Before dawn the other day, I stole down to the Seine and waited in darkness until the security
guard at the construction worksite had walked upstream out of sight.
Vaulting with the agility of a middle-aged guy with bad knees, I strode down the newly laid cobbled walkway below the Pont de Sully. The site is part of an ambitious project to slow or banish cars from Paris, and welcome walkers to the Seine while revitalizing the river’s UNESCO World Heritage Site banks.
I danced a silent, gleeful jig of victory; the river would soon be ours again!
Soon: In September 2012 the one-mile stretch of walkway on the Right Bank between the Canal Saint Martin and city hall is slated to be finished. In spring 2013 an even longer stretch on the Left Bank near the Musée d’Orsay will be ours. Add them to the existing Seine-side pedestrian areas and by summer of 2013 we will be able to walk across town on either bank following the river almost entirely unmolested by automobiles.
I made the victory sign, a flying “V.” I then lowered my index finger in a loving F-you salute to something directly across the Seine from where I stood: the billionaire’s townhouse on the Ile Saint Louis where for decades my arch-nemesis would hob and nob and chain-smoke with the other cigar-puffing plutocrats who ran France in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They were the bankers, financiers, real estate developers and members of the construction lobby, the charming folks who practically destroyed old Paris, starting with the Seine.
My nemesis was and remains a certain Georges Pompidou, long a minister and then president of France. Dead now, he lived on the Ile Saint Louis overlooking the Seine’s Left Bank. But he grooved a few blocks away with the top 1 percent at the Hotel Lambert, the 17th-century townhouse currently under restoration and facing me across the river. For decades the mansion was owned by the Rothschild clan and frequented by a Who’s Who of malignant “modernizers.”
Before Pompidou… [Jongkind, 1874 (Musée Malraux, Le Havre)]
Granted, I was not in Paris in 1874 when the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind set up his easel by the Seine and painted his gorgeous view of the Quai des Céléstins and the old riverside port, plus the five-arched Pont Marie. I was not old enough to remember the quays before their transformation in the late ’60s to early ’70s. How could I suffer nostalgia for something I’d never known? Easy.
My first stay in Paris as an adult was back in 1976, a few years after Pompidou made the egregiously misguided statement that “It is not the car that must adapt to Paris, but Paris that must adapt to the car.” Among Pompidou’s many destructive projects – eyesore high-rises, shopping malls, the new Forum des Halles – he was bent on turning the Seine into an expressway. He succeeded. Thirty-six years ago I stood on the Pont de Sully in this very spot and wondered what madness had seized the Parisians, so well known for their love of the past. Now I am beaming with satisfaction: live long enough and you’ll see some things get set right.
The river had always been the lifeline of the city. Along its banks since before the Romans arrived were habitations, port facilities, bridges, taverns and towpaths. One of my favorite crime novels by Georges Simenon, “Maigret et le clochard (Maigret and the Bum),” was set on the Ile Saint Louis and in the Port des Céléstins. Having read it when young, I felt I had been here.
But Pompidou wanted American-style freeways to show New York and Chicago that Paris could be just as modern. He demolished nearly all the city’s ports and poured cement embankments in their place. He ran tunnels under historic buildings in some spots and built out into the river in others. The Seine morphed into a sewer flanked by raceways.
Now… a work in progress (Photo: www.alisonharris.com)
As I tooled that dawn along the sidewalks above the worksite, peering down, I dreamed the dream of current Mayor Bertrand Delanoë: cleaning up the Seine so that it’s swimmable again – to humans and fish. That’s a few more years down the road.
While the transformation continues despite Paris’s sweltering summer heat, thousands of hikers, walkers, joggers and cyclists are swarming to the already pedestrianized sections of the Seine. They run from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower (almost) on the Right Bank and from the city’s upstream limits to the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank. It’s a route I do several times a week in one direction. I can’t wait to be able to go downstream on the Right and upstream on the Left, or the other way around.
So what’s the downside?
Critics argue that traffic will be nightmarish – precisely what the mayor wants in order to get Parisians to give up using their cars. Other naysayers are closer to the mark when they foresee noise problems for riverside neighbors, round-the-clock partying, and more work for Paris cleanup crews. The gentrification and de-naturing of what was a real, working city continues. Paris is party central, a place for tourists.
Photo: APUR/JC Choblet
True: We’ll probably never get the rough-and-ready freight facilities and riverboats back. We may never see people and horses braving the Seine’s brisk waters alongside trout and salmon. But you never know. And walkways, bars and open markets for yuppies surely have got to beat the asphalt jungle. My big question is, how well will the mayor’s yellow-brick road stand up to the ravages of climate change and ferocious flooding? Tune in next summer for an update once the job is complete.
Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the