Psychogeography of the Boundary

The city is only apparently homogeneous. Even its name takes on a different sound from one district to the next. Nowhere, unless perhaps in dreams, can the phenomenon of the boundary be experienced in a more originary way than in cities. To know them means to understand those lines that, running alongside railroad crossings and across privately owned lots, within the park and along the riverbank, function as limits; it means to know these confines, together with the enclaves of the various districts. As threshold, the boundary stretches across streets; a new precinct begins like a step into the void – as though one had unexpectedly cleared a low step on a flight of stairs.

– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project1

If you cross Boulevard Beaumarchais and turn down towards Rue Amelot, you are conscious of leaving the Marais for the Bastille quartier. If you pass the statue of Danton and follow the high back wall of the École de Médecine, you know you are leaving Saint-Germain-des-Près and entering the Latin Quarter. The boundaries between the districts of Paris are often drawn with this surgical precision. Sometimes the reference points are monuments – the rotunda of La Villette, the Lion of Denfert-Rochereau, the Porte Saint-Denis; sometimes the contours of the ground – the fold of the Chaillot hill on the plain of Auteuil, the gap between the Goutte d’Or and Buttes-Chaumont that marks the roads to Germany and Flanders; sometimes again major arteries, of which the Boulevards Rochechouart and Clichy are an extreme example, forming such a firm demarcation between Montmartre and Nouvelle-Athènes that it is not so much two districts that face each other here, but more like two worlds.

Not all of Paris’s inner boundaries are lines with no thickness. To pass from one quarter to another, you sometimes have to cross neutral zones, transitional micro-quarters. These often take the form of embedded pockets: the Arsenal triangle between the Boulevards Henri-IV and Bourdon – the starting point of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, on a bench with the thermometer at 33 degrees C – with its acute angle at the Bastille, and dividing the Saint-Paul quarter from the approaches to the Gare de Lyon; Épinettes, in the space between the Avenue de Saint-Ouen and the Avenue de Clichy, which ensures smooth passage from the Batignolles to Montmartre; or again, wedged between the Sentier and the Marais, the right-angled triangle of Arts-et-Métiers, whose apex is the Porte Saint-Martin and its hypotenuse the Rue de Turbigo, marked in the direction of the city centre by the bell tower of Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs.

These boundaries may be more vague, like the region of missions and convents centred on the Rue de Sèvres, which you have to cross in order to pass from Faubourg Saint-Martin to Montparnasse, and which old taxi-drivers call the Vatican. Or those streets beyond the Luxembourg that fill the space between the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse, between Val-de-Grâce and the Grande-Chaumière, between the allegory of quinine on Rue de l’Abbé-de-l’Épée and the heroic figure of Marshal Ney in front of the Closerie des Lilas. Already at the end of Ferragus, when the former head of the Devorants spends his days silently watching the boules players and sometimes lending them his cane to measure their shots, Balzac noted this

space which lies between the south entrance of the Luxembourg and the north entrance of the Observatoire – a space without a name, the neutral space of Paris. There, Paris is no longer; and there, Paris still lingers. The spot is a mingling of street, square, boulevard, fortification, garden, avenue, high-road, province, and metropolis; certainly, all of that is to be found there, and yet the place is nothing of all that, – it is a desert.2

Like the background of certain Dadaist photomontages, composed out of jostling fragments of city photographs, the most commonplace transitions sometimes have the most surprising shocks in store. Leaving the greyness of the Gare de l’Est along the former convent wall of the Récollets, what could be more surprising than to suddenly stumble on the sparkling water of the Canal Saint-Martin, the lock of La Grange-aux-Belles with its swing bridge and walkway hidden among the chestnut trees, and behind it the pointed slate roofs of the Hôpital Saint-Louis? And at the other end of Paris, the contrast between the bustle of the Avenue d’Italie and – just behind the Gobelins factory – the shady square marking the beginning of the Glacière quarter, with the stream of the Bièvre at its far end.

