Paris: The Taste of a New Age

When urban change has no relation to urban requirements ,it dra ins the streets of vitality

IT WAS IN a Rue de Sèvres apartment that the French writer Joris Karl Huysmans, with the assistance of Lucifer, tried to evoke the dead. This was in the 1890s, when there was a craze in Paris for apparitions; it has never quite died down. (Huysmans at the time was occupying the only seat left vacant in French literature, that of Christian pessimism. Inching toward Christian optimism should have kept him out of mischief, but he was easily bored.) He managed to conjure up General Boulanger, who had died in exile after failing to bring off a right-wing coup. The general had nothing helpful to say about immanent justice or French politics.

We do not know whether Huysmans ushered him back to wherever he’d come from (a matter of the right incantation) or left him to drift in a kind of limbo between Rue de Sèvres and Rue du Cherche-Midi. Nothing speaks from the narrow courtyard at No. 11. That section of Paris was largely ecclesiastical territory, no place for fallen angels.

When St. Vincent de Paul died, at the age of seventy-nine, in 1660, his heart was presented to the Daughters of Charity and his body was buried on the Right Bank, where the railway station called St. Lazare now stands. Some 170 years later, the Lazarist Brothers, who had in the meantime been dispossessed by the French Revolution, received the present of a large tract of undeveloped land stretching from Rue du ChercheMidi, where they built a boundary wall three stories high, to Rue de Sèvres, where they built a small, dim chapel of gentle ugliness. They commissioned a silversmith to fashion a full-length glass and silver reliquary (it won a gold medal at an exhibition in 1827) and with immense difficulty hoisted it to a niche directly over the altar.

Wearing the plainest of vestments and buckled shoes, holding the crucifix he had used for the last rites of Louis XIII, Monsieur Vincent has lain there ever since. His hands and face are modeled in wax, “to lend him a more human aspect,” a brochure explains. (“There is a lot of wax in Lenin, too,” says a Brother, defensively.) His features undoubtedly were copied after the extraordinary portrait by Simon de Tours, who painted Monsieur Vincent, as an old man with white eyebrows—plain, ordinary, mysterious, noble. The work of a lesser artist, the wax image inevitably prettifies him; the further we move along in time, the blander the likeness tends to become. Whispering visitors say he looks asleep. It is pointless to wonder what he might have thought of the costly reliquary. He lived and died poor, warning his followers, “The poor are our masters.”

The chapel smells of faded flowers, old incense, burning wax: the scent of chapels before Vatican II. Some churches in Paris now look like post offices and somehow smell like them. From the dark nave, the saint’s niche seems to float in a bath of light. Visitors tiptoe up a creaking staircase behind the altar. Sometimes they sit on the guardrail, providing a curious and surreal view of backs high up in the chancery; sometimes they kneel and press their lips to the glass case, careful to rub it afterward with a sleeve or a handkerchief. There are always a few Spanish and Portuguese immigrant workers, praying in whispers. The chapel is left unguarded. Nothing is for sale, except the usual church magazines. A coin dropped in the box thuds in emptiness.

The gray facade on the Rue de Sèvres tells nothing. The Lazarists do little to attract the faithful; they find their own way. The place is small, the wooden steps are worn. It would not survive an invasion. A notice in an adjacent corridor requests the favor of prayers “for the 140,000 people who die in the world each day.” A prayer formulated as an intention will earn for the well-wisher 100 days of indulgence—remission from the punishment still due to sin after absolution, a sentence served in Purgatory. A prayer learned by heart and recited completely will earn 300 days. The notice has been there since 1907— the year Huysmans died. In 1907, the difference between 100 and 300 days could be measured out in eternity. About 50 million prayers a year took care of all the dead. Infinity appears as a manageable dimension. It is the street outside that seems unreasonable.

