Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Disappearing Levallois: The Rue Marjolin

Few places around Paris have seen as much demolition and construction as Levallois in recent years. The previously working-class town, considered once to be suitably welcoming by arch-revolutionary Louise Michel (who also chose to be buried in the town), and also under the control of Communist mayor Parfait Jans (once a taxi driver) until 1983, is now reinventing itself as a bourgeois dormitory town with the identity of a dreary pastiche ville nouvelle.

For a once radical town, opposition to this ripping out of its own heart seems surprisingly muted. The factories that once employed people in their thousands were pulled down several years ago, but now the local authorities seem intent on removing all traces of this industrial era, notably by demolishing the buildings that housed these workers. Nowhere is this more evident than on a stretch of the Rue Marjolin, where a dozen or so buildings are scheduled to be pulled down this year.

The buildings themselves may not be of the highest quality, but they also have an identity that clearly does not fit into the new town model. Compulsory purchase orders have been slapped on all properties in this stretch of the street, but apparently at rates that are below the market level in the town, meaning that property owners here will need to look outside of Levallois to purchase something of a similar size.

The local authorities say that the new structures that will take their place will be majoritarily social housing, and that they need to undertake this development in order to meet a 20% target for such housing in the town, but is this the most judicious way to work with urban areas such as this one? Estimates suggest that the operation will cost around €20 million, with around half that sum earmarked for the purchasing of properties and their demolition, but surely renovation would have been more economically and environmentally sensible?

Beyond the elimination of the town's previous identity, there are clearly human dramas being played out here too. One of the buildings in this strip is a small townhouse, built at the time of the town's birth in 1850, and one of the only remaining social links back to this era. Inside lives an 87 year old lady, a resistant who was deported to Germany during the Second World War, before later finding shelter back in Levallois. "This house may be modest" says a sign outside, "but many would love to live here". This lady simply wants to remain in a town where her husband is buried, but at current market rates it seems that this will be unlikely.


"A society that forgets and disowns its past and history, and which does not respect its elders, is a society without a future" says another sign outside the house. This is seemingly the only protest in this street, and a message falling on very deaf ears. Each building in the strip is different, each has its own size, shape and features, but all will surely be replaced by one block of fake marble blandness, the standard model today mushrooming across the town.

This was clearly once at the heart of the old town, a narrow street of cheap lodgings and commerces de bouche. Only one of these - a rusting and crumbling butchers shop - is still visible, but its fascinating facade is surely simply destined only for the incinerator.

Levallois is a town without a museum, and seemingly also a place that feels no need to display any traces of its past. It's the classic tale of the nouveau riche with a deep feeling of shame about its unprosperous ancestors.

But as the streets are scrubbed clean, and smooth, shiny, soulless buildings replace the lived in with their ragged facades and generations of simple histories, what will the town gain? Surely anything but an identity.



12 comments:

Peter (the other) said...

That there are so many nouveau riche is perhaps a good thing (the workingman, today, is just the working poor, no fun). Cultural sensitivities and a taste for history is something that might take several generations of material security to afford. I remember despairing the demolition of beautiful 19th or early 20th century apartment buildings I watched come down in Puteaux about ten years ago. With its wall off and the apartments exposed to the world, I could see just how small they were compared to contemporary tastes. One needs a place big enough to hold all of ones stuff. For those of us already sentimental, there will be central Paris for a little bit longer (they are threatening my very block and view in the Vème with a new Sorbonne Paris III - harrumph!).

Tim said...

Although that was thoroughly depressing it also strikes me as being an extremely meaningful piece. I hope that word gets around and that, come the end of 2012, it features among the top five posts of the year...

Adam said...

Peter: Yes, I understand that people need more space (not just for their stuff - we're all bigger now too!), but what concerns me here is how a town's heritage is being wiped out. It's not even as if its being replaced by daring or even interesting architecture either.

Tim: What seems particularly strange here is how resigned (or perhaps even in favour) everyone seems to be. The signs in front of the house feature no link to a campaign website, no online petition to sign, and not even an email address to contact. All that is really visible is a big, slightly desperate 'Pourqoui?'

anne said...

vous avez raison sur bien des points ( notamment la facade de la boucherie qui me laisse songeuse à chaque fois que je passe devant ) mais il y a aussi dans cette ville des vestiges du passé qui ont été conservé et réhabilité pour en faire des lieux de vies et de partage : l’école Jules Ferry , l'escale ( centre culturel) la caserne des pompiers ...
au plaisir de vous montrer pleins d'autres lieux cachés qui existent encore dans cette ville ... heureusement

Norman said...

