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Streets of Paris

On February 22 and 23, 1848, riots broke out in the streets of Paris. Students and radical republicans, agitated by the failure of King Louis Philippe to extend the franchise and to end political corruption joined forces with discontented workers to built barricades in the poorest quarters of the city, those overpopulated areas inhabited by the lower classes. The fighters, most of them unemployed construction workers, built their barricades with iron grillwork, paving stones, overturned carriages and furniture. They also cut down the trees lining the streets.

Between 1827 and 1849 the streets of Paris saw barricades eight times, always in the city's eastern half. Three times these barricades had been a prelude to revolution. But it had always been impossible to predict the agitators' next moves because in 1848 no accurate map of the streets existed. In fact more than sixty percent of the streets of present-day Paris were built after 1853 and followed a plan drawn by the Emperor of the Second French Empire, Napoleon III. As early as 1849, although not yet emperor, he ordered the triangulation of Paris so that an accurate map of the streets could be drawn. The result was a map that took more than one year to complete. With a scale of 1/5000 and a measurement of fifteen feet, the map revealed that the streets were no more than a tangled maze.

For centuries Paris had grown with no plan and by 1850 the population was over one million, having doubled since 1800. By 1848 the streets were dark, evil-smelling, polluted with noise and smoke, and appalling to the senses. Moreover, the center of Paris, inhumanely overpopulated, was a labyrinth of alley-like passages with hundreds of narrow, airless routes clogged with heavy wagon, carriage, horse and pedestrian traffic. So serious was the traffic problem that the streets were a menace for pedestrians, many were run over and frequently they died. Here rains formed deadly pools infected with the organic matter of fermented excreta. Pedestrians often fell into one of the numerous "city matter" cesspools that formed overnight.

The majority of these sunless passages still, in 1848, as in Medieval times, depended on streams in the gutters to carry rain, the dregs of stagnant water and garbage, raw sewerage and all other miasmic accumulations to the nearest, hopelessly inadequate underground sewer. More than a quarter of the city's streets had no water conduits. Rain caused the streets' gutters to overflow into ground level buildings, courtyards and cellars. Small wonder that Paris had the highest death rate in the country. Only one house in five had iron pipes and running water and this luxury, limited to the ground floor, seldom produced clean drinking water. Only the upper economic groups could afford to have drinking water delivered.

Along with countless rats, fleas and the diseases they carried, the cholera epidemic also came from the streets. Between 1848 and 1849 cholera killed more than 19,000 Parisians. Without doubt, in 1848, Paris was one of the filthiest, most pestilential and savagely overcrowded cities in the world, and the streets were a major part of the problem. But even though successive administrations had made efforts to build a new street here, enlarge a passageway there, and carve out a few new promenades, it was obvious that given the city's rate of growth, the streets would only become worse. When Napoleon III drew the plan for his rebuilding of the city, he planned his boulevards straight through these streets, alleys and lanes.

By 1870 the city, rebuilt, had the sunniest, most beautiful and functional streets ever seen, the results copied throughout the world. For example, in Mexico, in 1860, the Emperor Maximillian opened the Paseo de la Reforma, an imitation of the Champs Elysées. This gave the New World the first of numerous copies of Napoleon III's boulevards.

Later, amid the wonders of the new Paris, the writer Maxime du Camp (1822-1894) expressed the wish that a fairy's wand could bring back for a moment the Paris of the time of the 1848 February revolution. He felt that a cry of horror would fill the air and people would wonder how so vain a race as the Parisians could have lived in such pestilent dens, how they could have walked the horrible labyrinth of loathsome alleys, the rue de la Mortellerie, for example, where the cholera had been bred, the black and muddy by-ways which lay between the Palais Royal and the Tuileries, the filthy and dangerous lanes of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the ugly waste bordered by quinquettes about the Arc de Triomphe.

It is impossible to imagine Paris without tree-lined boulevards, great circle crossings and the numerous, convenient bridges. The new white stone boulevards sometimes stretched for three miles. Lined with tall, newly planted thirty-year-old trees, they led straight to the center of Paris and opened up hundreds of miserable, cramped areas. Between 1848 and 1870 the streets of Paris became a new phenomenon in the history of architecture. The then radical architectural ideas still set an example for modern city planners.

A few historians, however, declare that during the Second Empire Paris became only an anti-riot city, that the purpose of the long, open vistas and wide boulevards was to put down a revolt. It is true, Paris had been able to boast of seventeen years without riots and barricades. Yet, the new avenues and boulevards stretched even into the suburbs where counter-revolutionary measures were not needed. A further bit of evidence that the boulevards were not built to discourage barricades is found in the Mémoires of the Duc de Persigny. In his discussion of the building principles of the transformation of Paris, he includes no mention of strategic considerations.

Sacrificing the problems of housing to the problems of the streets was also criticized. But given the stages of industrial and social development that existed in 1848, not even the beginnings of a solution to housing in large, overpopulated cities existed. In fact, these same problems and many similar situations still remain all over the world.

Finally, it must be remembered that between 1848 and 1870 the streets of Paris, planned and constructed so perfectly, are nearly the same today. Very few changes had to be made until the middle of the twentieth-century.

Irene Earls


Haussmann, Georges-Eugène. Mémoires. Vols. I, II, III. Paris: Victor Havard, 1893.

Lavedan, Pierre. Histoire de Paris. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

Pinkney, David. Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Poete, Marcel. La Transformation de Paris sous le Second Empire. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale service photographique, département des imprimes.

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