In the 1970s, when the value of property in Paris began its heady ascent, the Lazarists sold nearly all that was left of their land (we may now call it real estate). The sale resulted in the construction of an undistinguished apartment block, a supermarket, and a shopping arcade. The arcade is in reality a bleak tunnel of storefronts linking Rue de Sèvres to Rue du Cherche-Midi. Above the Rue de Sèvres entrance is its name: “Passage Commercial.” For once, a clear purpose has not been disguised by something like “Pompadour’s Pathway.” Some of the shops never found takers; their windows still carry glazier’s chalk marks. Some opened and closed rapidly. There is always one with a “For Rent” sign in the window. Like so many of the arbitrary projects foisted on Paris, the arcade does not work because it was not needed. Urban change, now, has virtually nothing to do with urban requirements. A considerable amount of innovation seems to drain the street of its vitality rather than to infuse it with new energy. It is not blight that is settling in but a new sickness—new to Paris, at least: architectural anemia.

THE MIND’S EYE is unreliable. It will see streets as dark as they were before André Malraux, in his incarnation as minister of culture, scraped away the dust and grime of centuries. Some people will tell you that Malraux had nothing to do with it, that an obscure police prefect brought into operation a law that had been shut away in a drawer for years. No matter; the brightening of Paris will stick to his name. The mind’s eye crosses the Pont des Arts even though the bridge has been shut for a long time and may never be repaired; it lingers in Place SaintSulpice under enormous chestnut trees cut down years ago when the underground parking space was built. The asthmatic voice of French pop music is as consistently frail as it was in the sixties; a continuity of a kind. It suddenly delivers an unexpected line in English: “MacDonald is slipping on the canapé.” This is not, as you would be justified in thinking, an incident during the usual wildebeest stampede to the buffet at a Paris cocktail party. It is intended to mean that MacDonald has dozed off on a sofa.

In Paris, churches still attract knots of beggars. Clochards wait outside the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, in Rue du Bac, where Monsieur Vincent’s heart is preserved, and where in 1830 Catherine Labouré found the Holy Virgin seated in an armchair. Some lie sound asleep, curled up on the sidewalk in an effluvium of urine and spilled wine. The mind’s eye has registered them once and for all as elderly alcoholics; actually, unemployment has brought a handful of younger recruits. Out-of-town pilgrims give them coins before hurrying across to the Bon Marche department store. St. Vincent de Paul, around the corner, has two visitors, Portuguese. One, who probably works as a cleaner, carries her rolled-up apron.

“My daughter,” says a solemn man at a dinner party, “has to go to school with the children of Spanish and Portuguese concierges. In the so-called good neighborhoods”—his offhand way of saying he does not really mind where he lives—“most of the children are sent to private schools now. My daughter has no contact with her own culture.”

He is left-leaning and would never object to his daughter’s mingling with the foreign children—not aloud, at any rate. He disapproves of private schools in principle; they promote caste, they are usually denominational. Public, secular schools are still associated with the struggle to establish the Third Republic. To the suggestion that culture begins at home he replies that he is afraid his daughter’s prolonged contact with Spanish children will affect her French.

This is a recent complaint. The blame for the decline of spoken French, particularly in Paris—its slurring and sloppiness, the intrusion into the language of alien words, nearly always given the wrong meanings—is placed on the number of foreign children now in the lower grades. (This does not mean that “Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism” has been replaced as principal villain.) How much grasp people have of their native tongue in any culture is debatable. French has certainly been affected by a prime minister who did not pronounce his t’s and a garrulous Communist party leader unable to utter a v. Slavish emulation of the latter on the Communist left has given pouwoir for pouvoir and a curious ourire for ouvrir. (The Party keeps threatening to ourire political files that will knock the pouwoir sideways.) Meanwhile, speakers in the state-controlled media faithfully imitate the voice of pouwoir with quession for question.

“I hope,” says the child’s father, “that I do not offend your democratic susceptibilities.” It must be borne in mind that no turn of phrase in French conversation is ever meant as a joke. “But the truth is that my daughter is bearing the cost of foreign assimilation.”

The name on his place card at this formal table indicates clearly that his family had its start in Germany; a good name-detective could even spot the city. Of course, they have been French for a long time—“forever and ever,” descendants of old immigration are apt wildly to say.