Certain quarters, even some of the oldest and most clearly defined, may contain an undefined part within them. For many Parisians, the Latin Quarter ends at the top of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, just as in Abélard’s day. Balzac located the Pension Vauquer in Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève (now Tournefort), between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, ‘in the streets shut in between the dome of the Panthéon and the dome of the Val-de-Grâce, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas’.3 Today, however, on the southern slope of the Montagne, the École Normale Supérieure, research institutes and student residences, the historic laboratories of Pasteur and the Curies, along with the Censier university, may well justify extending the Latin Quarter as far as the Gobelins.

Differences over boundaries can be far more serious, putting in question the very identity of the district in question. Where does Montmartre begin, when you leave the city centre heading north? History – the boundaries of the village before its annexation to Paris – agrees with common sentiment that Montmartre starts when you cross the route of the no. 2 Métro line, whose stations Barbès-Rochechouart, Anvers, Pigalle, Blanche and Clichy precisely mark the curve of the former wall of the Farmers-General. But Louis Chevalier, in his masterpiece Montmartre du plaisir et du crime, places the Montmartre boundary much lower, on the Grands Boulevards, including in his book both the Chaussée d’Antin, the Saint-Georges quarter, the Casino de Paris and the Faubourg Poissonnière.4 And quite apart from plaisir and crime, physical geography would support this dividing line, as the slopes of Montmartre begin well below the Boulevards Rochechouart and Clichy. The land starts to rise once you cross the ancient course of the Seine, a few dozen metres beyond the Grands Boulevards. Walter Benjamin, a peerless Paris pedestrian, noted how, when the flâneur has reached Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, ‘his soles remember: here is the spot where in former times the cheval de renfort – the spare horse – was harnessed to the omnibus that climbed the Rue des Martyrs towards Montmartre’.5

It might be objected that Montmartre is a special case, not just a quarter like any other, being both a district on the map of Paris and a historical–cultural myth, with a different boundary in each of these senses. But isn’t this ambiguity the very mark of quarters with a strong identity? And if such an identity is lacking, can one even talk of a quarter? Such questions lead, as we shall see, to a more general one: what, fundamentally, is a Paris quarter?

The administrative divisions – twenty arrondissements, with four quartiers in each – give the beginnings of a reply a contrario: a list of this kind, quite abstract and without any ranking, is only useful for the tax office and the police. But it is by no means certain that more subtle procedures would be able to define a basic urban unit for Paris, where the term ‘quarter’, despite its ancient roots in the language and its apparent simplicity, is far from denoting anything homogeneous and comparable. Saint-Germain-des-Près, the Plaine Monceau and the Évangile, for example, are all three of them Paris quarters – each has its history, its boundaries, its map, its architecture, its population and its activities. The first, developing over the centuries on the territory of the great abbey and grouping very ancient streets around the ‘modern’ intersection of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue de Rennes, has kept nothing of the postwar years in which it was so celebrated, and has fallen into the sterility of a museum. The second, planted out by the Pereire brothers in the mid nineteenth century – a ‘luxury quarter sprouting amid the wastelands of the old Plaine Monceau’ – is that of Nana, in her ‘Renaissance-style hôtel, with the air of a palace’. Marked by the memory of the academic ‘artistes pompiers’ who were among its original inhabitants – Meissonier, Rochegrosse, Boldini, Carrier-Belleuse – this is a typical residential quarter, and the successors of the business bourgeoisie of the Second Empire still occupy its neo-Gothic and neo-Palladian hôtels particuliers today. The Évangile, at the end of the world between the railway tracks of the Nord and the Est, is built on a bit of the former village of La Chapelle, where the contractors who carted out the Paris refuse came to dump their load. (‘Tumbrils carry off muck and filth, which is spilled into the nearby countryside: woe to any who find themselves neighbour to these infected mounds’, wrote Sébastien Mercier.6) The monstrous gasometers that lined the Rue de l’Évangile are no longer to be seen, but the Calvary photographed by Atget is still in place, and the covered market of La Chapelle is one of the most colourful in Paris.

