Men pass along a street and disappear; the houses live on. A street discards its original costume very slowly unless someone comes with a conscious determination to demolish its houses, change its line, and render it “modern.” Fortunately Paris has never had the habit of too long periods of such demolition. But there was once a Prefect, Haussmann, who was born in 1809, before Napoleon had changed anything but his mind.
To understand the strange mixture of new and old you have to know, in outline at least, what Haussmann did to Paris. He carried out Napoleon’s rue de Rivoli to its goal, the Hôtel de Ville: this was for strategy, so that the famous city hall could be defended in time of need. And what good did it do? The Hôtel de Ville was burned to the ground in 1871 by the people in revolt.
He planned the rue Lafayette for the aid it would give to circulation. It does. And Mirabeau, who hated the smugness of Lafayette; is avenged. The rue de Turbigo was another urban triumph. The boulevard de Sébastopol and its continuation, named Strasbourg, changed the whole spirit of trade in that part of Paris. For the better? Judge for yourself. The rue St Martin and the rue St Denis surrendered finally, after centuries of noblest and most picturesque effort.
Across on the other side of the Seine, the boulevard St Michel cut into old Roman roads and medieval streets, worth their weight in gold for conserving history. And on the section which crossed the Cité, for Haussmann did not fear to tamper even with that, he changed the rue de la Barillerie, as old as time, to the colorless boulevard du Palais.
Then there is the nondescript boulevard Magenta, which we must lay at Haussmann’s door; it has the virtue, however, of letting you look at some of the old buildings along its path; at the Couvent des Recollets, the church of St Laurent and, until recently, the prison of St Lazare.
Nevertheless, even Haussmann’s work was circumscribed by the limitations of human life, and he had to leave some things untouched. And now comes a municipal hygienic council to the task; and certain parts of Paris, holding some seven thousand of the ninety thousand habitations of the census, are to be demolished and thoroughly. Only fortunately for the student of the past funds are wanting. For the families who are dislodged must be given other dwellings instanter. And that costs more money than tearing down buildings with the solidest of walls.
You had better visit these parts of town, for they may not be here when you come again. Some zealous American millionaire may provide the funds for their destruction ! First of all, there is that delightful quarter around the ancient church of St Merri, on the rue St Martin. There is the rue St Avoye, near the rue du Temple. There is that remarkable section around the church of St Ger-vais, near the Hôtel de Ville; another off the rue St Antoine, near the church of St Marguerite, not far from the church of St Paul and St Louis.
A less picturesque, but equally hoary part near the Jardin des Plantes, another around the Roquette prison on the rue de la Roquette, and still two others; one near the Val-de-Grâce, the second close to the Sorbonne all these are doomed.
I am not presumptuous enough to say that these places ought to remain as they are, but it seems to me that much might be done to render them sanitary, which would be preferable to destroying them. And if anyone thinks that the buildings which will replace these, built of cement and paper, will remain sanitary more than a quarter of a century, he has never lived, as I have, in one of the newest of them and seen it falling apart before the first year was out. For the building regulations of Paris, when it comes to inspection, are practically nil.