Jarrett Walker read my translation of the Le Monde interview with Roland Castro, and picked up on a good quote: “The urban question has never been seen by intellectuals as central because this marvelous Paris, the Paris of Baudelaire, it’s their Paris.” He acknowledges that he has rarely left that central part of Paris, but that it’s important for people to do so – in any city.
Jarrett concludes, “That doesn’t mean I have to like everything I see in suburban belts, but to be credible when talking with people in a suburban community, I have to be able to point to what’s already working right there or nearby — not just what’s being achieved in a core city with centuries of history and momentum. So long as we stay inside our urbane inner-city enclaves, and dismiss all of suburbia with the same gesture, we won’t be able to engage such conversations. And there’s just too much suburbia to ignore.”
He’s right, but the thing is that the suburbs of Paris are generally not “suburban” the way many Americans think of the word. It’s not row after row of tacky 70s ranch houses punctuated by strip malls. A lot of it doesn’t even resemble the “banlieue” that makes bourgeois Parisians quake in their boots. There are Corbusian housing projects and run-down row houses, but the suburbs are by no means full of them.
You know how most French gourmet food is named after a place? Bordeaux wine comes from the area around the city of Bordeaux, and beef bourgignon comes from Burgundy, and so on. Well, it turns out that Brie cheese comes from the region of Brie, which is now the eastern Paris suburbs. There are tons of suburbs with en brie in their names.
I think that gets to the way the French suburbs really are. They were originally towns that happened to be near the capital – even Montmartre was such a town. Most of them contain a quaint old downtown with a church and narrow streets. Many have old palaces that were built by the kings as hunting lodges or other kinds of retreats, often surrounded by well-maintained forests. Some have old monasteries or convents. There is even some evidence suggesting that the original settlement of the Parisii was actually where Nanterre is now.
As the city grew, these towns were gradually absorbed into the metropolis. The railroads allowed people to live in Le Pecq and work in Paris, while an extensive network of streetcars and interurbans helped them move around locally. These also allowed artists to spend an afternoon or a weekend painting bridges and trees (not all intellectuals were as parochial as Jarrett describes). The extensive royal domains were nationalized into parks during the various revolutions and made available for public recreation.
Around the villages and parks, a mix of housing was built. Since it was transit-oriented development, it largely consisted of row houses near the stations, detached houses further out and larger houses even further. Beginning with the 1965 regional master plan, the government began to build the new towns, the universities and the business centers – and the highways. It is only then that you get the unpleasant projects that Parisians have come to associate with the suburbs.