Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Urine and Early Forms of Gentrification

A couple of days ago, I went to the Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. In the 1860s, Marville was hired by the city of Paris to document the massive transformation of Paris implemented at that time by Emperor Napoleon III and his urban planner Baron George-Eugene Haussmann. Haussmann created broad avenues, restored public monuments, and built new uniform, larger buildings, replacing, in the words of the exhibit panels, the "labyrinthine" working-class neighborhoods of old Paris with "a cleaner, straighter, and altogether grander version of itself." In the urban studies literature, the Haussmannization of Paris is considered one of the early forms of gentrification. Why did the National Gallery of Art show this exhibit today in Washington, DC? 

A urinal in the New Paris, 1876. Photo from NPR/NGA
The exhibit makes no reference to DC, but there are interesting similarities with gentrification here today. The exhibit repeats the 1860s view that old Paris was "notoriously filthy and frequently full of raw sewage," using the same legitimating language as today's pro-gentrification commentators. Marville's photos are filled with dry, immaculate streets, at times with a small amount of water flowing by the curb. The only place that urine seems somewhat filthy is in a photo of the new public urinals (photo to the left) installed by Haussmann, suggesting that urine in the streets is not the real issue. As I discussed in "Smells like Gentrification," when one talks about dirt or, in this case, urine and filth, one is actually arguing that the social order has been disrupted and must be reestablished, possibly in some new way. The perception of urine smells reflects a desire to 'purify' the city. The reference to urine and, in more extreme cases, sewage is a long-running strategy to legitimate displacement.

The exhibit makes clear that Haussmann removed the working class from the center of Paris and left them to live in shantytowns in the outskirts of the city -- a perfect case of gentrification. The exhibit does not make clear that this displacement was part of an ongoing war. Haussmann worked for the relatively new Emperor of France, who sought to destroy the social world that supported the 1848 revolution and who implemented a wide range of authoritarian measures to restore order, sweetened with new sewage systems, new buildings, and "modernization" in general. Haussmann said, "We ripped open the belly of old Paris, the neighborhood of revolt and barricades, and cut a large opening through the almost impenetrable maze of alleys, piece by piece..." 

In the urban studies literature, this destructive displacement involves "revanchism." The wonderfully insightful CUNY geographer Neil Smith described the new attitude of cities and professionals moving to cities in the 1990s, a vengeful ("revanchist") attitude against those who were perceived as destroying the city or even destroying "civilization": African Americans, the working class, the poor, recent immigrants, and so on: “The rallying cry of the revanchist city might well be: ‘Who lost the city? And on whom is revenge to be exacted?’” In Paris, the working class had destroyed the city in the eyes of Emperor Napoleon III, Haussmann, and others. In DC, this revanchism continues today, as demonstrated by a Ward 6 neighbor living near Hopkins public housing who commented on my blog:
Those who own homes near these projects have learned that public policy, well-wishes, and policing have utterly failed to solve the noise, drugs, and crime, so the only thing left is removal of the epicenters of them: the projects themselves. Contrary to what nostalgic non-residents seem to think, this has only somewhat to do with a desire to raise property values and a lot to do with decent homeowners who would like to live decently. 
When the culture of a city - not a racial group, a city - changes as DC's has in the past 20 years, then fighting to preserve a clearly outdated way of life is reactionary and anti-progressive; Populism with rose-colored glasses firmly in place. Sorry, but that's a valid way of looking at it. The city is moving in another direction and as painful as that is to see, sometimes, it's not appropriate to try to hold back the tide through flimsy sociological assertions that fly in the face of visible, tangible evidence. 
As in Haussmann's vision of Paris, for my neighbor certain people do not have a place in the "modern," "progressive" city. Colonial officials too saw themselves as modern and bringing progress, in the face of those they declared "primitive" and living either deep in the past or even outside of time itself. Time is political. 

Where once different classes and, in many cities, races, lived in relatively close proximity, the divided city emerges as certain classes and races are displaced to the periphery. Away from the new, modern Paris, the working class lived in the shantytowns that sprung up in the 1860s and 1870s (see photo below).
"Top of the rue Champlain," 1877-1878. Photo from NPR/NGA
On one of the exhibit panels, someone from 1870 remarked that Paris became two cities: "quite different and hostile: the city of luxury, surrounded, besieged by the city of misery." The exhibition panels discuss the isolation and loss felt by those displaced. Furthermore, in this newly non-democratic environment, one contemporary wrote, "Paris no longer had citizens, only inhabitants." 

Considering DC's embrace of historic preservation and new urbanism's embrace of Jane Jacobs, as well as popular calls for deeper democracy, it is strange that the National Gallery's wall panels seem to side with Haussmann, Emperor Napoleon III, and homogenizing planning. In his review of this exhibit in the Post, Philip Kennecott also seeks out some other, more critical politics in Marville's photos: "the viewer will encounter photographs that are simply too fine to be the hackwork of a man making work to order, stuffing the archives with data or dutifully documenting the march of progress." I agree. As I discussed in "Why does Jane Jacobs matter?," the history of DC has demonstrated that homogenizing construction can easily work together with historical preservation in surprising and gentrifying ways. 


  1. Haussman's renovations of Paris have far more in common with Urban Renewal than they do with gentrification.

  2. I think this kind of urban renewal = gentrification in that it expels poor and working people from their homes to take their homes or the land they were built on for the prosperous.


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