The customary oppositions of east/west, Left Bank/Right Bank, or centre/periphery are too simplistic to account for this diversity, and sometimes out of date. We have to look elsewhere, especially in the city’s particular mode of growth. Nowhere else in Europe has a great capital developed in the same way as Paris, with such discontinuity and in so irregular a rhythm. And what gave the city this rhythm was the centrifugal succession of its walled precincts. Cities without walls – apart from those strictly organized on a rectangular grid, like Turin, Manhattan, or Lisbon as laid out by the Marquis de Pombal – grew up any which way, like the tentacles of an octopus, or a bacterial plaque multiplying in its culture. In London, Berlin or Los Angeles, the city limits and the shapes of districts are vague and variable: ‘The rampant proliferation of the immense megalopolis that is Tokyo gives the impression of a silkworm eating a mulberry leaf . . . The form of such a city is unstable, its border an ambiguous zone in constant movement . . . It is an incoherent space spreading without order or markers, its limits only poorly defined.’7

Paris, on the other hand, so often threatened, besieged, or invaded, has from the dawn of time been constrained by its city walls. This has always given it a more or less regular circular form, and it has only been able to extend in a succession of dense and concentric rings. From the wall of Philippe Auguste to the modern Périphérique, six different walls followed one another in the course of eight centuries – without counting reinforcement, retouching or partial correction. The scenario has always been the same. A new wall is constructed, with broad dimensions that afford free space around the area already built up. But this space is rapidly covered over. Available land within the walls becomes increasingly scarce, buildings are pressed together, plots filled up, and the growing density makes life difficult. Meanwhile, outside the walls, and despite the laws against it – a constant over many centuries and political regimes, but never respected (this is the zone non aedificandi, which Parisians little familiar with Latin quickly came to call simply the zone, a word still in use today8) – houses

with pleasant gardens are constructed in the faubourgs. When the intramuros concentration becomes intolerable, these faubourgs are absorbed into the city and the cycle begins again:

Philippe Auguste . . . imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For a period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile storey upon storey; they mount up on each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbours, for the sake of getting a little air. The street grows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philippe Auguste and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order and all askew, like runaways. There they plant themselves squarely, cut themselves gardens from the fields, and take their ease. Beginning with 1367, the city spreads to such an extent into the suburbs that a new wall becomes necessary, particularly on the Right Bank; Charles V builds it. But a city like Paris is perpetually growing . . . So Charles V’s wall suffers the fate of that of Philippe Auguste. At the end of the fifteenth century, the faubourg strides across it, passes beyond it, and extends further.9

Like the growth rings of a tree, quarters between any two walls are contemporary, even if space was not filled at the same pace at all points on the circumference – the west side and the Left Bank always lagging behind. The same era and the same conception of the city explains why Belleville and Passy have many things in common, both finding themselves in the same stratum, only belatedly annexed to Paris and both maintaining certain features of Île-de-France villages – the high street, church and cemetery, the theatre (now ‘municipal’), the lively central square where cakes are bought for Sunday. Analogies of this kind can be found not just in the faubourgs but at the very heart of the city, yet since the movement of Paris more often follows a radius than a circular arc, the diachronic diversity is more visible than the affinity between contemporary quarters.

