Saturday, February 24, 2018

on sidewalks, cities and corruption

The French philosophes made a cult out of all things English, from Newton (whose science was taught to Voltaire by his lover, the Marquise du Châtelet), Locke, the school of psychology founded by Hartley, and the threefold division of powers as envisioned by Montesquieu. So it is not surprising that D’alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedie is full of Anglophilia, even in the farther corners. For instance, in the entry entitled Trottoir, or sidewalk (which may have been added when the Encyclopedie was re-edited in 1825), we read this: “The city of London has been the one that most commodiously instituted the use of sidewalks. It owes this advantage to the almost entire reconstruction of the old part of the city that was consumed in the great fire of 1666. All the streets were retraced on a vast plan, all aligned and cut at right angles.”
This of course is a fantasy, a fanta-fact, but it floated before these dreamers who longed to be the Great Fire themselves, purging the old and crooked from the City.
In the meantime, in 1787, the administration of Paris, which was at that time headed up by Baron de Breteuil (the unfortunate who was named prime minister of France by Louis XVI a week before the storming of the Bastille), sent a letter discussing a new street template. In 1783, the administration of Paris had ruled that all streets should be 30 feet wide; but this created dissatisfaction. In new proposal before the city administration was to make all new streets 36 feet wide, with 6 feet on either side being reserved for sidewalks. That would make the vehicular area 24 feet wide. At no point in the discussion that is reproduced in L’etat de Paris en 1789 is there a discussion of what these widths referred to: the width of the standard carriage? The width of two people standing side by side on the sidewalk? This is probably related to the fact that standardization came in after the 18th century, with the rise of factories – at which point the street scheme of centuries was already in place.
The effect of these obscure discussions are with us today. I can walk down Rue Charlot, which is next to our apartment, and see exactly what the Baron de Breteuil was talking about – streets with a with of 36 feet, with two sidewalks taking up twelve of those feet. Of course, the new street provision was amended, ignored, or forgotten in the next hundred years. In all the industrialized countries, the advent of the automobile brought a new and more dangerous element into the mix of pedestrians and riders. But at no point, to my knowledge, did this lead to experiments about what would be the safest mix – how much for instance per lane would lead to minimizing accidents? How about standardizing exits and pass-throughs? And what size is optimum for pedestrian traffic flow on sidewalks?
In Paris, at least, sidewalks are plentiful (much more so than in Los Angeles, for instance), but they are crowded, bumpy, and imperfectly protected from intrusion by motorcyclists and others. The sidewalks are a part of contemporary life that is sort of hidden – while any Paris mook will know about Haussman, that famous cityscape arranger, it is the rarer urbanite who knows about the father of the Parisian sidewalk, le Comte de Chabrol, who was appointed by Napoleon as the administrator of Paris and began wracking up the “dallage” – pouring sidewalks – as part of his remit. George Sand, latter, accused him of corruption for favoring rock from Volvic – quarried, that is, from his own home territory. Pierre Estienne, in a history of Volvic, sums it up as follows:
Thus we understand the program of Chabrol-Volvic, prefect of the Seine from 1812 to 1830, for discovering other outputs for the stone – in this case, a Parisian clientel: it needed his influence, his power, to impose a stone which had neither the robustness nor the clear and war colors of Paris’s subsoil limestone. “it would have been more economic to pave paris with five france lengths of stone than bringing in the Volvic volcanic stone,” notes a skeptical contemporary. What to make of this sad stone which possesses a darkness that accentuates with age, which decays quickly with use, and should not form paving, much less sidewalks? Chabrol required a rare stubbornness in order to have his friends and most likely associates, the Brosson who were in Pont-du-Chateu, bring in the Volvic stone, cut it, deposit it on ships in the Allier that was almost unnavigable, and finally to have it carried on the canal de Briare up to Paris, and with the price of the rejects that one can only imagine, fill orders. In fact, up to 1830, F. Brusson had obtained the monopoly for supplying lava stone for the sidewalks of the capital, thanks to Chabrol’s protectrion; he even had a permanent sales office on the banks of the Saint-Martin canal.”
A city, as Balzac knew, is not just branded with corruption – corruption often literally drives the creation of the street and the sidewalk. Which in turn has unexpected consequences for the pace of the city, and its politics. I’m going to get to that topic next, I hope.

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