FERNAND RAYNAUD WAS a relaxedsounding, pie-faced comedian who, until his death a few years ago, incarnated the hapless citizen at the stage where he has given up struggling against the system and is simply trying to get round it. Sketches such as the one in which the Parisian tries to call the suburb of Asnières and finds it so hopeless that he finally places the call through New York were within a hairline of possibility. De Gaulle had declared the telephone to be “un gadget” (defined in the Petit Robert dictionary as “objet ménager amusant et nouveau”), and investment in telephone equipment was out of the question until after his retirement. Raynaud would never have run for office; he was too successful, and much too nice. Only one of his sketches showed an unexpected edge of bitterness. He would come on as a dithering caricature of the low-grade civil servant, with a beret straight across his brow (nothing makes a man look more foolish), muttering, “I’m not idiotic. I can’t be. I’m French. I’m a customs officer. I can’t be idiotic. I’m a French functionary.” The collocation of “I’m not idiotic” and “I’m French" seemed so self-evident that the audience would sit in perplexed stillness, waiting for the joke. Raynaud was playing on the ambiguity of feeling toward the fonctionnaire: a mixture of envy (he is the only worker in France with job security), contempt (he probably got his job through pull, and now sits there doing nothing), and simple fear (you never know how long his political reach might be). The silence never broke until Raynaud came to “I’m not idiotic. I’m French. My father was called [say] Grabolinsky and my mother was called [say] Pasticceria.” The customs officer’s deep imbecility was finally revealed— he only thought he was French. Raynaud’s joke was on the audience, at the exact point of its laughter.

SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE immigration is still at the working-class level. The men often work in building trades—as construction workers, painters, plasterers, electricians. They perform odd jobs: a Portuguese windowcleaner says, “You would never find a Frenchman to do this.”Rush around Paris on a moto in all weathers for a few francs, he means. No one bears the cost of his children’s assimilation. They were on the way to becoming delinquents in their Paris suburb and he sent them home to be raised in his native village. There is an informal division of labor now: the Portuguese have the concierge business pretty well sewn up. They retain Latin habits, calling from windows. Their children play in the street, though after a few years of French schooling they become stiff and careful. The women are cleaners, seamstresses, maids, waitresses at private dinner parties. A Spanish woman solicited for a few hours’ cleaning causes offense by saying she wants to think it over. With a million and a half unemployed, what is there to think about? But she is not unemployed—is not on the labor market, that is. Her husband works, they live on his earnings. Bonne (“maid”) and Espaynole hang together, like J’suis Français and J’suis pas idiot. She has no business refusing. Women say “mon Espaynole, ” “ma Portuguaise”; no one asks, “Your Spanish what?”

The Spanish maid has become a stock character in boulevard theater, in those plays that are sold out from season to season and that die in translation. The ringing white telephone (first sound, first act) used to be answered by a pert maid carrying a feather duster—Adèle, Angèle. Now, the bonne Espagnole slouches on, raising the spirits of the audience by having a funny accent. The same setting has been used since the 1920s: ferociously lighted living room, French doors opening into a blazing void, staircase with wrought-iron banisters, loggia from which Monsieur or Madame will overhear the second-act indiscretion. Monsieur is still sleeping, and no wonder—the room is full of empty champagne bottles and shed clothes. Madame has gone out, screams the Espagnole, obliging the audience with the story so far, or perhaps Madame simply never came home. Monsieur (striped dressing gown, Charvet ascot) descends the stairs. “Who was it, Concepción?” Her very name reduces the house to sobbing laughter. Out of a torrent of incomprehension emerges a clue about the caller: either Monsieur’s mistress’s husband or Madame’s lover. Since the death of the Third Republic there has been only one change: the bonne is Espagnole. The displaced person enters the art of the host country as a joke.

FÉLIX POTIN WAS a name that stood for middle-class dinner tables. Wines, butter, coffee, and sugar of superior quality were purchased in Félix Potin stores. The name was a novelist’s shortcut: “Far from supposing that Ludovic was at this moment waiting for a train in Dijon, Mme. Sanglot serenely picked her way across the agitated boulevard, on her way to shop at Félix Potin.” Now the name means chain stores, shopping carts, reasonably cheap food, though the least of the price tags would seem lunatic to Americans. The women at the check-out counters are often Asian and black. During holiday weekends, when Parisians—French Parisians—depart to the Alps for spring skiing, shoppers are suddenly Portuguese, North African: the metropolitan residue. Rue de Sèvres shrinks to a chain store, an arcade lined with storefronts, half of them blank, a silent chapel with a saint in it. The store, too, is on land that used to belong to the Lazarists.