Of Paris’s two medieval fortifications,10 the older, built under Philippe Auguste around 1200, has left its clearest traces on the Left Bank, where it circumscribed the ‘Université’ on the north slope of the Montagne Saint-Geneviève (these ‘traces’ are not old stones and archaeological remnants, which can be found on both banks, but rather the still apparent urban consequences, as can be read on a map or noted on foot). This wall started from the Seine at the Tour Nesle, where the Institut de France now stands. Its counterscarp followed the line of what is now Rue Mazarine (formerly Fossés-Saint-Germain) as far as the Porte de Buci, the direction in which Paris faced the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The wall then continued along Rue Monsieur-le-Prince (formerly ‘Fossés-Monsieur-le-Prince’), which still marks, and not by chance, the boundary between the Latin and the Odéon quarters. It reached the top of the Montagne Saint-Geneviève, where the names of streets and squares still perpetuate its memory: Fossés-Saint-Jacques, Estrapade, Contrescarpe. It then descended towards the Seine in a straight line, following Rue des Fossés-Saint-Victor (now Cardinal-Lemoine) and Rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard, reaching the river at the tower of La Tournelle.11

Despite breaches and destruction, eight centuries later the ghost of this wall still defines the Latin Quarter. It is in this semi-ellipse – the neighbourhood of the Cordeliers refectory, the ossuary of Saint-Séverin, the robinia tree of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, around the Rue de la Harpe, Place Maubert, and behind the Collège de France – that a medieval layout still survives on the Left Bank: one of narrow plots in a dense and unbroken tissue, a whirl of streets going in all directions. To experience this, you need only leave the Sorbonne and cross the precinct, climb Rue Saint-Jacques as far as Rue des Ursulines, Rue des Feuillantines beloved by Victor Hugo, Rue Lhomond and Rue de l’Abbé-de-l’Épée. Here, the high walls, trees and gardens glimpsed behind fences, the calm and regular pattern of the plan, show that you are extra muros, in a relaxed space, on the lands of former convents, along the roads leading to Orléans and Italy.

Since July 1789, when the Bastille was destroyed and its stones made into souvenirs – just as fragments of the Berlin wall would be sold exactly two centuries later – there is nothing left of the wall of Charles V: its curtain, its rampart walk, its fortress gates, its bastions used for evening strolls, its moats where people fished with rods. Nothing physical, at least.12 But its route

along the ancient course of the Seine is still one of the fundamental lines of the city structure, completing in a wide circular arc the rectilinear plan inherited from the Romans. Between the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Denis, the noble curve of the boulevards that today bear the names of Beaumarchais, Filles-du-Calvaire, Temple and Saint-Martin precisely matches the line of the old wall. The design of the Grands Boulevards was already prefigured.13

This wall would last a good while. Reinforced by great bastions under Henri II, doubled here and there to face up to the Spanish artillery, it defended a Paris ruled by the Ligue against the forces of Henri III and Henri IV. Half a century later it would challenge royal power for a final time, in the magnificent episode of the Fronde, when La Grande Mademoiselle – Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans – had the guns of the Bastille fired against Turenne’s army, to cover the retreat of Condé’s forces through the Porte Saint-Antoine.

Louis XIV, as a child, had to flee from Paris under the Fronde. In the 1670s, he ordered the old wall to be razed and an avenue of trees planted in its place, making a walkway more than thirty metres wide right round the city. Those in charge of this unprecedented project, François Blondel and Pierre Bullet, drew a line that followed the old wall from the Arsenal and the Bastille to the Porte Saint-Denis, continuing in a line that is now that of the Grands Boulevards up to the site of the Madeleine. The route then reached the Seine via the Rue des Fossés-des-Tuileries, passing the far end of the gardens and the present Rue Royale.14 This was ‘an avenue planted in three lines, the one in the middle being sixteen yards wide . . . bordered by walls of dressed stone, thanks to the gentlemen provosts of merchants, who were also responsible for the conduct of all these ramparts and avenues that serve the public as a promenade. It has been ordered that ditches twelve yards wide will be left, as a course for the city sewer . . . and within the rampart a paved street four yards wide.’15

