On Enduring Texture and Lasting Hold

I used this street view once before to compare modern-day Montmartre to a 100 year-old painting of the same intersection. Today I came across a photo taken in 1960, and while the arrangement hasn’t changed much, I was a bit surprised by the state of the buildings’ upkeep compared to present day. It’s a reminder that even a mere 50 years ago the city had nowhere near the level of polish and gloss we’ve come to expect from our Paris, and it’s the kind of thing you don’t really think about until you see a “before” picture. Flaking paint has been smoothed out, grimy walls scrubbed and whitewashed, rickety shutters removed altogether for a cleaner, hassle-free facade. Here’s 1960 followed by my own picture:

I admit I’m a sentimental kind of guy, and part of me wishes these areas could retain more of their worn, authentic charm. I’d prefer to see historical Paris standing before me in a frayed tweed vest, broken-in leather boots and a dusty chapeau, but today it’s a bit more tailored suit with plucked eyebrows and hair gel. If I’m honest I’d even consider using the word–and I say this with a gasp– homogenized.

But I’m a realist as well. I get that the city doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that leaving a building in a slight state of disrepair today means undergoing an expensive restorative overhaul tomorrow. And heck, I use hair gel. Plus who would decide which level of “rusticity” was appropriate? Pictures of 19th century pre-Haussmann Paris show the city in a dark dilapidated state of rot, which some locals at the time were sad to see go. You could call that period the real Paris. Or maybe the century before that was the real Paris. Or maybe the century before that…

The truth is the city is a slippery eel, and the harder you try to hold onto it the faster it slips off into another direction. For all the tradition it holds dear, it will never stay in the same place and thus never look the same. That City of Light nickname didn’t come from Paris sitting around waiting to see if the gas lighting fad would catch on; it was on the cutting edge from day one. A city moving at that kind of speed will naturally remain in a state of regeneration, and holding onto flakes of paint is about as reliable as…well, holding onto flakes of paint.

Moreover I can hardly claim originality on my knee-jerk reaction to keep Paris suspended inside a postcard-perfect bubble globe. Resisting the city’s newness has always been a common pastime for the Parisian. They hated the Eiffel Tower until they fell in love with it, the same for the Louvre pyramid, and the same for the Pompidou Center. Tomorrow it’ll be something else that we’ll rebel against and then embrace with open arms. And it will be our right as finicky Parisians.

I’d be remiss to not mention that this phenomenon of shiny sprucing-up is primarily a tourist area thing, and not necessarily everywhere. A slightly beat-up Paris is still around if you’re into that sort of thing. And the truth is the city has retained more of its old character than perhaps any other capital in the world, and even in the picture above we can salute the fact that the café and bakery haven’t gone anywhere.

So maybe this picture is really a glass-half-empty or half-full sort of comparison, depending on your vantage point. Either way I’m choosing to release my sentimental grasp for the moment, to embrace the new Paris and embrace that fresh paint smell…or is that just the scent of my L’Oreal Studio’s “Out of bed” Weightless Texturizing Cream?

For more photos of old Paris visit John d’Orbigny Immobilier.


  • I love this post because it is SO Parisian (and you’re thoroughly Parisian now!) and brings up such good preservation questions in such a funny way. (The hair gel analogy is priceless!) I think I like the 1960s Paris scene better, too, but you’re quite right that change in inevitable and wanting things to stay the same is one sure path to becoming Mr/Ms Crabby Cakes — and who wants to be that guy? It’s important, I think, to know when to hold on to the things that really matter (not tearing down righteous buildings, and striving to maintain a livable, walkable city) and when to let go. You seem to be walking that line quite nicely, FF!!

    • Betty! Thanks again for stopping by and kicking off the Comments section with such a good one. :)

      Interesting to hear you also prefer the 1960 look; I was curious to see if anyone agreed with me. And you’re totally right — how much of happiness is simply a result of embracing change? Whether its getting a new job, dealing with a health issue, or even something as mundane as finding a new gray hair in the mirror…just going with the flow can be so liberating (although easier said than done). And as tasty as it may sound, I don’t want to be a Crabby Cake!

      Safe travels to you as always, and take care Betty.