For the children it is homely, timeless, reassuring. They will never hear their parents deploring the ruin of Paris, or learn nostalgia at second hand. Some probably never stray out of the neighborhood, but that is a Parisian habit. (There are schoolchildren living in outer arrondissements who not only have never crossed the Seine but have never seen it.)

The hub of their world is the Montparnasse tower, at the top of the Rue de Rennes. It has been there forever; the urban litter—the fast-food counters set out along the boulevard, the drifts of greasy sandwich papers on the sidewalk—has no beginning. The old Montparnasse railway station, which the tower replaced, was there some fourteen years ago; there are people still living in the neighborhood who went by it every day. Oddly enough, no one can quite say what it looked like. It was low, it was gray, and, yes, it was dirty and run-down. What else? The wooden floors sloped and creaked. There were always a few pimps hanging about, waiting to catch the Breton village girls as they stepped off the train. No one denies that the station was inefficient and had to be replaced. But a postcard view of it arouses no immediate recognition. It might as well have been torn down sixty years ago. What people do recall is that the streets around the station were not as shabby and anonymous as they seem now. There have been few structural changes apart from the tower, which still makes the older buildings look dwarfed and absurd. The changes it has attracted (pizza parlors instead of family restaurants) seem to blind the mind’s eye. The nature of a neighborhood has been so fundamentally altered by a single unnecessary structure that collective memory is wiped clean.

THE WINDY LITTLE square on the far side of the Bon Marché department store contains the bust of a forgotten hero—the founder of the store, who donated the land to the city. It belongs not to the annals of Paris but to a subplot in a malicious novel by Anatole France. There is also a sandpit and a slide. Nothing remarkable, except that such amenities are well within the generation of under-nines. That children are allowed to crouch in very dirty sand with bucket and spade is in itself a tremendous evolution. Until just a few years ago, a foreign parent inviting a child to play with her own would find on the doorstep a mother and child dressed as though for a formal wedding, expecting a quiet goûter and an organdy tablecloth. (“They don’t know how to play” was a frequent complaint of English-speaking children.)

Now the children of Paris wear comfortable clothes, and that race of tense, elderly, overdressed young has all but disappeared. It is the children of immigrants who are often set down in the sandpit wearing pale colors, with heavy instructions about keeping clean. That there is little mixing is not necessarily a sign of infant xenophobia: children become Parisian before they become French. They observe one another with the brief, prudent, Parisian appraisal that takes in the unknown without acknowledging it. The very small may communicate to the extent of grabbing a toy. Two mothers negotiating the return of a battered plastic cup call to mind one of those French inheritance tangles where brothers and sisters can fight for eight years, tooth and claw, over a worn-out carpet.

Moslems apart, immigré parents are careful to give French-born children French names, often choosing those that Paris fashion has left behind. Parents are no longer bound to a stateimposed list of saints and heroes. Bretons who were brave enough to insist on Celtic names used to find themselves raising families without birth certificates, civil status, or legal existence; the children were barred from schools and ineligible for any form of social security. Now that Gwladys is allowed, one never hears it. The sandboxes are populated with Clotildes and Aymars, Clemences and Cyrilles. Birth notices in Le Figaro for some time now have been introducing a generation of Laetitias, Virginies, Valentins, and Valentines. It is usual to have a new birth announced “with immense joy” by brothers and sisters who are probably, in fact, gritting their milk teeth. Not long ago Aurélien and Pernelle reported the arrival of Aymeric, while another troop of siblings introduced Élisabeth-AliénorThéophilae. Of the new wave of names, southern immigrants greatly favor Vanessa and Sandra. Otherwise they settle for petits noms that sound familiar: Maïté (Marie-Thérèse) and Marilu (Marie-Louise).

A child who has fallen down and hurt himself is set on his feet and smacked. “Do you want your face slapped?” a mother asks two little boys who are doing no more than romping. But a child’s wail does not necessarily describe humiliation and shock now. Quite often he is simply being mulish and getting away with it. The voice of infant protest has crossed the Atlantic, a few years after the news about women. Children can even be seen sucking their thumbs in public, or clutching a close friend—a diaper or a small pillowcase. Even two years ago it would have been beyond imagining.

