Au Paris!

Paris is not a perfect city. It is expensive, still with the power to shock. Few adult males wear short pants even when temperatures nose up to 30-degrees C while many steadfastly sport scarves. Outside on busy street cafés, grown men unselfconsciously swap spit with their Yorkshire terriers. (Does one ‘french’ another in France or is that just a label we étranger use for something that may not come naturally to us?)

More disturbing, Paris’ fêted core, let’s say arrondisements 1 through 20, is encircled by a second city where the less affluent, the less, well, French, live, where unemployment and racism run rampant and on any given night after some sort of altercation between the residents and authorities will light up riotously under the glow of burning cars. It is a part of Paris not included in the travel brochures although it does grab its fair share of international news headlines. A dynamic Toronto would do well to heed, as the have and have-not gulf between the downtown and the older suburbs here simmers on low-to-medium boil during the current election campaign.

But this isn’t about how not to run or design a city. For all its grand and glorious architectural splendor, what works most about Paris is the very human scale on which it is built. It doesn’t simply overwhelm by over-awing although there are times when it most certainly can do that. No, Paris is Paris because it embraces you, pulling you into the rhythm of life on the street. Unlike New York or London where you seem to be contending with place, Paris allows you to be a part of it. In its justifiably renowned cafés. The galleries both large and small. Along the banks of the Seine which lie wide open with few barricades between it and those who stroll, sit, picnic or wait for sunset by the river.

Of course, there is some irony to this people friendly feature. Under the mid-19th century plan for a “new” Paris, the self-anointed Baron Haussmann razed the “old” Paris to make way for large, wide open spaces and boulevards at least in part for the ease of mobilizing forces to get in and out of the city to quell uprisings as well as inhibiting the ability of budding insurgents to protect themselves in cordoned off sections of Paris. Haussmann’s “new” Paris was to be the playground of the elite to flaunt and promenade their wealth and not for the fomenting of further revolutions.

Many sections of the city still display those traits but they tend to be the least interesting places with the Champs-Élysées springing immediately to mind. But there are neighbourhoods throughout Paris that aren’t about exclusion. With almost no single family dwellings within the core (especially after the violent elimination of royalty and the eventual petering out of emperor-ity), Paris possesses a vigorous communal vibe. Not only in the oft-mentioned and boundless number of cafés but in the plentiful amounts of public green space both large and small. In good weather, this is where people have their dinner parties. They congregate together even in their private moments, to read, to reflect, to drink wine and wallow in their amazingly livable aesthetic.

The Paris we visit today, like many other European cities, has the advantage of coalescing before the modern age truly kicked in. Space was limited not only because of size but because travel was no easy feat. People (certainly those not graced with money) stayed put unless dire circumstances forced them to move on, and cities were built up around their citizenry.

We here in the new world were blessed and cursed with the advantages of growing and prospering in a later age. With perceived unlimited space, our neighbourhoods consisted of houses not flats or apartments. Travel was made easy by the development and encouragement of private automobiles and the evolution of the car culture. Whole communities sprung up owing to that one single fact. The car scar is what we bear now. Our places, including much of Toronto, were designed for things, namely cars, not people.

We will never be Paris. Or London. Or Amsterdam. Or Copenhagen. We shouldn’t try to be. Much of what works in those places would never work here and vice versa. But there are elements we could try to adopt and adapt to our situation. The first of which is to realize the difference between people and individuals, and the best, most livable cities are home to citizens not stakeholders or taxpayers. Take away the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, the Pantheon and Notre Dame and Paris would still be Paris.

parisienly submitted by Urban Sophisticat

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