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“Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards”
immeuble_coupe

The history of Paris can be observed through the evolution of its frontiers. Yesterday the early Gaul, in search of protection against invaders, settled in the Ile de la Cité which frontiers were naturally drawn by the Seine river. Today the boulevard périphérique, a ring road completed in 1973 with a traffic exceeding one million vehicles a day cuts Paris intra muros from its suburbs.

The function of the walls that surrounded Paris has evolved over time. They were initially designed to protect the city from external agressions. Louis XIV, who left Paris for Versailles, replaced Charles V walls with boulevards in 1670.

In 1784 a new barrier appeared: the wall of the Farmers-General. Unlike its predecessors, it was was not designed to protect Paris from invaders but to collect taxes. It was very unpopular and a song went on “le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant“. It was destroyed during the Revolution but restored by Napoleon.

The gates that punctuated the barriers have always attracted various traffickers of more or less legal goods, smugglers, prostitutes and all sorts of shady businessmen. The French picturesque expression dubbing prostitutes “vénus de barrières” conjures up these forgotten times. Today one may still observe working girls on the boulevards des Maréchaux, or elegant transvestites hailing cars around the périph’.

It is striking to see how the Parisians often assimilate their own identity with the limits of their city and insist on their difference with the “banlieusards“.

The natural trend of the city has been to expand and to assimilate new districts. Victor Hugo wrote amazing pages that suggest how this natural and irresistible process took place as if the city was possessed by some sort of inexhaustible vitality.


Peu à peu, le flot des maisons, toujours poussé du cœur de la ville au dehors, déborde, ronge, use et efface cette enceinte. Philippe-Auguste lui fait une nouvelle digue. Il emprisonne Paris dans une chaîne circulaire de grosses tours, hautes et solides. Pendant plus d’un siècle, les maisons se pressent, s’accumulent et haussent leur niveau dans ce bassin comme l’eau dans un réservoir. Elles commencent à devenir profondes, elles mettent étages sur étages, elles montent les unes sur les autres, elles jaillissent en hauteur comme toute sève comprimée, et c’est à qui passera la tête par-dessus ses voisines pour avoir un peu d’air. La rue de plus en plus se creuse et se rétrécit ; toute place se comble et disparaît. Les maisons enfin sautent par-dessus le mur de Philippe-Auguste, et s’éparpillent joyeusement dans la plaine, sans ordre et tout de travers, comme des échappées.

Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards, overflows, devours, wears away, and effaces this wall. Philip Augustus makes a new dike for it. He imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For the period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile story upon story; they mount upon each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbors, for the sake of getting a little air. The street glows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philip Augustus, and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order, and all askew, like runaways.

Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1831
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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