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Anyone who stumbles upon "How Paris Became Paris" could be forgiven for assuming, based on the title, that the book chronicles the sweeping 19th-century modernization of the city under Emperor Napoleon III and his prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugene Haussmann.
Over the course of some 17 years, Haussmann rebuilt the sewers of Paris; constructed a new aqueduct and reservoir; demolished medieval buildings; installed avenues, squares, fountains and parks; planted thousands of trees; set strict architectural standards for buildings along the new boulevards; and built the Palais Garnier for the Paris Opera.
But Joan DeJean, the author of several books about France, documents something else entirely: the 17th-century transformation of Paris from a barren, war-ravaged city where wolves roamed the streets to a vibrant, bustling metropolis that seemed to grow by the week, as one innovation after another created the grandest city in Europe.
DeJean was animated and enthusiastic when discussing these changes during a recent NPR interview. So, not surprisingly, she brings a breezy but authoritative style to the printed page as well. Along the way, she introduces interesting figures whom readers probably do not know, such as Nicolas de La Reynie. As lieutenant general of the Paris police from 1667 to 1709, he effectively ran the city "brilliantly" for four decades.
The 19th-century modernization of Paris was "merely the second of two great periods of building that transformed medieval Paris into the city we know today," DeJean writes. She argues that Haussmann and Napoleon III simply continued an urban rebirth that actually began some two centuries earlier during the reign of King Henri IV (1553-1610) and continued under two of his successors: his son, Louis XIII (1601-1643), and grandson, Louis XIV (1638-1715).
Under these monarchs, particularly Henri IV and Louis XIV, infrastructure improvements and public works projects became royal obsessions, and the people of Paris - both residents and tourists - reaped the benefits.
Henri kicked off the metamorphosis by building the Pont Neuf across the Seine River. An unusually wide bridge (75 feet), it broke with tradition by having no houses lining its sides. The Pont Neuf had sidewalks, allowing people from all walks of life, including unescorted women, to enjoy the view along the river's banks. Theater groups performed on the Pont Neuf. Vendors set up stalls there. In an era when newspapers were censored and far from timely, the bridge quickly became a newsroom of sorts, as Parisians gathered there to share information about what was happening in their city.
Other improvements followed. The Place Royale became "the original modern city square." The upscale Île Saint-Louis in the Seine emerged as "the third wonder of modern Paris." Louis XIV removed Paris' fortifications and replaced them with a 120-foot-wide boulevard lined with double rows of elm trees on both sides - "the largest recreational space that had ever been conceived."
New public gardens were created or, in the case of the Tuileries, redesigned and enlarged. Paris had an intra-city postal system for a brief period, as well as torchbearers for hire to guide travelers at night, and a public transit system consisting of horse-drawn carriages. Over time, thousands of wall-mounted lanterns were installed, providing "the original design for permanent, stationary street lighting."
DeJean says Louis XIV decided to "open Paris up" by upgrading medieval streets that were "mere alleyways." Narrow streets were expanded, uneven streets were adjusted to a uniform width, and crooked streets were straightened.
In 1556, decades before this transformation began, a Spanish architect working for his king visited Paris, but he didn't stay very long. "I didn't remark a single notable building," Gaspar de Vega said, "and the only interesting thing about the city is its size." A mere 100 years later, such a dismissive assessment of Paris had become inconceivable.
With myriad amenities and improvements on display, people felt comfortable walking through the city as the 17th century progressed, even at night. DeJean explains that a new kind of tourism developed, one that focused less on obligatory visits to churches and monuments and more on having a good time by making the rounds of cafes, gardens, boulevards and other public places, to see and be seen.
Paris became the center of European fashion, a city where self-made financiers became so wealthy - and despised - that the French developed derogatory terms for them which eventually entered other languages as well: nouveau riche, parvenu, millionaire, financier. Beautiful coquettes, sometimes of humble birth but always blessed with a keen sense of fashion, plucked the pockets of male admirers and used the money to develop even more expensive tastes.
In the course of "a mere century," DeJean writes, "Paris was reinvented" as a new kind of wonder of the world, "famous for its streetlights and its boulevards, its shop windows and its romance with the Seine - and its fast-paced pedestrian life." Hundreds of years before Haussmann's more noted improvements, Paris already had developed "a true mystique" and an "aura of desirability."