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.