bodies; Liszt plays the Funeral March in Hugo for the Resurrection of the Dead; the romantic poets hang around the cement pits, with a taste for rot. Cour des Miracles overflows, Bièvre too, the smell of dirt invades the streets. At the slaughterhouses Charlot Paletot de Cuir, Armand le Fou and Poppé-les-trois-couilles have the girls processed. The output is such that the attendance is so important that Arletty in 1946 will point it out “closing brothels is more than a crime, it’s a pleonasm”. Free carpets, drinking troughs, bas-rings, caboulots, troquets, places of perdition, are sketched by Gavarni, photographed by Nadar, filmed by Jacques Becker (in “Casque d’or”), frequented by Carco and Cendrars. As for popular shows, on the Boulevard du Crime (now gone), we admire the “Fireproof Spaniard” who bathes in boiling oil, “Electric Girl” who moves furniture from a distance, the 400 kg woman, the living skeleton, moving pictures of naked girls… At the balls we dance the mazurka, the polka, the waltz, the redowa, the fricassee, the gavotte, the polikinelle, the Hungarian, heckling, and we happily pass the caress, the cups, the kick of Venus, the jackpot. Paris is a powder keg. It will burst in 1870. The beggars will rise up and burn the city down.

Luc Sante has authored three other major books: “Low Life: Lures and snares of Old New York” (1992); an essay on Walker Evans, photographer of the Great Depression (1999); and “OK you mugs: writers on movie actors” (1998). Almost unknown in France, he became a teacher after undergoing hormone therapy last year in light of his female transition, carried out at 67. From now on, his name is Lucy Sante. He ends his book with a chilling observation:

“The game may not be over, but the rules have changed irrevocably. The small have been devoured by the big, the poor chased away by the rich, the vagabonds are under glass in museums”.

Basically, the story of Paris can be summed up as follows: pissing off the poor. FF

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The other ParisLuc Sante, Farrar, Straus and Giroux ed., 306 pp. heavily illustrated, 2015, $17.

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