Such consolations are absolutely forbidden to immigrant children, who get soundly whacked for putting their thumbs in their mouths. Mediterranean warmth congeals in the north. The mothers are tired and bewildered, lonely and lost. The maternal hand, raised and threatening, is a gesture against life.

“BAD TASTE LEADS to crime.” It has been attributed to SainteBeuve, to Stendhal, and to Prosper Mérimée, each of whom quoted it. Actually, it was said by a friend of all three, the Baron de Mareste. He was witty, clever, worldly, cultivated, erudite, elegant, and intelligent—in short, an obsolescent species of Parisian. If he still lived, no writer would bother to quote him. Most would shy off even being seen with him. Laughter is intellectually compromising.

Good taste probably leads to bankruptcy. Because of “the decline of atmosphere,” rising costs, and a feeling of saturation, there has been a migration of the affluent to the third and fourth arrondissements, on the Right Bank, where the most expensive condominiums in Paris are being built almost as fast as permits can be issued. {Fifteen years ago, apartments could be had in the area for bread and butter.) The new settlers crave the old, lost feeling of the Left Bank, an intangible something to do with art. Art means culture, culture means the past, the past means “our cultural patrimony,” which is bound to include some of the stuff in the attic. For an intangible something, it comes pretty high. “Atmosphere is a means of exchange,” says a real estate agent, quite seriously. The new residents of the Marais, whose arrival has caused an exodus of artisans and the death of their crafts, want a cracking good investment first, then the cultural jam on the bread. They get both. Atmosphere means a house that looks old, on the site of one authentic and destroyed. Sometimes part of the facade is kept, though “seventeenth century” in an advertisement can mean just a scrap of lintel. A mock vestibule contains a piece of staircase leading nowhere. Behind this eminently useless remnant a door opens into a room that looks like the lobby of a private clinic. There is a receptionist in lieu of a concierge, and 250 mailboxes.

Andrée Jacob, Le Monde9s crusading specialist on such matters, was born and raised in the Marais. She knows where every stone was quarried. Tiny, tireless, in her mid-seventies, she reports on irreplaceable buildings allowed to crumble for obscure commercial reasons, on fake and gimcrack reconstruction. Some of her fiery articles would bring down libel suits if the people behind the institutions accused did not know that she has, as she puts it, “the dossiers.” And so they wait until the ripple of public indignation settles; it never takes long. “They just let the situation rot,” she says. Faithfully read, widely respected, she has managed to prevent no more than four or five demolitions, and then only because there were no great financial interests at stake. She has learned that nothing can be done against a combination of political influence, private corporations, and state-controlled banks.

That mixture of state and private enterprise, of nationalized and private funding, is the elastic tissue of Paris operations. Friendship is the backbone. Men who would not have given one another the time of day twenty years ago are now, if not hand-in-hand, at least seeing things eye-to-eye. There have been odd alliances before: see Balzac; see Zola. It is not so much a newclass as a mutation. These are the sleeker, more careful, more soft-spoken men in narrow suits, the trim generation of the Fifth Republic. Ceremonial, partial to rigid etiquette and to thought-out marriages, they give rise to taradiddles about a new aristocracy, a royal dynasty based on urban real estate. It is nonsense, of course. Real royals are generally placid and dowdy. Here, there is a twitchiness beneath the gloss, and the chic of the gloss itself is a giveaway. The mutant carries genes handed on from a tripe-eating, moneycounting, land-grabbing Third Republic ancestor, red-faced and coarse, with a napkin tucked under his chin to make sure no one else gets the crumbs.

The unholy mess at Les Halles is their creation. The park and garden promised before the central market was removed to a suburb and the handsome Victor Baltard pavilions were torn down never materialized. It should not have surprised anyone with a memory: a garden was supposed to replace the old Montparnasse railway station. At Les Halles, there is a deep hole in the ground {no one can tell you why it was dug) and a trivial shopping center. The muddle of interests responsible for the Forum, as they dared to call it, was powerful enough to have the inauguration treated in the media as an event on a level with the consecration of Chartres Cathedral. Parisians—a good many—were actually tricked into believing that an insignificant and superfluous commercial structure was part of that greater structure, the cultural patrimony.

