Nostalgic for Old Paris?

RUE DES TROIS CANETTESAwestruck at the majestic sweep of the grand Paris boulevards, we tend to forget that the city was, until fairly recently, a cramped medieval labyrinth of twisting cobbled alleys and ancient crumbling buildings.

When in the 1870s Haussmann commenced his massive modernization, photographer Charles Marville was there with his big unwieldy camera to document it.

A Met exhibition takes us back to Marville’s old Paris.

Here is the vast construction site that became the Avenue de l’Opera, with the rubble of an old workers’ neighborhood which once stood on a now-flattened “hill of the mills.”

Here is the narrow Bievre River flowing into the Seine, lined with tanneries, long before it was paved over and became Mitterand’s chic, and heavily-guarded, fiefdom.

Here are the 13th-century pillars that for 700 years helped house the vast central market. They were swept away in 1874 by the glorious lacy iron structure of Les Halles. Which in its turn was demolished in 1971 to make way for a banal underground shopping mall, an act called “architectural homicide.”

But before one waxes too nostalgic for the past, take a closer look at Marville’s photos. That shining stream coursing down every quaintly-cobbled street is raw sewage. It’s said that carriage drivers made a game of splashing pedestrians when they could. The awful stench of Paris was enough to discourage the most romantic Parisophile.

Progress isn’t always a bad thing.



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