Paris has always been one of the most crowded European capitals. Even as late as the nineteenth century, city leaders often acknowledged their inability to provide public safety in some areas. Indeed, even security forces would not go into some neighborhoods after dark.
Any monarch that ascended the French throne after the 1793 (when Louis XVI was beheaded) could not have doubted how dangerous a Paris mob could be. Regicide would never again be a theoretical idea.
Even before the Revolution that turned European politics upside down, French kings often lived in fear of the volatility of Paris. In fact, fear of assassination was one of Louis XIV’s reasons for turning his back on Paris in favor of his “hunting lodge” in Versailles.
The old medieval streets were narrow and crime-infested. Dissidents could easily hide in the bleak ghettos and when the spirit of Revolution flowered, these streets could easily be barricaded. Whole neighborhoods could become both fortresses and hellish urban warfare zones. For his own safety, Louis Napoleon (1808-1873; otherwise known as Napoleon III, nephew of the Bogeyman himself) knew that he would have to open the streets of the city. The wide thoroughfares could become military highways in times of trouble. They would provide straight firing lines for soldiers with superior military force. The improved system of streets would also allow for flanking barricaded revolutionaries.
While protection of the regime remained a key reason for the city planning, it wasn’t the only one. Louis was one of the most progressive European rulers of his time. He understood that much needed to be done to improve the plight of his most impoverished subjects. Clearing these antiquated places could mean improved hygiene, decreased crime, and a building program that could control Paris’ ballooning rents.
Of course, these concerns would be side benefits to creating a grand capital worthy of a great, modern nation.
Napoleon III appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann as the Prefect of the Seine which bestowed upon him complete power to execute any plans approved by the monarch. City governments answered directly to the Prefect, so no check answered his ambitious plans.
It is no accident that Haussmann described himself as ‘as a demolition artist.’ (Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Vintage Books, 2004, pp 233.) Haussmann razed neighborhoods to make way for straight, scenic boulevards that would cut through the city. The plan destroyed the ancient character of the Ile de la Citè as Haussmann cleared out the dense housing that filled the island and hemmed in Notre-Dame.
Haussmann didn’t just destroy lower class housing. He had no compunction about taking down some of the great hôtels on the Left Bank.
But his demolition was only a means to his impressive building projects. He finished the Louvre. He added over 1700 hectares of public parks. And, he replaced the city’s 15,000 oil lanterns with 32,000 gas lamps (Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Vintage Books, 2004, pp 236-37). A vastly improved sewer system banished Paris’ perennial sources of odor and disease.
Haussmann wasn’t content just to cut the open spaces into the city. He drew up building codes that would carefully control the look and design of every building that went up in the city. Long apartment buildings would stretch along the boulevards. None of them were allowed to exceed 20 meters (6 to 7 floors), eaves had to be cut at a 45 degree angle, balconies were mandated on the top floor and controlled on lower floors, and even the stonework was managed. Design elements were strictly enforced to ensure a uniformly beautiful city.
Ironically, Haussmann’s changes to the city did not accomplish it’s most important purpose: keeping the monarch safe from Revolution. Indeed, the changes actually contributed to the end of the Second Empire. Replacing lower-class housing with bourgeoisie apartments and broader streets only sharpened the scarcity of affordable housing for the poor. The slums were gone, but the increased cost of rents drove discontent.
Much less clear is Haussmann’s place in history. Is he a villain who wiped out centuries of history and contributed to the suffering of the poor or a hero for laying the framework for one of the most beautiful modern cities in the world? It is easy to see the beauty that remains, but harder to see the past that is gone forever.
(An excellent detailed treatment of the subject can be found here.)
(For those readers in Salt Lake City, you might find interest in this comparison between Haussmann’s Paris and Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City.)