  • I was just thinking about Montmartre yesterday actually. I guess it’s one of those “you think about it enough it will happen” things. I was watching Midnight in Paris, which is an absolutely beautiful film, and was curious about the Montmartre area. I did a quick search and it became for me this magical centre of culture and history. The polished look of it now, consistent with the rest of modern Paris, does hide a bit of the history of the area, but I can understand its’ necessity. Does it still feel like the centre of Bohemia when you walk through it? I’ll be sure to visit myself one day to find out.

    • I agree fully with your opinion of Midnight in Paris! I loved that sucker from frame one (big surprise). And Montmartre is still an extremely special place to walk around.

      As for your question about it still feeling bohemian: In general I’d say yes, because the layout of the streets and the buildings haven’t changed all that much over the years (although the real artists can no longer afford to live there). And if you have a little idea of the area’s history, it’s not all that hard to imagine yourself back a hundred+ years ago.

      One of the keys is to visit it during non-peak times, ideally in the fall or winter. That will give you less of that “crammed in line to see the Mona Lisa” sort of vibe. Also keep in mind you can enter Montmartre from the Anvers subway station and get blasted by people on their way to the Sacré Coeur, or you can get off at the lesser-known Abbesses station and enjoy a quiet, authentically Parisian entry into Montmartre. It’s all about the approach sometimes.

      Did you ever read my Cleaning Brushes with Picasso post? It’s really the epitome of how cool Montmartre can still be: http://wp.me/p1dHNL-1SPRvc That reminds me, I meant to start putting related posts at the bottom of my new ones…note to self!

      Thanks for commenting hailey, and take care.

  • First of all, I love that you said this: “And it will be our right as finicky Parisians.” I don’t know that I’ve ever read before where you’ve called yourself a Parisian. Or if you have, you seemed to have halved your importance as one by holding strong to your American roots. I like that you said this!

    Secondly, the first photo of 1960s Paris reminds me of my childhood in Northern Italy. In my mind, that is still the color of Venice. Of course,, that’s the color of my old photographs of Venice and Pordenone. That might be why…

    • That’s very astute of you Dena, I didn’t realize it but you’re right about it being the first time I’ve called myself a Parisian without thinking about it. Pretty cool, eh?

      Sometimes I forget about your Euro-origins; if you were in Venice in the late 70s/early 80s it quite possibly looked like this. Although I’ve never been there, it wouldn’t surprise me if that city has also spruced itself up since, now that it’s such a travel destination. Maybe there’s an “Italian Frye in Venice” blog out there somewhere with the answer to that question…

  • You’re so right, things have to move and evolve, that’s why the absolute preservation of historical buildings as they were is so silly (a particular bugbear of mine) though it doesn’t mean that all things new are good. I really like the Louvre pyramid, I loathed the Pompidou Centre the first time I saw it and it hasn’t grown on me.

    • Haha, I’m not particularly fond of the Pompidou Center either, but I believe in the galvanizing power of time and I wouldn’t be surprised if future generations accept it as just another charming blip on the Parisian landscape. It’s pretty rare for us to see old photos of ancient cities and ask “whoa, what were they thinking with THAT monument?” Somehow we just accept everything as a package deal. I guess only time will tell with the Pompidou building (if it doesn’t get bulldozed first). :)

      Thanks a lot for commenting Victoria!

  • cela me fait toujours un peu rire .Les américains aiment le Paris anciens ,c,est beau et romantique .dans le meme temps quand ils habitent dans des vieux appartements parisiens ,ils se plaignent toujours du manque de commodité .Le plus grave problème de Paris,c,est que le Paris populaire ,le Paris des petites gens .des petites épiceries des bistrots de quartier est en voit de disparition .IL est heureux qu,il y est eu des débats houleux sur la tour Eiffel ou la pyramide du Louvre .Il est facile de juger ses monuments avec nos yeux de personnes vivant en 2012 Pour ce qui est des rénovation des tous les batiments doivent etre rénové pour durer .j,admet que la rénovation de Montmartre est désormais faites en fonction de ce que les touristes veulent voir .Cherchez toujours les petites rue ,allez ou les touristes ne vont pas .Paris ,le vrai Paris n,est pas dans les guides touristique .les parisiens peuvent etre rude ,mais quand ils vous accepte dans un quartier populaire ,ils vous rendrons services .il ils feront de leurs mieux pour que vous sentiez bien.Partant des principe qu,il y a des cons partout ,il y a pas plus de cons a paris que dans le reste du monde .la connerie est universelle