It all seems sad and so predictable. Perhaps the leaders are unaware of how economical and ecologically sound it can be to renovate and rebuild rather than start afresh. Perhaps they are unaware that the look of the older is a major draw for locating industry and business. Perhaps they will follow the normal pattern: rip it down, regret it and then establish a centre to study their late lamented patrimoine.

Rache said...

Wholesale demolition of neighborhoods seems so out-of-date. In the US, a preservation movement has raised awareness of the cultural, aesthetic, and historic value of old buildings.
Surely France, with its great sense of patrimoine, could do the same. When these old buildings do face demolition, we have "deconstruction" companies that can salvage many elements for reuse elsewhere. And hasn't there been a movement to retain facades and build behind them?

Adam said...

Anne: Je ne dis pas que Levallois est sans charme. Il reste bien des immeubles d'une autre ère, mais je trouve qu'il y a toute la partie 'populaire' de la ville qui est en train de disparaître, apparemment sans débat.

C'est volontiers que je vous suivrai si vous pouvez me montrer autre chose !

Peter (the other) said...

Perhaps humans are not too dissimilar to coral, we build upon our past. Unless a public sentiment is well fixated as mythology, everything goes over the horizon of human memory ("Omnia Vanitas"). If I resent one thing done by the capitalistic institutions of the last century, it is the destruction of the collective memory of the courage and deaths of those who tried to stand up. Kundera accused the communists of enforcing institutional forgetting in Le Livre du rire et de l'oubli, but it is practiced just as ruthlessly in our world. To quote a bunch of yank hippies (and a brit), "Teach Your Children Well." (but, I'm not opinionated, oh no).

As to those moments that, from the chaotic waves of human history, cough up the right combination of circumstances to allow for great art/architecture, well so we admire the results that remain, mysterious as amber from the depths. We do not know enough to create such circumstances our selves, but comb the beaches as you do so wonderfully with Paris.

Peter said...

Happy to see that Peter (the other) has found the way to your blog and appreciate the interesting discussion going on here.

Of course all old buildings cannot be saved; some areas have to be redesigned... How unhappy are we really today with Haussmann’s great "destruction work"? It has definitely changed Paris and many would today say that the large avenues are part of the Paris charm. Would we have preferred the medieval aspect of the city?

Fortunately some areas escaped and I guess we are today quite happy to see as well the Marais as the avenues around the Opera.

The question is how things are done, talking as well about the social as about the pure architectural aspect. There was a great need for more modern facilities after WWII (sanitary equipment...). Things were demolished and new quarters were built, under pressure, and therefore quickly and without any real esthetic view, still in the 60's, 70's.... These are the buildings many of us today would like to see disappear or to be remodeled.

(Somehow, this is also what happened in the 1860’s, 1870’s, when the buildings you show probably were built; as we see it today, with a less disastrous result.)

I believe that the issue now is to try to do things “properly”. Yes, certain areas need to be remodeled, but hopefully in a well planned way, if possible with a thought about what the future generations will think about it. Shall we feel ashamed for what “we” created?

The other issue, maybe the most important one you mention, is the social aspect. Yes, we need the social mixture in Paris as well as at Levallois. One starts slowly to take this into consideration. Too late?

Adam said...

Peter - I have no problems with regeneration and redevelopment, and understand that this is all part of necessary evolution for all cities.

I have two concerns with what is happening in Levallois. Firstly, that this regeneration seems to be focussed deliberately on wiping out all traces of the working class origins of the town, and secondly that what is replacing these buildings is so unimaginative and characterless.

I'm sure that Levallois will still have as much - if not more - social housing than before, but the town will soon no longer have anything distinctive about it to differentiate it from its neighbours.

Tim said...

What I find most disconcerting is this though: "Compulsory purchase orders have been slapped on all properties in this stretch of the street, but apparently at rates that are below the market level in the town, meaning that property owners here will need to look outside of Levallois to purchase something of a similar size."

These people are not just being evicted from their homes but, in effect, being sent packing from the town. Why aren't they at least receiving fair market-value compensation?

Peter (the other) said...

Peter, I am always lurking, but in this instance I think I perceive (in Adam's cry) a heart breaking in a way that feels familiar. But I have now been additionally inspired by this discussion, to contemplate the definition of "heritage," and its possible value. Then there is always the curious philosophical conundrum of "eminent domain" to think about... again. I will go and think for awhile... :-)

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