A mildly revisionist history that gives principal credit for the modernization of Paris to the monarch rather than the prefect.
Napoléon III was “the man who inspired and initiated [the] transformation of Paris,” writes architect/historian Kirkland. By the time Georges-Eugène Haussmann became prefect of the Seine (responsible for the city’s administration) in 1853, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had already drafted his plans for transforming Paris from a medieval cluster of narrow, filthy streets into a modern metropolis with broad boulevards and proper sanitary facilities. He had also recently conducted a coup d’état that transformed him from president to emperor; his plans did not include democracy. Haussmann had similarly autocratic instincts. He juggled accounts, avoiding pesky financial oversight from elected officials, and demolished historic neighborhoods. Haussmann’s highhanded ways led to his dismissal in 1870, but by then his main projects were completed: a municipal sewer system, major avenues such as the Rue de Rivoli, parks like the Bois de Boulogne and the great central market at Les Halles. The huge sums of money necessary for these grands travaux required new methods of financing, and new capitalists like the Pereire brothers were happy to oblige. The railroad developers’ bank, Crédit Mobilier, funded most of the grands travaux, but its collapse in 1867 revealed the brazen corruption that was as much a part of the Second Empire as its ambitions. Kirkland evenhandedly assesses the projects’ benefits and costs, concluding that most “could have been achieved in a more sensitive way, without such blind sacrifice of the city’s historic character to the object of modernization.” On the whole, however, he is admiring of the urban amenities built during this period, which still function to make Paris one of the world’s most agreeable cities.
Not as groundbreaking as the author imagines, but a solid retelling of an always-interesting tale of the first great urban-planning achievement.