Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Whose streets?

Ever since I've arrived back home, I've been trying to articulate something about why the streets of Paris felt so comfortable to me. Part of it has to do with the fact that they seemed very well used and very well looked after. My first Sunday in Paris was Pentecost Sunday, which I was told was still a big enough deal in France that some things might be closed. (As it turned out, the only closure I ran into was the crypt at Notre Dame.) Still, as I walked through my neighborhood at around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, I saw what looked like city employees out sweeping and hosing down the streets. I saw plenty of shopkeepers or other staff keeping the sidewalk clean in front of a shop. Cigarette smoke was about the only thing I encountered that I found really unpleasant, and there wasn't as much of that on the streets as I had feared. (I think smoking is no longer permitted in some indoor venues, for which I was thankful.) I had read about problems with dog poop on the sidewalk, but I saw very little of that. I don't remember seeing much litter either, other than cigarette butts and sometimes Métro tickets.

People were generally polite; I was very rarely on a street that had no other pedestrians, and as heavily traveled as the streets were, everyone had to be polite to keep the experience from being miserable. What I felt was a subtle but distinct sense that the streets belonged to the people who were walking on them, and it was important that they be pleasant places.

In some parts of the US—not everywhere, but it's not uncommon—public areas seem like something you have to get through to make it from one enclave to another, a sort of no-man's-land that might or might not be well-tended or pleasant. An enclave might be home, an office, a store, or a mall: someplace that belongs to a distinct entity. Public spaces often feel like an afterthought. Theoretically they belong to all of us, but here that sometimes seems to translate into belonging to no one. Even in Bloomington, which is not a dirty city, you run into trash, especially fast-food trash, on the sidewalks. Several summers ago, it took me months to find out who was responsible for a path that I used to walk to work every day; trees and shrubs were growing over the path, making parts of it impassable and pushing pedestrians into tall grass bordering a shallow ditch along a busy street. Eventually someone figured out who the owner was and told him or her to fix the problem, which he or she did, in what struck me as the most begrudging way possible (someone showed up with a back hoe to trim the shrubbery, which of course looked for weeks like...well, shrubbery trimmed with a back hoe).

Maybe property owners in Paris have the opposite complaints, about official entities who are forever hounding them to keep their property from infringing on public comfort; I don't want to romanticize the city just because I know it so little. All I can really say is that because so many people walked and took the subway, and because parks or green spaces were everywhere, and because most people seemed to treat public streets and even subway stations as worthy of a certain amount of respect, the experience of being out and about felt very good.

I'm reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, by John Baxter, and was struck by the following passage. He is describing the ease with which Parisians navigate the streets compared to new visitors:
Well, this is their habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that's how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn't exist here. People don't step out of their front door into their car, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall. No Parisian drives around Paris. A few cycle. Others take the métro or a bus, but most walk. Paris belongs to its piétons—the pedestrians. One naturally goes à pied—on foot. 
I have to disagree about no Parisian driving; I'm pretty sure a lot of those motorcycles I saw belonged to Parisians, and surely not all the cars belong to visitors. But still, this echoes a lot of the things I'd been mulling over and trying to articulate. It's no wonder the place felt like home to me; any place that belongs to its pedestrians is bound to!

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