My Guide Michelin calls the church of Saint-Eustache the most beautiful in Paris after Notre Dame. Its closeness to the Forum has been ammunition for critics: on one hand, the most complete example of Renaissance decoration in Paris, and the trumpery taste of the Fifth Republic on the other. Curiously, both buildings seem stranded, two orphans with nothing in common except their isolation from their surroundings.

Whatever is built in Paris is built in a void. There is no contemporary building to which a new structure can be likened. Critics reach back 400 years to make a point. The point is, inevitably, reactionary. In the Lazarist chapel, visitors kiss a pane of glass. In the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, busloads of pilgrims line up to kiss the plasticcovered armchair from which the Holy Virgin addressed Catherine Labouré. The first seems moving, the latter somehow disturbing. If it comes down to what substance is being embraced, glass or plastic, then that is a reactionary distinction too. It is like putting one’s faith—aesthetic or spiritual, just as you like—in nothing but burnished bronze.

To the tune of publicity that could have been scored for the great organ of Notre Dame, “the most beautiful restaurant in Paris,” as no one failed to call it, opened last winter in Rue SaintMartin, “facing the unspeakable Pompidou’s Building [the Beaubourg art center], to which it will serve as an antithesis.” That was Le Monde’s restaurant critic, writing with even more liveliness than usual—immonde (“unspeakable”) can also be rendered as “disgusting and foul.”

La Ciboulette, hailed rather prematurely as a meeting ground for wellheeled members of the intelligentsia and as the Right Bank equivalent, in spirit, of Brasserie Lipp, occupies the three floors of a seventeenth-century house, originally built for a banker. The building is “classified,” meaning that it cannot be restored more than it has been already, and that the state will lend a hand should it start to crumble. Actually, Lipp and Ciboulette have not so much as a dessert spoon in common. For one thing, it is distressing at Lipp to be sent upstairs. It means you have missed the dead-on tone of temperate confidence required for getting a table on the ground floor. (The food is the same.) At Ciboulette, it is chic to climb. The higher you go (there is an elevator), the giddier the prices and — in line with the doll-house trend of the seventies, elsewhere starting to decline —the more elfin the servings.

Beaubourg used to be the bankers’ quarter. If one considers the sums asked for apartments in the renovated and “classified” buildings nearby, one must conclude that it is surely to bankers that the quarter will return. But then, no banker with an image of soundness to protect would move into a dwelling of such inexorable cuteness. The past belongs to those who can afford to turn it into an urban fairy tale. The present is for the dispossessed, eased out of the city to the concrete ring to the treeless suburbs. That ring of slabs-with-windows surrounds most of the great cities of Europe now. Architects will tell you it can’t be helped; there are too many people; too many are in Paris; they have to be put somewhere.

THE BEAUBOURG CENTER itself has been discussed into the ground: being there is like being in a factory; in a refinery; in the airport at Roissy. On those long gray expanses one waits to hear a flight called. To some, it was a delayed, nostalgic tribute to the 1960s, already obsolete by the time it opened, in 1977. Something went wrong, if one can believe the spate of articles called “The End of a Dream” and “Good-bye to Utopia” and “Beaubourg Sings the Blues.” It is disorganized, inefficient, with a depressed and dwindled staff putting together shows of steadily diminishing quality. The high point was the Paris-Berlin exhibition, in 1978; since then, it has been downhill all the way. It is difficult to keep in mind that an experience only four years old is being appraised. “For a time,” says a journalist, “it was like a mayonnaise that took; now, it has curdled.” This suggests what must have been expected: something smooth that would slip down.

