Sante (Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930, 2009, etc.) explores how the neighborhoods of Paris have defined the city and perhaps created the true Parisian.
The author begins and ends with the flâneur, who wanders throughout the city, engaging the denizens and availing himself of the complete education available from life primarily conducted in public. He sees the palimpsest of a city centuries old that in many ways doesn’t change at all. There are quartiers or neighborhoods where unexplained recurrences are the norm, and many are devoted to a single specialty, whether it’s street performers, prostitutes, pickpockets, or beggars. They have been self-contained places where generations spent their entire lives, living, working, and dying. Many succumbed to plague, cholera, war, or absinthe. All that changed when Baron (an assumed title) Haussmann became prefect of the Seine in 1853 and proceeded to remake the city. He built bridges and a new sewer system, established the Bois at Boulogne and Vincennes, improved lighting, built new public urinals—and all of the progress destroyed the quartiers, a process that continued well into the 20th century. Throughout this rich book, Sante shares the exuberance of the French language with strings of slurs, insults, and pejorative jargon. The last city wall of 1841 established “the zone” (now Périphérique) outside the city, which became a catchall slum exempt from taxes or opening to the suburbs. The book bogs down somewhat as the author recounts a diverse population—including vagrants, whores, actors, criminals, communards, revolutionaries, and anarchists—but he describes them without condescension or reproach, just appreciation of the city they built.
Taking Paris to the desperate years after World War II, Sante sees continuance of the “historical regurgitation, when all the ghosts came out maybe for a last dance.” All who love Paris will love this book.