September 29, 2004

The Dark Towers of Paris

I went to Europe for the first time on my honeymoon a little more than two years ago. Shelly and I started our trip in France, went south into Spain, and then north up to Amsterdam. She had been to Europe before. I had not, preferring instead to visit Latin America. (I still prefer Latin America. I fight boredom in Europe. It is too much like home.)

I remember looking out the airplane window at the vast expanse of farms over France. It was like magic. I would finally see the storybook land of city walls and bridges, ancient churches and castles. I wished, not for the first time, that I could live there.

And then I got out of the airplane and into a taxi.

The driver pulled onto the freeway and I saw Paris for the first time. It has a sprawling skyline of gigantic concrete block towers. Peering into the neighborhoods I saw a lot of trash and broken glass and little activity. There were no signs of life. Every vista repulsed me. And it went on like that for miles. It didn't help much that the predominant color was gray and the weather was overcast.

This can't be Paris, I thought. It looks like a Soviet Republic. Where were the church steeples? The amazing French architecture? The restaurant-lined boulevards?

I became physically depressed. Every last drop of excitement and anticipation drained out of me.

I have always hated American suburbs with their strip malls, fast food joints, big box stores, and inland seas of parking. They’re hideous and I’m glad I don’t live there. I always wanted to know: why can’t we build cities the way Europeans build cities?

That drive into Paris taught me what I should have known all along. Europeans don’t build cities like they used to any more than Americans do. Architectural modernism is a worldwide horror. Everyone who had a hand in building the lovely quarters of Paris died a long time ago.

I was shocked – truly shocked – to discover that suburban Paris is many times worse than Suburbia, USA. I had absolutely no idea. No one ever told me. (Now you can’t say no one ever told you.) No one publishes pictures in travel magazines of those god-awful swathes of modernist blight. Hardly anyone ever writes about what most of Paris is actually like.

The charming old city really is something. If you haven’t seen it I can tell you it is every bit as fantastic as most people say. But that part of the city takes up much less than 50 percent of the surface area. It’s an outdoor museum where some people are lucky to live. It took almost two days before I could shake my first impression of Paris and enjoy the old city the way I wanted to.

Needless to say, I spent no time at all in the outskirts. I had barely even a flicker of curiosity about what lay beyond the peripherique. Walking around in those neighborhoods would have been a deeply depressing experience. It was harsh enough just riding through them in a cab for half an hour.

In the current issue of City Journal Theodore Dalrymple describes what it’s actually like to live in some of those neighborhoods. After reading this I’m glad all over again I live here instead of over there.

Reported crime in France has risen from 600,000 annually in 1959 to 4 million today, while the population has grown by less than 20 percent... Where does the increase in crime come from? The geographical answer: from the public housing projects that encircle and increasingly besiege every French city or town of any size, Paris especially. In these housing projects lives an immigrant population numbering several million, from North and West Africa mostly, along with their French-born descendants...

...A Habitation de Loyer Modéré -- a House at Moderate Rent, or HLM -- [is] for the workers, largely immigrant, whom the factories needed during France’s great industrial expansion from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the unemployment rate was 2 percent and cheap labor was much in demand. By the late eighties, however, the demand had evaporated, but the people whose labor had satisfied it had not; and together with their descendants and a constant influx of new hopefuls, they made the provision of cheap housing more necessary than ever...

The average visitor gives not a moment’s thought to these Cités of Darkness as he speeds from the airport to the City of Light. But they are huge and important—and what the visitor would find there, if he bothered to go, would terrify him.

A kind of anti-society has grown up in them—a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other, “official,” society in France. This alienation, this gulf of mistrust—greater than any I have encountered anywhere else in the world, including in the black townships of South Africa during the apartheid years—is written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and potholed open spaces between their logements. When you approach to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity; they make no gesture to smooth social intercourse. If you are not one of them, you are against them.

Their hatred of official France manifests itself in many ways that scar everything around them. Young men risk life and limb to adorn the most inaccessible surfaces of concrete with graffiti—BAISE LA POLICE, fuck the police, being the favorite theme. The iconography of the cités is that of uncompromising hatred and aggression: a burned-out and destroyed community-meeting place in the Les Tarterets project, for example, has a picture of a science-fiction humanoid, his fist clenched as if to spring at the person who looks at him, while to his right is an admiring portrait of a huge slavering pit bull, a dog by temperament and training capable of tearing out a man’s throat—the only breed of dog I saw in the cités, paraded with menacing swagger by their owners.

