da Costa Meyer, Esther. Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality, 1852–1870. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.
Reviewed by Sun-Young Park
A student of Second Empire Paris and modern urbanism faces no shortage of monographs to guide them in their investigations. From David Pinkney’s Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (1958), to Jeanne Gaillard’s Paris, la ville: 1852-1870 (1977), to David P. Jordan’s Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann (1995) and David Harvey’s Paris, Capital of Modernity (2003), scholars have revisited this riveting moment in urban history time and again, providing updated interpretations and foregrounding different figures in the narrative. Set against this formidable collection, Esther da Costa Meyer’s magisterial volume offers a sweeping analysis of Paris’s modernization that both assesses existing scholarship and offers poignant new perspectives.
Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality, 1852–1870 begins with a cast of characters and their influences. The first chapter investigates precedents for the Second Empire’s urban planning practices, placing it in a longer trajectory of plans d’ensemble that addressed the capital as a totality. Precedents included the 1795 Republican Plan des Artistes, with its concern for public space, hygiene, and circulation, and utopian socialist schemes of the 1840s that aimed to address social unrest and inequity through urban networks. Da Costa Meyer demonstrates how similar interests in political stability and economic expediency shaped Emperor Napoleon III and his prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s plan d’ensemble for Paris.
The remaining chapters focus on different aspects of the development collectively referred to as Haussmannization. For each area, the author foregrounds tensions between the planners’ rationalizing ambitions on the one hand, and the messier social and environmental realities on the other. Chapter 2, “Requiem,” addresses the process and results of slum clearance, those initial acts of demolition that made room for the new. As the title suggests, da Costa Meyer mourns the subsequent ruptures in cultural memory, historical continuities, and spatial interactions. She is careful not to over-romanticize early nineteenth-century working-class life, but invites the reader not to lose sight of the disorienting street-level experience for ordinary people, so often overshadowed by the urban planner’s privileging of the bird’s-eye view. Chapter 3 turns to the new network of streets and boulevards that followed, focusing on their sensorial dimensions as well as their social ramifications. For example, the sounds of labor were gradually driven out of the city center, while artificial lighting and street furniture were prioritized in the wealthier, western districts.
The next three chapters interrogate the Second Empire’s efforts to control the environment and its resources. Chapter 4 begins with the importance of waterways—from the Seine to the various canals—to Paris’s economy, and ends with engineer Eugène Belgrand’s plans to supply the city with adequate clean water through an aqueduct system. Here again, da Costa Meyer highlights the unequal social distribution of water resulting from the commodification of what was once a public resource. Water brings us to the underground in Chapter 5, and the Second Empire’s conquest and modernization of its sewers, quarries, catacombs, and cemeteries. In an era of relentless subterranean rationalization, da Costa Meyer suggests that discoveries in paleontology and geology helped re-enchant nature even as they implied the disempowerment of humanity in the longue durée. Chapter 6 then examines the new aesthetics of engineered nature on display in the Second Empire’s range of public parks, gardens, and squares. Despite glaring class distinctions in the geography and design of these green spaces, da Costa Meyer argues that they ultimately attracted a diversity of uses and users.
The final chapter considers life on the urban periphery, as the annexation of the banlieues integrated their largely working-class population into the central administration. In examining this process of “internal colonization,” da Costa Meyer highlights the constant movement of workers between center and periphery, refuting the notion of a strict social and spatial dichotomy. As in David Harvey’s Paris, Capital of Modernity, she concludes with the Commune of 1871 as emblematic of the class tensions aggravated by Haussmannization.
Dividing Paris has two overarching aims that pervade each chapter. First, da Costa Meyer aims to give authorial credit to where credit is due. While histories of Second Empire urbanism have tended to vacillate between criticizing and lionizing Haussmann as its main protagonist, she takes note of the key roles played by Napoleon III and the Siméon committee, which initially laid out a multifaceted agenda for urban renewal at the emperor’s request in 1853. For example, the author points out Napoleon III’s efforts, albeit failed, to address the problem of workers’ housing—a matter of little interest to his prefect. Meanwhile, the Siméon committee’s work anticipated most of the improvement schemes Haussmann later took credit for, including the renovated street network and provision of public gardens.
Da Costa Meyer is also intent on recognizing lesser known or unacknowledged contributors who are frequently left out of the story. These include Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, the horticulturist of modest background often slighted by his more powerful colleagues, and the unknown (because unnamed) engineers who must have assisted Jean-Charles-Adolphe Alphand, head of the Service des Promenades et des Plantations, in his work. These recognitions are important in demystifying the narrative of great men enacting willful change.
Second, da Costa Meyer gives careful attention to how urban renewal processes affected classed and gendered experiences of the city. Most chapters culminate with the social inequities that were deepened with each area of urban improvement, without discounting the resilience and creativity of those impacted. For example, we learn of single, working women’s particular difficulties in finding affordable housing, as well as the persistence of washerwomen’s work on the Seine, even as it was gradually cleared of labor. As the author urges early on in the book, we are led to considerations of occupation, inhabitation, and appropriation from diverse perspectives.
Richly illustrated and elegantly written, Dividing Paris weaves insights from older and recent scholarship on Second Empire Paris while presenting thoughtful provocations that reframe our understanding of this era and its legacy. The author’s stated interest in examining the ways in which “colonial modernity was responsible for many aspects of the newly refurbished capital” gets somewhat lost in the overall narrative, but points to avenues for further exploration. Da Costa Meyer has produced an indispensable volume for scholars of modern France and modern urbanism.
Sun-Young Park is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is a scholar of nineteenth-century France who studies the intersections of architectural, urban, and medical history. She is the author of Ideals of the Body: Architecture, Urbanism, and Hygiene in Postrevolutionary Paris (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), and is currently working on a book project titled The Architecture of Disability in Modern France. Dr. Park received a BA from Princeton University, and an MArch and PhD from Harvard University.
Featured image (at top): Aerial view of Paris with the Arc de Triomphe on the left, showing the grand scale of Haussmannian boulevards. Alphonse Liébert, “Aerial View of Paris, France, from Balloon” (1889), Wikimedia Commons.