It is true that millions of visitors have been clocked. Most of them wander about the ground floor, where it costs nothing. They are often young and unemployed. If the place has not served its intended purpose, it has at least become a focal point for people who have nowhere else to go. They come in from the concrete ring. The new rapid underground trains bring them to the heart of the city in fifteen minutes. They seldom see anything more; Paris is Beaubourg. They know less of the city than immigrants’ children who move from park to school to chain store. They come out of a world entirely remote to Parisians. It could be a foreign film, a place from another decade. It is a world where, for the young, there is absolutely nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to think about. There are no playgrounds; small children play at setting fires in garbage cans. Tell some of the older ones that here there were trees, houses with breathing space, and watch the look you get: puzzled, then wondering, then doubting, then indifferent. Those under ten steal from supermarkets; up to sixteen, anything on two wheels; sixteen and over, cars. They hang about in cellars, scrawling Nazi slogans on the walls. They are not sure what the slogans mean: “C’est pour faire gueuler.” But the only adults to roar with rage are building superintendents. (No one else goes down there, except the occasional journalist who takes pictures and sounds as if he had just swum the Congo at the risk of being snapped at by the crocodiles.) The young seldom carry weapons; guns are extremely difficult to get in France. It is less dangerous than that, and simpler and sadder.

Beaubourg is their urban initiation. They sit on the floor, swarm up and down the escalators. Their faces are wary and bright; they give off a feeling of boundless, unused energy, draining away in mischief. One wonders if any society is so rich in youth and strength and vivacity that it can afford such a waste. The subject of endless sociological discussion, written about as if they were lumps of unrefined material that could never be used to make a lasting structure, they are not the subject of art. The novelists of the Fifth Republic, like its filmmakers, stick to minute bourgeois cheese-parings, the mouseview. The center, at any rate, belongs to the young, with its sloping piazza, the escalators for exercise (they are often stalled), and the spectacular view of an unexplored city growing and spreading as they climb.

Selective disapproval manages to leave out the fact that Beaubourg captures and radiates immense vitality. Rue Saint-Martin breathes the way European cities must have breathed during those bursts of construction between plagues and wars. What is built is one thing and what the street may turn into is something else again. An art center has not attracted art or artists. It draws tourists, to whom it is a Parisian freak; a flow of restless, rootless young; speculators.

Until a year ago there were two art galleries in the block facing the center. They opened with high hopes along with the center, and quietly packed up and moved back to the Left Bank less than three years later. One was replaced by a bookstore with a large discount trade, the other by a beautiful eating place. The seventeenth-century banker’s house was decaying quietly as a raincoat factory until five years ago, when it was taken over, restored, and turned into “the most beautiful art gallery in Paris.” Then and then only it became “classified.”

“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL church in Paris after Notre Dame” was started in 1532 and consecrated, with a piece or two still missing, more than a century later. During those hundred years, taste had changed even more radically than in our own century. The original plans for Saint-Eustache were like a final look at the religious architecture of the Middle Ages. By the time the building was ready to be decorated, the taste of a new age prevailed. The result was a patchwork that a still later age would find lamentable. The 1828 edition of a guide to Paris (“Le Véritable Conducteur Parisien”) deplored “the poor taste of the architect” and “the confused mixture of Latin and Greek.”

Viollet-le-Duc hated the Renaissance, which explains his loathing of the interior of Saint-Eustache; however, he was not the only person to see it as “badly conceived, badly built, a confused mass of debris borrowed from all sides ... a kind of Gothic skeleton covered in Roman rags stitched together like a harlequin suit.”

By the time Saint-Eustache was completed, in 1642, there was absolutely no one living who could describe what had been there before. In fact, a chapel had stood there for 300 years before it was demolished to make way for a more modern, more imposing church. Conceivably, people in the neighborhood were disturbed to watch it being torn down. They had been christened and married there; their parents had been taken from the chapel to their burial ground. The wiping out of a 300-yearold chapel 450 years ago does not arouse our nostalgia. It does not enter our minds to say that if it still existed Paris would be more attractive or easier to live in. Three hundred years at such a remove seem dwindled, short. The loss of a building 150 years old, closer in time, is the work of vandals. Saint-Eustache now looks not like an architectural patchwork but like a harmonious and splendid reproach to anything built within yards of it. As for the chapel, we can try to imagine what it must have looked like, and we can be sure that it was there, for three shrunken centuries. The danger will he when a whole generation of Parisians, for want of knowing, will answer “What was here before?” with “Nothing.”

—Mavis Gallant