Lucy Sante: The Dark Side of the City of Light

The Belgian-born American author shot to fame in 1991 with Low Life, a well-informed exploration of the New York City underground in the 19th century. Twenty-five years on, this subculture specialist has delved into the dark side of Paris in her latest book, the extremely well-documented The Other Paris. Offering a wealth of anecdotes, photos, paintings, and illustrations, Lucy Sante (formerly Luc Sante) tells the story of the “other” Paris: the city of street urchins, crooks, Communards, washerwomen, anarchists and prostitutes. A dissenting, tough, resourceful hotbed. A Paris from a forgotten time.
Shacks near Porte de Clignancourt, north of Paris, 1928. © Agence Meurisse/Bibliothèque Nationale de France

France-Amérique: You use many sources, but one of the most striking is the journalism of the Bonneff brothers, who chronicled the ailments of the working class in the early 20th century before being completely forgotten. How do you find your material?

Lucy Sante: For this book, I began with my own bookshelves – I already had nearly a hundred pertinent items. For example, I had long thought of writing something on the Commune and the anarchists in the decades that followed it, so I had a great deal of literary material on those topics. And I had most of Balzac and Hugo and Zola. Books led me to other books, my interest in photography and the graphic arts led me to magazines, and so on. I don’t even remember now what led me to Léon and Maurice Bonneff – maybe Lucien Descaves, whose work itself is pretty unknown now. I discovered him when I found a copy of his 1901 novel about the Commune, La Colonne (alas, not very good), at the Strand bookstore in New York City.

Much of your book revolves around the bygone world of Les Halles, Paris’ famous wholesale market. Do you see its destruction as the greatest loss the city ever endured?

When Paris lost Les Halles, it lost its direct link to agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry, as well as much of its close relationship with the seasons. Les Halles was both wholesale and retail – Parisians could buy directly from producers (some produce can still be obtained at neighborhood markets, but nowhere on the same scale). The poor lost a steady source of pickup jobs and discarded but decent food. Paris lost a culture, in fact: the language and the sounds of the commerce, the bistros that served the trade, and the network of supporting businesses. It also lost a great visual display which changed slightly every day. And of course it lost the amazing cast-iron pavilions designed by Victor Baltard. It’s incredible to think that all but one of them were melted down. Even if the market itself had to go for reasons of scale and the growth of the trucking industry, you’d think they would have at least saved those!

Street musicians, Paris, ca. 1898-99. © Eugène Atget/Bibliothèque Nationale de France
A game stall at Les Halles, Paris, 1923. © Agence Rol/Bibliothèque Nationale de France

You state that Paris, like other cities, has lost its “intimacy.” How did it disappear?

The intimacy of cities first began to erode with the rise of the automobile. It took the best part of a century for kids to stop playing in the streets, but that time has arrived. Dogs don’t wander around off their leashes anymore, either. The sense of neighborhood still exists, but as a shadow of its former self. Neoliberal economics dictates the need for growth, and that means that shopkeepers can no longer make a living, but have to scramble for profits. The neighborhood bistros, the laundries, the cobblers, the small hardware stores, and all the other pillars of the community are fading away as a result. And television, followed by the Internet, has conspired to keep people indoors. At one time it would have been unthinkable not to know everyone who lived in your building, but now it’s routine.

Your generation of intellectuals seems to be the last to have a fascination for Paris. Why has the city lost its spell on Americans?

First of all, the romance of Bohemia, with young artists living picturesque if impoverished lives, has completely vanished. And then, for reasons that are not unrelated, French culture in general has become pretty dry and uninteresting over the past thirty or forty years.There are of course individual writers and filmmakers and musicians who are very good, but the last time anyone noticed a hive of activity in French culture, it was in the fairly deadly world of academic theory, some thirty years ago. The New Wave filmmakers are very old or dead; there are no more Surrealists and hardly any Situationists. All of those congeries happened in large part because they met in certain neighborhoods, congregated daily in certain cafés, planned their activities around certain local institutions – and those things have become largely impossible, for the reasons cited above. And whatever anyone says, social media meetings cannot substitute for those in flesh and blood. You can’t have a viable movement if its members are scattered all over the Ile-de-France region. And so there’s nothing actual and living going on there for Americans to aspire to and emulate.

What are your favorite places in Paris?

I always eat at Polidor (my other hangout, Chartier, steadily evolves toward the condition of a tourist trap). I always go to the flea market at Porte de Vanves. I always go to the movies on Rue des Ecoles. I always go to one of the cemeteries, on every visit. I always buy books at Delamain (many of my other favorite bookstores have succumbed). I always walk through the arcades and the garden of the Palais-Royal and the Jardin des Plantes (stopping in to see the skeletal menagerie at the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée). I always stroll down Rue Mouffetard and up Rue de Ménilmontant and along Rue Saint-Antoine. I almost always visit the Carnavalet Museum. I always spend time looking down at the river. Some things will never change.

The Other Paris
by Lucy Sante, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Interview published in the March 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.