Established on the former fortifications, Louis XIV’s avenue received the name boulevard, which entered current usage and was used for a number of Paris boundaries, with slippages that can cause confusion today. In the nineteenth century, the boulevard that took the place of the wall of the Farmers-General was called the ‘external’ boulevard (Goncourt brothers’ Journal, just after the destruction of the wall: ‘I walked along the external boulevards widened by the suppression of the rampart walk. The aspect is completely changed. The guinguettes have disappeared’). ‘External’ is used here as opposed to the ‘internal’ boulevard, that of Louis XIV, which, in its segment running from the Châteaud’Eau to the Madeleine, had become permanently known as the Grands Boulevards, or simply the Boulevards (‘The Boulevards may be compared to two hemispheres. Their antipodes are the Madeleine and the Bastille. The equator is the Boulevard Montmartre, where warmth and life flourish.’16). Later, in the 1920s, when Thiers’s fortifications had been demolished, the label ‘external’ came to be applied to the boulevard constructed in their place (Francis Carco: ‘In the scattered bars of the external boulevards, and the sloping streets that join them, he would enter with the air of waiting for someone unknown’17). The boulevard of the Farmers-General suddenly lost this name and never found a new one in the Paris vocabulary. In the 1960s, with the building of the Périphérique – and no doubt to avoid confusion between the ‘external boulevards’ and this ‘external’ Périphérique, dear to ladies who listen to the radio for news of Paris traffic jams – a new expression appeared to denote the boulevards that had taken the place of the ‘fortifs’: the ‘boulevards of the marshals’.

It will be helpful if I use the term ‘Old Paris’ for the part within the boulevard of Louis XIV, and ‘New Paris’ for the part outside. This New Paris is itself divided into two concentric rings. Between the boulevard of Louis XIV and the wall of the Farmers-General is the ring of the faubourgs; between the wall of the Farmers-General and the ‘boulevards of the marshals’ is the ring of the villages of the crown. But this is not just a matter of names. Whenever Paris advanced from one boundary to the next, this signaled a time of changes in technology, society and politics. The shift in stones and ditches was not the cause; it was rather as if the emergence of a new epoch led both to the obsolescence of the old walls and to transformations in the city’s life.

We can take the example of street lighting and the maintenance of order, important both in terms of entertainment and in order to ‘discipline and punish’. In the Middle Ages, only three places in Paris were permanently illuminated at night: the gate of the Châtelet tribunal, where Philippe le Bel had placed a wood-framed lantern filled with pig bladders to deter the criminal enterprises that were hatched right outside; the Tour Nesle, where a beacon marked the entry to Paris for boatmen coming up the Seine; and the lantern of the dead in the Innocents cemetery. Those heading into the dark of the city were advised to make use of an escort of armed torchmen, as one could hardly trust the protection of the watch, whether civic or royal.

At the same time as Louis XIV made Paris an open city, and launched the construction of his new avenue, he took two measures that marked the beginning of the modern age: he had nearly three thousand lanterns installed in the streets – glass cages protecting candles, hung from ropes at first-floor level – and he established the post of lieutenant-general of police, in command of a significant armed force. (It was the first of these officers, La Reynie, who emptied out the courts of miracles and embarked on the ‘great confinement’, shutting up beggars and deviants in the new prison hospitals of the Salpêtrière and Bicêtre.)

A century later, in parallel with the building of the wall of the Farmers-General, the technical headway made in the Age of Enlightenment had its effects on street lighting: the old lanterns with their candles were replaced by oil lamps equipped with metal reflectors, with a longer range. Sartine, the lieutenant-general of the time, held that ‘the very great amount of light these give makes it impossible to believe that anything better could ever be found’. Sébastien Mercier was of a different opinion: ‘The lampposts are badly placed . . . From a distance, this reddish flame hurts the eyes; close up, it gives only little light, and below, you are in darkness.’

It was the 1840s, the time when Thiers’s fortifications enclosed the city once again, that saw the general spread of gas lighting and the uniformed sergents de ville. Electric light replaced gas after the First World War, when the ‘fortifs’ were demolished. In the 1960s, the construction of the Boulevard Périphérique – the latest of Paris’s fortifications and not the least formidable – was accompanied by the replacement of incandescent lamps by neon lighting, the disappearance of bicycle police with their capes, known ashirondelles (swallows), and the proliferation of motorized patrols; the blessings of community policing were still to come.

