OK, we’re done with Paris. I did want to give some final thoughts on the French capital, and share some things that St. Louis could learn, and also be honest on some other matters. First of all, it’s sort of unfair to compare the two exactly because with any world capital, particularly a European one, there is just so much more tax money dumped into Paris that a city such as St. Louis would never see. It’s not a fair comparison.
Also, American cities are just not going to be as dense as European cities ever again–it’s downright illegal to build a community such as Paris in most of the United States. That being said, St. Louis was almost as dense as Paris at one point; in fact, it was only second to I think Manhattan and San Francisco in the Nineteenth Century in terms of density, if you can believe that. 300,000 people once live east of Jefferson Avenue in St. Louis in the 1870s, which just blows my mind. We must have had street life that Americans now pay thousands of dollars to now see in Paris. Yes, I’m well aware how filthy St. Louis was back then, but so was Paris. We destroyed our city to clean it up. Paris just cleaned itself up (well, you could argue Hausmann’s plans destroyed the old Paris).
But that being said, Paris used to be a terrible place to live; the French government made conscious and expensive, tax-generated changes to turn it into the world class city that just about everyone I know wants to visit one day if they haven’t already. The free market did not create this city; heavy government regulation did, whether you want to admit it or not. And European cities were almost lost to the automobile just as badly as American cities have. It’s hard to believe, but proven in photographs from the 1950s through the 1980s, but many European cities were horrible, traffic clogged nightmares (or even more traffic-clogged nightmares), but governments, backed by voters, made conscious decisions to take back the streets and give them to pedestrians. Just Google old photos of European cities in the Twentieth Century if you don’t believe me, and you’ll see cars parked where there are now thriving markets and plazas.
That being said, rich people in Europe still love their cars, and if you ever drive the interstates in or out of major cities such as London, Paris or Berlin in the morning or afternoon, they’re clogged with bumper to bumper traffic for dozens of miles out into the country. I’ll never forget leaving London early in the morning back in 2013 and being shocked at the headlights coming towards me in the darkness far out from the city center. Part of the reason almost everyone takes mass transit in Europe is yes, good government policy, but also because it would be impossible for everyone to own their own cars when the rich people who live outside cities are already clogging the interstates for their daily commute! I always laugh about how mass transit funding is a liberal vs. conservative issue in America; it is bipartisan in Europe (and most of the world) because American style sprawl would turn the entire country of France into one gigantic suburb if development there was the same as here.
Furthermore, what I also liked about Paris is that there are no planned “entertainment districts.” If I hear about one more development that is going to be a hub of activity in St. Louis, I am going to scream. Why, because they all fail! Laclede’s Landing was going to be an exciting entertainment district. That failed. Then Washington Avenue. It’s on life support. Next up, who knows? In Paris, entertainment happens organically, with clusters of restaurants and bars just popping up where they’re actually needed. I can’t tell you how many times I was just walking along and all the sudden I would be in the middle of some unmapped hub of activity, with people laughing and having fun on the street in cafes. Real, sustainable street life happens when the time is right.
Paris also knows how to market itself. While it was an ancient Roman city, it spends almost none of its marketing budget on that aspect of its history. Why? Well, honestly, as much as I love the Romans, it wasn’t that great or that important of a Roman city. I laughed at the sloppy Roman masonry I saw. What do the Parisian marketing folks spend their budget on? Impressionists! The Eiffel Tower! The Mona Lisa! If I see one more freaking advertisement for riverboats or ragtime in St. Louis tourism brochures…
And let’s be honest, I visited Montmartre, which was a total tourist trap, and it was amazing. I guess I’m lightening up as I get older.
And of course, I never worried about random gun violence because it pretty much doesn’t exist in France, or anywhere else in the world.
2 Comments Add yours
Hello Chris, I find the issues you raise thought provoking. I too wish we had much more of the pedestrian friendly plazas I saw in Paris and Germany. Unfortunately, our tax money goes to the big developers for urban renewal and subsidized housing. I found this true both in Portland, Oregon( I’ve resided since 1997 as well as my home town of St. Louis). Entertainment areas can organically dissolve( ie gaslight square) as well as spring up. I would not discount the much longer history of European Cities compared the the USA as to the vibrancy today. Most US cities continue to have long unresolved racial issues. Portland, Oregon however does not have that excuse with an African America population of 3%. It’s going to be a hard sell to lower and middle class Americans to give up their cars when they see only the rich have them in more enlightened/ progressive Europe. Gun violence deserves a whole separate conversation. Sincerely, Steve
America spends over 52% of the budget on military hardware and there is little left over to improve the lives of citizens. Government regulation is very lax, even in the rare occasion when there is a more ‘liberal’ government in place, hence we are prisoners to the ‘free market’ nonsense they’ve been feeding the public ever since I can remember. The resistance to address the race issue and the lopsided economy that only favors the rich has really hampered cities, especially cities like St.Louis in this post-industrial world. I can remember in the 50’s and 60’s when St. Louis still had a pretty vibrant streetscape, the flight to the boring suburbs had not completely stripped the city of that vibrancy. The automobile was the villain and it’s promise of ‘freedom’. The irony today, of course, is that very symbol of ‘freedom’ is responsible for the degradation of the planet, one of the largest contributors to green-house gases. I noticed that in my travels in England and Scotland, that the capital cities also had several shopping districts that banned cars and it was a lovely experience. For those who love architecture, being able to observe buildings from the middle of the street affords better views that shouldn’t be wasted while driving past in a car! Thanks for this series on the wonders of Paris!