Interview: Joan DeJean, Author Of 'How Paris Became Paris' The French capital wasn't always beautiful. Author Joan DeJean details the city's transformation in the 17th century, as new bridges and boulevards turned desolate terrain into the City of Light.
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When War-Torn Rubble Met Royal Imagination, 'Paris Became Paris'

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When War-Torn Rubble Met Royal Imagination, 'Paris Became Paris'

When War-Torn Rubble Met Royal Imagination, 'Paris Became Paris'

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Well, that takes you to Paris, doesn't it? It is hard to imagine when Paris was not the City of Light and romance. Yet a new book, "How Paris Became Paris," takes us back to that time to tell the story of one of the world's great urban transformations.

My colleague Renee Montagne spoke with the author.


Historian Joan DeJean writes about all things French and fashionable; the birth of luxury goods, the rise of the celebrity hair stylist - which came about during the terribly chic reign of Louis XIV. In this book, DeJean begins with an earlier king, Henry IV, who had a new vision for the French capital. In the last years of the 1500s, the long wars between Protestants and Catholics had ended. But their toll was dramatic.

JOAN DEJEAN: It's a city torn apart by warfare. Paris at that time is so desolate, so burned out, that contemporary observers talk about wolves roaming freely in the streets of the city. Paris was also a city largely empty: huge spaces of empty terrain everywhere in the city. And the new king, Henry IV, had a lot of imagination and energy.

MONTAGNE: You write that the invention of Paris began with a bridge, which was aptly named, in French, the New Bridge - Pont Neuf. It opened in 1606. Talk to us about that bridge, and why it was so special.

DEJEAN: To begin with, it was wide, 75 feet wide. The London Bridge at that point was 12 feet wide to 20 feet wide. So 75 feet wide is very, very wide. It's still the widest bridge in Paris. It was also - and this is perhaps the most amazing thing - was built without houses lining both sides. People who know, for example, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence today, still see a model of these bridges with houses, and that's how all bridges had been built - for financial reasons. The constructions paid for the bridge itself.

But Henry IV wanted a bridge without houses. So he had all the wine brought into the city of Paris; every cask brought in was taxed. So one observer said the drunkards paid for the new bridge.

MONTAGNE: And on this new bridge, what could people do that they couldn't have ever done before on a bridge like, say, London Bridge and other bridges of the time?

DEJEAN: They could do so many things, it was extraordinary. For example, on each side of the bridge, there was a raised walkway. These were the first sidewalks in the city to have been seen in modern times. So that meant that pedestrians were free to walk and to do something no one had been able to do before: simply admire the view along the river, on either side of the bridge. Also on the bridge, people - they set up little theaters, little makeshift theaters, so there would be performances on the bridge. People even set up little stalls, and they would sell things there.

And another remarkable thing: Parisians of all ranks; you see poor people on the bridge, you see bourgeois on the bridge, and you see very wealthy people - both men and women. This is really important. The city, at that time, was not a place where women circulated freely. And in Paris, beginning with that bridge, women did feel that they could come out, even come out alone, and walk on the bridge.

MONTAGNE: When we think of Paris today, one thing that comes to mind are the great tree-lined boulevards and avenues, like the Champs-Elysees. And I gather from your book that we have Louis XIV to thank for this.

DEJEAN: Yes. People today think of him as the man who gave France Versailles. However, long before Versailles was opened, Louis XIV was a young king rethinking the city of Paris. And in the 1690s, he came up with a plan that was one of the most revolutionary plans for any city of any time. He decided Paris was a walled city, as were most cities at the time; with fortifications designed to protect it from invasion.

Louis XIV issued a proclamation saying that under his rule, Paris was going to be safe from invasion, so they didn't need the walls anymore. So he and his engineers and city planners had the walls torn down. And they used the rubble and the dirt from that to make a huge boulevard. They called it The Boulevard; it's the first use of boulevard as a walkway and thoroughfare in a modern city. And it was 120 feet wide with two double rows of elm trees lining each side.

MONTAGNE: And all this pleasure in walking was extended to a sort of new thing: flirting in public.

DEJEAN: Yes. One of the things that I love about the boulevard is that on the boulevard itself, by later decades of the 17th century, foreign observers said people would stay out at night. They put lights in the trees - in those elm trees - and people would dance on the boulevard until 3 and 4 in the morning.

The boulevards also connected to Paris' new gardens, which were completely public, open to people; and in the public gardens, men and women would meet with each other and flirt, men handing women flowers. So it was like a way of which - of being in the city, and enjoying the city, that began.

MONTAGNE: We're talking here about the time of Louis XIV. And he actually had a lot to do with Paris being illuminated at night.

DEJEAN: Yes. Now, the basic reason for this was a feeling that the city was so dangerous at night that merchants were afraid, for example, at the end of the day to lock up their shops and walk home because they were afraid of being robbed in the streets. And there were lots of gangs of thieves in the streets of the city.

So they start a system of street lighting. And thousands of street lights are put up in a sort of pulley system against the walls of buildings. And people were assigned the task, in each neighborhood, of being - you had the task for a certain number of months; you were the candlelight lighter for your neighborhood, and they went around with a basket of these huge candles. And the lanterns could be lowered on the pulley system. And you changed the candle - removed the old one, put the new one in - lit it, and then raised the lantern.

MONTAGNE: We know all of this partly because people wrote home about that. And those people were tourists from other countries. How unusual was that kind of tourism - the kind that came to Paris for the fun?

DEJEAN: It's really the beginning of a new kind of tourism. There were things to do in Paris that people couldn't necessarily enjoy in other cities. And again and again, there's the same message: People will come to Paris, and they'll begin by, say, going to Notre Dame - because Notre Dame cathedral is still an obligatory visit - and then they'll say, you know, really, it was OK, an hour there was great; but I wanted to go and sit in a cafe, and then I wanted to go to the Marais and walk around, and then I wanted to go to the Place des Vosges and see what that was like.

So there's a people-watching scene that develops. It's not the standard model where people went to Rome and visited the great monuments of antiquity - period. Louis XIV said he wanted to build, and I quote, "a place dedicated to pleasure." Well, I think he did it.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's a pleasure talking to you.

DEJEAN: Thank you. I appreciate it.


GREENE: Our colleague Renee Montagne, talking to Joan DeJean. Her new book is called "How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City."

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.


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