There are burned-out and eviscerated carcasses of cars everywhere. Fire is now fashionable in the cités: in Les Tarterets, residents had torched and looted every store—with the exceptions of one government-subsidized supermarket and a pharmacy. The underground parking lot, charred and blackened by smoke like a vault in an urban hell, is permanently closed...

When agents of official France come to the cités, the residents attack them...Benevolence inflames the anger of the young men of the cités as much as repression, because their rage is inseparable from their being. Ambulance men who take away a young man injured in an incident routinely find themselves surrounded by the man’s “friends,” and jostled, jeered at, and threatened: behavior that, according to one doctor I met, continues right into the hospital, even as the friends demand that their associate should be treated at once, before others.

But [state entitlements are] not a cause of gratitude -- on the contrary: they feel it as an insult or a wound, even as they take it for granted as their due. But like all human beings, they want the respect and approval of others, even -- or rather especially -- of the people who carelessly toss them the crumbs of Western prosperity... The state, while concerning itself with the details of their housing, their education, their medical care, and the payment of subsidies for them to do nothing, abrogates its responsibility completely in the one area in which the state’s responsibility is absolutely inalienable: law and order.

No one should underestimate the danger that this failure poses, not only for France but also for the world. The inhabitants of the cités are exceptionally well armed. When the professional robbers among them raid a bank or an armored car delivering cash, they do so with bazookas and rocket launchers, and dress in paramilitary uniforms. From time to time, the police discover whole arsenals of Kalashnikovs in the cités. There is a vigorous informal trade between France and post-communist Eastern Europe: workshops in underground garages in the cités change the serial numbers of stolen luxury cars prior to export to the East, in exchange for sophisticated weaponry.

I’m as interested in the architecture of these places as much as the societies inside them. I believe that, on some level at least, the design of a city influences its culture. Some places make the heart soar. Others – like outer Paris – pulverize the human spirit. So I was not at all surprised to read this from the same essay:
Architecturally, the housing projects sprang from the ideas of Le Corbusier, the Swiss totalitarian architect—and still the untouchable hero of architectural education in France—who believed that a house was a machine for living in, that areas of cities should be entirely separated from one another by their function, and that the straight line and the right angle held the key to wisdom, virtue, beauty, and efficiency. The mulish opposition that met his scheme to pull down the whole of the center of Paris and rebuild it according to his “rational” and “advanced” ideas baffled and frustrated him.

The inhuman, unadorned, hard-edged geometry of these vast housing projects in their unearthly plazas brings to mind Le Corbusier’s chilling and tyrannical words: “The despot is not a man. It is the . . . correct, realistic, exact plan . . . that will provide your solution once the problem has been posed clearly. . . . This plan has been drawn up well away from . . . the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.”

It makes me shudder, in part because I have actually seen the results of this inhuman architectural ideology.

France can worry all it wants about the problems of immigration. And they can start by asking what they themselves have done to contribute to such extreme feelings of alienation among their newest of citizens. I am not trying to blame all the problems on the native French themselves. But I have to wonder how often, if ever, they question the way they treat the non-white non-Western people in their midst. We will let anyone become an American. But can anyone become French?

Even if France is somehow able to resolve its ethnic and social problems, I can’t help but think the people who live totally cut off from the mainstream of society in hideous Stalinesque blocks are going to continue feeling mentally out of sorts. Suffering that landscape for 30 minutes drained me of hope. And I was on my honeymoon. Perhaps I over-reacted because of my own inflated expectations and the fact that I’m a big fan of architecture – the good stuff, anyway. Either way, I’ll never believe again that the people who live in France now are somehow superior in their cultural and aesthetic tastes than we are on this side of the ocean. They constructed themselves a physical Hell, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that it turned into a social Hell, too.

Hat tip: Sean LaFreniere and Winds of Change.

UPDATE: I'm corrected in the comments. The City Journal article isn't current - it's two years old. Whoops. Sorry. Well, I just now saw it for the first time so it's "current" for me...

UPDATE: Dan G., who has a brand-new blog called Sound and Fury, published an extremely well-written response to this post about New York City's own tyrant of modernist planning - Robert Moses.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 29, 2004 7:38 PM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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