It would be possible, therefore, to write a history of Paris in politics and architecture, art and technology, literature and society, the chapters of which would not be centuries – a particularly inappropriate division in this case – nor again reigns and republics, but rather the expanding city precincts, which mark a discontinuous and subterranean time. In the fifteenth of his ‘Theses on the Concept of History’, Walter Benjamin remarked that ‘calendars do not measure time as clocks do’. The time of city walls resembles the time of calendars.

1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), p. 88.

2 Honoré de Balzac, Ferragus (trans. Wormeley). Perhaps Victor Hugo had this passage in mind when he described the surroundings of the Salpêtrière in Les Misérables: ‘It was no longer solitude, for there were passers-by; it was not the country, for there were houses and streets; it was not the city, for the streets had ruts like highways, and the grass grew in them; it was not a village, the houses were too lofty. What was it, then? It was an inhabited spot where there was no one; it was a desert place where there was someone; it was a boulevard of the great city, a street of Paris; more wild at night than the forest, more gloomy by day than a cemetery’ (trans. Wilbour).

3 Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot (trans. Marriage).

4 Louis Chevalier, Montmartre du plaisir et du crime (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980).

5 Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 416.

6 Louis Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris (1781).

7 Yoshinobu Ashihara, L’Ordre caché. Tokyo, la ville du XXIe siècle (Paris: Hazan, 1994).

8 An ordinance of 1548, for example, cited in Pierre Lavedan, Histoire de l’urbanisme à Paris (Paris: Association pour la publication d’une histoire de Paris, 1975), stated: ‘From now on there shall be no more construction or building in the faubourgs, by persons of any station or condition whatsoever, under penalty of confiscation of funds and building, which shall be entirely demolished.’ At the end of the eighteenth century, Mercier wrote: ‘The circumference of Paris is ten thousand yards. Several attempts have been made to define its boundaries; buildings have crossed these limits, marshes have disappeared and the countryside has retreated daily before the hammer and the set square.’

9 Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (trans. Hapgood), chapter 2, ‘A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris’ (1832).

10 There were two walls before the thirteenth century, but they have been lost in the depths of time.

11 On the Right Bank, the wall of Phillipe Auguste began at the Louvre (its keep forming part of the wall), and followed a route corresponding to Rues Jean-Jacques-Rousseau, Montmartre, and Réamur. It then turned southeast, as far as Rue de Sévigné, and reached the Seine in the middle of the Quai des Célestins, close to Rue de l’Ave-Maria.

12 Except what was discovered when work was under way for the Grand Louvre, and incorporated into the décor of the underground shopping centre, as well as a small pile of stones from the Bastille that decorates the square at the corner of the Boulevard Henri-IV and the Quai des Célestins.

13 After the Porte Saint-Denis, the wall of Charles V turned straight towards the Louvre, following a line that today runs through the Rue d’Aboukir and the Place des Victoires. It reached the Seine close to what is now the Pont du Carrousel. On the Left Bank, which had scarcely developed in the meantime, this wall followed the earlier one of Philippe Auguste.

14 On the Left Bank, the route more or less followed the Boulevards des Invalides, Montparnasse, Port-Royal, Saint-Marcel and de l’Hôpital, but building on this side, along what are known as the ‘boulevards du Midi’, would get under way later, and on maps from the late eighteenth century you can still see the boulevard proceeding through open fields, well beyond the most outlying buildings of the city.

15 Henri Sauval (1620–70), Histoire et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris, posthumous edition (Paris, 1724).

16 Émile de La Bédollière, in Paris Guide, par les principaux écrivains et artistes de la France (1867). This guide, written for the benefit of visitors to the Éxposition Universelle, had a preface by Victor Hugo.

17 Francis Carco, L’Équipe, roman des fortifs (Paris: Albin Michel, 1925).

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