Metropolis on the Seine

October 22, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

PARIS — Paris.--The stately 19th-century apartment houses have front doors with security key pads. You hit five keys in correct sequence to get in.

So people need more than street and phone numbers in their address books. They have the security code of friends whom they visit.

Many folks have not just a telephone but a Minitel, a micro-computer hooked to the phone that comes free. Phone books are obsolete. You use the Minitel, free, to get directory assistance.

The catch is that then you use it to buy train tickets and make theater reservations and pay for that usage. Folks hooked on the Minitel pay dearly for the addiction.

These high-tech innovations go on in a 19th-century city fabric, thanks to a powerful central government that understands that preservation and innovation go hand-in-hand and that the city is the symbol of the nation's pride and power.

Paris is all handsome white buildings with white shutters going up six or seven stories, usually without elevators. You trudge up six flights to your Minitel.

Dogs run amok. Stepping on their remains is a leading urban peril. Legions of blue-uniformed Paris counterparts to Baltimore's former hokeymen, armed with green plastic brooms, sweep up the poop. No one expects the dog owner to do it.

While American cities do away with low-productivity, labor-intensive, municipal work that keeps the semi-skilled employed (so as to afford the high-salaried, no-productivity analysts who decided they must go), Paris deploys them en masse.

Some keep the water flowing down street gutters at all hours, which ostensibly keeps the town cleaner. Parisians litter the gutters with candy wrappers, confident of creating work for worthy folk. Paris has a water bill that American taxpayers could not begin to imagine.

In ordinary residential neighborhoods, such as east of Republique where I am staying, modern buildings are shoe-horned into the spaces and height-lines of former houses whose owners were fortunate enough to have them fall down.

Farther out in a poorer neighborhood like Menilmontant, the modern developments are larger and more obtrusive, without being an improvement.

The architectural preservation compels an antiquated lifestyle. Streets like the Rue Oberkampf near my hotel are lined with tiny and wonderful specialty shops, with your breakfast pastries or wine or fruits and vegetables or meat or fish, since the buildings provide no room for modern retailing. Outdoor markets abound in boulevards and squares.

Parisians accept living in this museum if they want to remain here. It creates the atmosphere and character for which Paris is famous, but also keeps shopping a time-consuming, un-liberated business. In outer suburbs, you can find supermarkets larger than ours.

Where the 19th-century fabric is brutally violated, the otherwise protective government did it. As with the new opera at Bastille, the at-once marvelous and hideous Pompidou Center, the American-designed glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre.

The French government was not content to see world creative art leadership move out. Rather, it invested grandiosely in museums to keep its eminence in tourism and prestige. This worked.

The Louvre is no longer a museum but a vast national industry with trendy shopping mall attached. When it costs $8 to get in before 3 p.m., the days of the 20-minute visit to commune with one object are over. Trudge you must. Anything less than two hours is wasteful.

The Musee d'Orsay is a brilliant transformation of an abandoned railroad station to house the art of the 19th century that was long neglected in favor of Impressionism. Sort of like the Baltimore Museum of Art's investment in Andy Warhol and his contemporaries, in reverse. As an afterthought, the Impressionists were thrown in. The result is much mediocre (and fine) art majestically displayed, and famous great paintings nastily crowded together up above.

In inner Baltimore, the underclass pushes the bourgeoisie out. In Paris, vice versa. In each case, national policies produce results.

So even a brief social and touristic visit here teaches something about American cities. Urban rot, decay, flight and the priorities that produce them are not the only way to run a country. They are choices that American society has made.

Wisely or not, France chose otherwise.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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