Paving Paris

They have been paving Paris ever since 1190; that year it cost fourteen thousand livres, and a livre had at least five times the buying power of the pre-war franc. It was Gerard de Poissy who financed the work. But in his day not even the first six arrondissements were occupied; the king only asked that the important thoroughfares be paved “with big stones”; he was tired of the mud and the way it smelled in front of the Louvre.

In 1930 the pavement laid covered 350,000 square meters. A good paver can do about 30 square meters a day in stone and from 150 to 160 square meters in wood. There are usually less than 200 men at work, and they work about 250 days a year.

Of the 87 acres done in 1930 (an average year), 15 were paved in concrete, under the watchful eye of the Prefect of the Seine. Asphalt (striated) covered 7 acres; 20 acres were done in wood blocks; and for the rest, good old cobblestones were used. You will find in the outer parts of Paris several places where the huge pyramids of these cobblestones make you wonder why they are put up in such careful order! The pyramids of wooden blocks contain 50,000 cubic meters.

The problems of Paris are picturesque. For instance, how can they tell what they may find when they begin to dig up the street? On the boulevard St Germain a paver found the corner-stone of a chapel with the date 1352 cut into it and the information that it had been laid by King John the Good in person. The chapel had been called after St Yves, and since that saint was the patron of the Paris lawyers, the stone was sent to the Lawyers’ Club with the compliments of the city.

Before the Hôtel de Ville was burned in the Commune, the city archives held all the dates of the first paving done on the different streets. Only a few are known now, as, for instance, that the Quai Malaquais, on the Left Bank, was first paved in 1670.

As for the tax imposed upon the citizens for paving, they ought to be used to it by now, since the first one was levied in 1285. Perhaps that is why they are so patient about paying for the bright metal clous (nails) which mark where pedestrians may cross the streets; each one costs, I have heard, nine francs! Add it up!

And as for the tar-bucket, so deep and conical compared with ours, it is the same shape as that used in the time of the Romans. You can see an ancient one of the 3rd century in the museum at Alesia, in Burgundy; it has the iron handle and all intact.

Laid end to end, the streets of Paris would extend six hundred miles : they cover a surface of four thousand acres one-fifth of that occupied by the entire city of Paris. It would be interesting to compare this proportion with that in London or New York : it would be discovered, I believe, that the Paris streets are for the most part wider than in those towns.