Rising property values, intercoms, 'digicodes' take their toll


April 08, 1993|By Alix Christie | Alix Christie,Contributing Writer

PARIS -- Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the French novelist, once observed that "a city without a concierge has no history, no taste -- it's insipid like a soup without salt or pepper, a shapeless ratatouille."

Celine died 32 years ago. Lucky for him.

There were still more than 60,000 concierges in Paris back then. Now there are fewer than 20,000. After seven centuries of faithful service, the legendary caretakers, the half-harpy, half-saint doyennes of stairway and lodging, are being undone by intercoms and the ubiquitous automatic door codes, known as "le digicode."

Worse for them, the little hovels they have inhabited as part of their compensation are viewed as valuable property.

What's disappearing is the heart and soul of a building, its eyes and ears.

Charged with taking out the trash, cleaning the stairs, distributing the mail and keeping spare keys at hand, the concierges often provide innumerable other services, from marketing to walking dogs to calling the doctor when the old lady on the sixth floor falls sick.

For this, they are paid abysmally -- on average $636 a month -- and given the use of a cramped apartment, the "loge," in which the majority are expected to stay available 21 hours out of 24.

"She's wonderful -- she brings the building together," says Katharina Jalou about Carmen Ferreira, concierge in a small, elegant building in Paris' posh 16th arrondissement. "If she weren't there, it would all very quickly fall apart." Ms. Ferreira calls her lodgers "my family" and swears that she loves her job.

Nearly 80 percent of concierges are women these days. They are known as "gardiennes." More than half of them are not French, but, like Ms. Ferreira, Portuguese, with a smaller contingent of Spaniards, Africans and Asians.

It was not always so. The original concierges were male porters guarding the homes of the nobility starting in the late 13th century. Balanced on the border between public life and private wealth, they passed unremarked until the French Revolution arrived to question their allegiance -- to the nobility or to the people.

Under Napoleon, they had already gained the unsavory reputation as "pipelettes," spies whose position allowed them to function as informants to the police.

Thus was born the popular picture of the concierge as the "mother of the building, authoritarian, castrating, cantankerous, too present or not present enough, but absolutely irreplaceable."

Behind the sheer white curtains that adorn nearly every loge today, the reputation lingers and irritates. But it is founded in certain truth.

"You have to be a diplomat and a cop," explains Martine Delaunay, gardienne in a handsome 17th-century building in the exclusive 7th arrondissement. "You have to listen to everyone's little miseries, and you're supposed to see everything and be in four stairways at once."

Armed with a broom, girded in the trademark polyester housedress, few concierges complain publicly of their lot. The very precariousness of their situation, despite its historical roots, precludes it. Alone of all classes of French workers, they are the ++ only ones not covered by the minimum wage, and the only ones who automatically lose their housing if they lose their jobs.

Eugenia Dos Santos has been concierge in the Rue des Lombards in the bustling neighborhood of Les Halles for 18 years. Round and graying, Mrs. Dos Santos laments the loss of the concierges in the buildings all around her, and wonders if her turn is next.

"They talk behind my back about getting back the loge and renting it out," she says in a low whisper, looking around the stuffed two-room second-floor apartment without windows where she and her husband live.

"The digicode is getting more and more of our jobs. But you know, without a concierge, something is missing. They treat us like dogs, sometimes, and call us spies, but it's my job to know what's going on in the building -- it's my profession."

But technology is not the main culprit. Real estate speculation is. Eliminating the concierge and replacing her with a cleaning service and machines may save an owner some $900 a month, but that is not the primary incentive.

"It's the service lodging, not the salary, that owners are after," says Patrick Barbero, legal adviser to the Union for the Defense of Building Guardians. "Even a putrid loge, done up and resold, brings in a good wad of cash."

Concierges, their defenders and the Parisian press have all loudly proclaimed their utility in the five or six years since real estate speculation exploded in Paris and put infernal pressure on the loges.

The matter of safety arose.

A wave of layoffs that saw hundreds of little old ladies mercilessly evicted in 1988 was followed by several sensational murders in the 16th arrondissement in buildings which -- of course -- no longer had concierges.

Building security, cleanliness, peace of mind: these are the virtues of the concierge, everyone agreed. "A machine couldn't do all the things we do -- it's impossible," Ms. Delaunay says.

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