The Boulevard Voltaire is late-Haussmann, scored through the city when the financial edifice of the Second Empire was already leaning out into the void. Zola’s rapacious speculator, Saccard, had long built his flamboyant residency on the Park Monceau, tucked behind one of the first great axes of the modern city and source of his fortune. In Eastern Paris, things would be done faster, cheaper. Time is running out, debt rising. The cut is superficial and the buildings more modest in dimension. Either side of the thoroughfare the old physiognomies of the city remain visible, workshops, two-story buildings, and between them more recent ad hoc interventions, often festooned with satellite dishes, external manifestations of intimate attachments to broadcasting from elsewhere.
Slipping off the beam of the boulevard, down the rue de Charonne, I’m closer to the street, to the people on it, the doorways that punctuate it. The pavements are narrow, the traffic chaotic, I have to dodge and detach, shop windows are pulling at me with their enticing things, reserving small, mysterious spaces where I think I’d be happy. If I go north they’ll be marginally cheaper, and then significantly cheaper. Before long there’ll be a halal butcher, merguez in triangular reefs, bookshops with solemn volumes in languages I can’t read, emporiums with multicoloured plastic goods stacked high. But I go south, towards the left bank, another site of Arab Paris, my eye snagging as I weave on eclectic mosaics of books I also can’t read, or won’t read. And what do I know of their eclecticism, if truth be told? Little more than I do of their sober counterparts up the road, though my ignorance is more easily assuaged. I can push the door, make the bell ring, stroke their peachy skins.
But I press on, skirting the eyesore under tarpaulin where the butt of Ile Saint Louis has collapsed under internal remodelling. My objective is the Institut du Monde Arabe, Jean Nouvel’s first declaration on the Parisian landscape and homage to the long reach of French orientalism built as the post-petrol-crisis generation was gathering to march as Beurs, or French-born Arabs who declared themselves in back-slang while others opted for the more efficacious expressions of riots and tags. The Institut was also the first gesture to open up the eastern flank of the left bank where unfinished business was decomposing under rail infrastructure. Now the banks of the Seine are lined with plate-glass buildings all the way to the new national library, also built on the shaky foundations of alluvial lands and the festering remains of black-market and Nazi extortions. I’m met by a giant photograph for the current exhibition. A head-scarfed woman is sitting cross-legged with a leather-bound book in her hands. I can’t tell if the scarf covers her face too because she’s holding the book directly in front of it. She’s also levitating in a void. I can levitate too, if I want, raised with a hiss to the 9th floor in one of the eight elevators that zip past one another in the chasm behind the lattice steelwork of the building’s light-sensitive façade. Up there I look downriver, towards the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, neither dominating the city from the heights of Montmartre, nor held under the sway of its grandeur. Here my eye follows the flow of the river that washes all away, eventually.
It’s less than two weeks since Paris was ripped into by automatic weapons. Behind me lies the Latin Quarter, the Jussieu campus, the Collège de France. Study is still largely free in France and many degree courses have no prior selection process. The College de France is a public institution, its professors often have dual attachments to prestigious US institutions, but their teaching at the Collège is open to all, if you can get a seat. Ahead of me is the area where most students now live, long since priced out of the Latin Quarter. The 11th arrondissement which I have just crossed is the densest in the capital, twice as dense as the Parisian average. 66% of housing consists in only one or two rooms; only 13% has four or more rooms. The area is divided between 30% intellectual professions and 50% workers or blue-collar employees. Social housing constitutes 12%, under the 36% of its neighbouring 19th arrondissement, but way above where Saccard chose to live where it is 1.5%. Since Paris introduced rent control in the summer of 2015, a studio on the rue de Charonne can’t cost more than 25€ a square metre, per month, and in the 11th arrondissement 65% of studios are between 12 and 20 square metres.
These figures hang in front of me as I float above the river, a mantra that I am perhaps also fixing obstinately before my eyes. This is the Paris that was on the terrasses north and south of the Boulevard Voltaire and in the Bataclan on November 13th. Of twenty or so mosques in central Paris, twelve are in the area of the attacks. These worlds live in very close, often modest quarters and the ground has been pulled out from under us all.
Back down at street level and up another road of enchanting possibilities, I come to Présence Africaine, a bookshop and hub of internationalist and anti-colonialist expression since the late 1940s. The lights are on, a few people are standing reading. The door tinkles as I step in. I’ll browse for a while, my good fortune to have time for this, but it is no peace.