Paris upside down: the city under Haussmann’s renovations


By the middle of the 19-th century, Paris was overcrowded, dark and even dangerous and hazardous. It was not the city we all know today.

The French social reformer, Victor Considerant noted: “Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the year.

Additionally, Voltaire in the 18-th century noted that the markets in the French capitals were “established in narrow streets, showing off their filthiness, spreading infection and causing continuing disorders.” He also wrote that the Louvre was admirable, “but it was hidden behind buildings worthy of the Goths and Vandals.

The Rue St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s

Before renovations took place, some parts of the central area had remained almost the same since the Middle Age. Also, population density in this central area of Paris became extremely high, compared to the rest of the city. Overpopulation was the reason why cholera and similar diseases spread so rapidly. Such epidemics ravaged the city in several occasion, and in 1848 they were even the cause of death for five percent of the inhabitants in the central neighborhoods. Traffic was another issue, a mess, where wagons, carriages, and carts could barely move through the narrow streets. Last but not least, the city center was a boiling pot of discontent and revolutions.

Despite ambitious plans to revive and refresh the center of Paris, which were speculated for many years, nothing significant happened until Napoleon III came to power and granted authority to Haussmann, probably the Perfect of the Seine.

Napoleon III instructed Haussmann to bring air and light to the center of the city, to unify the different neighborhoods with boulevards, and to make the city more beautiful. The avenue de l’Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898)

Today’s Paris was built under the reign of Napoleon III (who held power after conducting a coup d’etat) and the work of Haussmann. Renovations of Paris hailed as old, dark, overcrowded, dangerous, and unhealthy. They started in 1853 and continued until 1927, although Hausmann was dismissed in the course. Three phases of renovation took place, and the first one began in 1853, concentrating on the completion of a great cross in the city center.

The cross enabled easier commute from east to west along the rue de Rivoli and rue Saint-Antoine, and north-south by building two new boulevards, Strasbourg and Sébastopol. These first projects were fast finished as Paris was to host the Universal Exposition of 1855. The city got its first luxurious hotel, Grand Hôtel du Louvre, that was to house the Imperial guests at the prominent event.

The rue du Jardinet on the Left Bank, demolished by Haussmann to make room for the Boulevard Saint Germain


The Rue historical in the old “quartier des Arcis,” demolished during the extension of the Rue de Rivoli

Haussmann enjoyed great freedom under Napoleon III as he wasn’t obliged to report to the parliament which was less influential back then. The emperor took care of the finances, and despite money were flowing from the Parliament, he further hired investors and bankers to raise funds for reconstruction of the streets and boulevards. In return, investors were given rights to develop real estates along the route they financed.

Slowly, the ancient, dark and narrow streets of old Paris started to disappear from the map. By the end of the first phase, Haussman had completed almost 10,000 meters of new boulevards. The official parliamentary report of 1859 states that the first renovation stage of Paris had “brought air, light, and healthiness and poured easier circulation in a labyrinth that was regularly blocked and impenetrable.”

The Bievre river was used to dump the waste from the tanneries of Paris into the Seine

Also, thousands of workers were employed, and Parisians were pleased by the initial results. Renovations proceeded to the second stage, from 1859 until 1867. This time, the island in the midst of Seine transformed into an enormous construction site and was completely changed. For instance, the square in front the Notre Dame was widened, and the spire of the Cathedral which was pulled down during the Revolution was now restored.

Though approved by the public, some criticism was inevitable. Haussman was particularly hailed for taking large parts of the iconic Jardin du Luxembourg to make space for the present-day Boulevard Raspail, and for its connection with the boulevard Saint-Michel.

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