  • As “Midnight in Paris” so eloquently illustrated, we’ll always idealize the past to some degree, and I’ve certainly found this to be true: At various times I’ve longed nostalgically for the medieval Paris of the rue Colombe, the macabre Victorian Paris of Père Lachaise, or the bohemian Paris of Utrillo’s Montmartre. But in a sense, none of these is the “real” Paris. The “real” Paris is the city that exists today, with an uneasy tension between its rich past and an uncertain future. And although I join you in cringing when Montmartre’s frayed tweed vest is replaced by a fancy silk suit for the tourists’ snapshots, at least the buildings are being preserved. (Plus, I hope you take *some* comfort in knowing that the paint will again be chipping in another 5 or 10 years. :)

    • Thanks Tomas, that means a lot. Happy to have you as a reader.

      • You are very welcome, I’m always eager to ready your blogs.

  • Change is a double-edge sward! Nothing can be created without something being destroyed.

    I live in San Francisco. It is a beautiful place, with many attractions. If it weren’t for the 1096 earthquake in which the majority of the down-town was destroyed, it would be completely different.

    One of the biggest attractions in San Francisco is Fisherman’s Wharf. It came into existence when the docks for unloading cargo moved from San Francisco to Oakland in the east bay. The abandoned and dilapidated warehouse space became a thriving hub for artists. Fisherman’s Wharf has subsequently become the spit and polish shadow of its former self as you have described in your post.

    I guess what I am saying is that I agree, trying to hold on to the past is like trying to hold on to a slippery ell, the harder you try to hold onto it the faster it slips off into another direction. It doesn’t mean that we cannon be nostalgic, but if we are to face reality, change is inevitable. Working against it is futile and often more destructive.

  • I came to Paris without much of the realization that it’s never going to stay the same, but you’re obviously absolutely right in making that point. Yet I still love looking for the places with that worn, authentic charm as well – the ones that still exist. Even if Paris continues to modernize, I think it’s always going to retain a certain romantic, hazy aura, at least for some people.

    Side note: I discovered your blog because you liked one of my posts, but I realized one of my professors also recommended your blog to me not long ago, so it was fate that I’d find it, I suppose. I love what I’ve seen so far & will definitely be back :)

    • Wow, recommended by a professor, not bad. :)

      Thanks a lot for your comment Rita, and I hope you have a great time in Paris. As much as it continues to modernize, I think the city’s aware of what makes it so special and it tends to hold onto its history quite well, especially with the huge preservation groups in place like UNESCO. While the outer shell of Paris might vary aesthetically according to the tastes of the time, the meat and potatoes will be always be there under the surface. :)

      Thanks for your comment and hope you stop by again sometime!

  • Dear Mr. Frye,
    What a wonderful blog! I know that I am late to the show, but only recently heard about you from HMunro. I have been fortunate to have visited Paris several times over the years and only wish I could live there for a while.
    Your contrasting photos, above, inspire lots of thoughts. It’s seems to me the spruced up, tidied scene is still inviting but has had some of the color leached out of it; both metaphorically and literally. It also makes me wonder if it not only looks different now but does it smell different than it did? Does it sound different? We devour cities with more than our eyes. :-) But most telling to me is that 50-plus years later, the consulat is still a consulat and the boulangerie is still a boulangerie—something that would be very rare in an American neighborhood. Perhaps with Paris, the glass will always be half empty or half full as long as one enjoys a good vin ordinaire. I look forward to discovering your previous postings and wish you bonheur et bonne santé.

  • I really prefer the 1960’s street, there’s something about dereliction that appeals to me, don’t know why but I much prefer old buildings with peeling paint and chipped stonework to perfectly pristine and well kept ones. I think more run-down buildings tell stories about themselves, the life they’ve led, not that they’re alive obviously. Of course there’s a fine balance between run down and falling down so refurbishment is a necessary evil at times.

    • Thanks for your comment James. A necessary evil indeed. A very popular landmark along the Seine, la Concièrgerie, used to be one of my favorite monuments to gawk at, but the city went and scrubbed the old stones down to a bright white sheen, and now it pains me a bit every time I walk by. I can’t blame them for doing the maximum to avoid another restoration in 10 years, but boy I’ve never wished so hard for a bit of pollution to descend upon us and give the building some of its older character. :)

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