"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hipsters In Paris–There Goes The Neighborhood

Thomas Chatterton Williams writes in the New York Times (11.10.13) about his neighborhood of Pigalle which, in the Belle Époque, was a vibrant, brass-and-mahogany area of bars, cafes, and cabarets; but which, after many transformations, has become hipster heaven.  Instead of the quartier which gave Paris its reputation for worldly decadence, a sophisticated, worldly, anything-goes-sexuality, it is now the home to American organic and San Francisco trendy cool.  Williams doesn’t like it at all.

THE northern edge of Paris Ninth Arrondissement, near the Place Pigalle, was once known as “la Nouvelle-Athènes,” both for the neo-Classical flourishes of its most graceful blocks and for the creative geniuses who swept in to inhabit them.

This was the original “gay Paree” on display in Edouard Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère”,  a Bohemia of near-mythical proportions in which every tier of society — from the well heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided in the district’s cafes, theaters and cabarets. It was the Paris of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Moreau and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Edouard Manet's 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère'

Without a doubt, this old-fashioned Paris has an allure. It’s European sophistication and sexual raciness enticed 19th century Americans who were still buttoned up, religiously conservative, and very straitlaced.

Tourist buses still idle in front of the Moulin Rouge, the musical revues at the Folies-Bergères are standing room only, and the great brasseries of Paris are still the places to eat for anyone wanting to glimpse life of the Belle-Époque. 

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a tribute and a paean to the luxury and elegance of the era, and he set the movie in locales that still look like they did over 100 years ago.

                                                                            Maxim’s Paris

The great brasseries of Paris are little changed from 1880 and still serve the same fare – oysters, fruits de mer, choucroute, filet de sole, steack frites, and sautéed calves liver in Madeira. 

                                                         Brasserie Bofinger Paris

I am a big fan of La Belle Époque, but I have avoided Pigalle ever since my early trips to Paris in the 60s.  By that time the area was tacky, smarmy, and uninviting.  It was a neighborhood of cheap hookers, pimps, and drunks.  Gone was any vestige of Old World racy sophistication. It was the French version of Times Square – sex shops, drug addicts, cheap restaurants, XXX movies, and trash.

Pigalle has apparently changed little since the Sixties, and if anything it has gotten worse as Williams notes.

When my wife and I first moved here in 2011, I wasn’t sure what to make of living in the middle of a functioning red-light district. Our neighborhood, though safe and well on its way to gentrification, remained funky in the original sense of the term. In addition to cigarette smoke and baking bread, there was the whiff of dirt and sex in the air. It took a while for me to get used to the tap-tapping on windows — or hissing and tongue clicking from open doors — that greeted me as I passed the bars on my way to fill a prescription or buy a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé.

I have never quite gotten used to the transsexual hookers who traipse the Boulevard de Clichy outside the area’s various sex shops and with whom I must share the carnivalesque sidewalk on my way in and out of the post office. Frankly, they make me uncomfortable.

So Williams is caught between a rock and a hard place.  He finds American hipster cool an unwelcome invasion into the old Paris; but he is nervous and uncomfortable with the modern-day version of racy sexuality – the importuning, aggressive, almost hostile intrusion of the street.

He finally sides with the smarmy, perhaps because he chose Pigalle to live out of the many other quartiers of the city – sunken costs, or a justification for his mistake – but really because it is an affirmation of the raw, the abrasive, and the intrusive.  Living an insular, predictable, and bourgeois life is not the way to go.  We need to have our eyes opened by the unfamiliar, the strange, even the weird.

We should be grateful to be jolted from our anesthetized routines..[for] too much of modern urban life revolves around never feeling less than fully at ease; about having even the minutest of experiences tailored to a set of increasingly demanding and homogeneous tastes — from the properly sourced coffee grounds that make the morning’s flat white to the laboriously considered iPod soundtracks we rely on to cancel the world’s noise.

The logical extension is to “curate” our urban spaces like style blogs or Pinterest boards representing a single, self-satisfied and extremely sheltered expression of middle- and upper-middle-class sensibility.

He saves his real vitriol for “the banal globalization of hipster good taste, the same pleasant and invisible force that puts kale frittata, steel-cut oats and burrata salad on brunch tables from Stockholm to San Francisco.”

Anti-bourgeois sentiments among the well-educated young is as American as apple pie.  It is a rite of passage. Whether we are children of the Sixties who scoffed at our parents’ Depression-bound pessimism and risk-averse Babbitt reflexes; or the 30-somethings crowd who sniff at the gated communities, lack of diversity, and lawyer-ready life of their own parents, we have all laughed at their rube mentality, social conservatism, and lack of intellectual curiosity.

Those of us who are well-educated and well-travelled, regardless of generation, search out life in the raw.  It is visceral (as opposed to intellectual), romantic (as opposed to practical), and exciting.  This poetic vision is of course not new, of course. Baudelaire was one of the exponents of La Nostalgie de la Boue – a celebration of urban life with all its crowds, filth, and abrasiveness. 

"Nostalgie de la boue" means ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures considered "lower" than oneself, the romanticization of the faraway primitive which is also the equivalent of the lower class close to home.Only through poetry, said Baudelaire, can one express the beauty and even sublimity of the streets. (P.A.R.I Online Publications 2001).

A certain distaste for the utterly pristine. Dislike of clipped borders and tidy gardens (unless with fantastical topiary and toads). Shudder at acres of marble. Distrust of the cut and dried. Preference for the marred rather than the unmarked. Liking for books with turned down corners and jottings in the margin. Fascination with old yellowed postcards with tea stains on them. (George Szirtes)

The desire for transformative experiences soon fades.  We soon learn that we no longer need to radicalize our lives to keep perspective fresh.  Transvestite Pigalle hookers are not so important any more.  A trip through the Deep South is enough for the eyes of a Connecticut Yankee.  The head of a housewife from Dubuque will spin the first time she visits New York City.

The romanticization of the past can be an obstacle to enhanced perception and feeling.  As the main character in Midnight in Paris realizes, the past always seems better than the present unless you can free yourself from its tyranny.

For years I visited only the old, traditional arrondissements of Paris.  My friend lived in the tony, aristocratic 7th, and she rarely took me out of bounds.  Finally, after many years, I went off on my own and walked every one of the city’s 20 quartiers. There I saw the Paris my traditional, conservative friend wanted to ignore – a Paris of Bangladeshis, Indians, Moroccans, Arabs, Africans, and Haitians; a Paris which had changed without the De La Rochefoucaulds of the 7th ever noticing.  There were bazaars, street fairs, Malian buskers, varied ethnic food, and music. It wouldn’t be long before Paris resembled the United States – not the hipster lands of Brooklyn or San Francisco transplanted to Pigalle, but the wild socio-cultural circus of America. Chateau Rouge was indeed Little Africa.

In all my balades, however, I avoided the Rue du Paradis, the Rue St. Denis and other cheap red light districts of the city.  Pigalle was not the new Paris but a Paris simply perverted and twisted into a gross caricature of the old. 

I have tried to keep my eyes wide open my whole life.  What I saw on my many trips to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean over many decades was never a caricature or a distortion of anything. It was real and everyday – people going to work, drawing water, cutting cane, smoking hobbly-bobblies, or eating rice and beans. 

Back in the Sixties as a young man, I cruised the streets of Bombay at night, whacked out on Bombay Black, uppers, and booze.  I smoked dope with street sadhus, wandered the Cages, slept on the beach with Andheri fishermen. I couldn’t get enough of la nostalgie de la boue.

Now I am less fascinated by what places are than what they are becoming.  Cities are more dynamic than ever, and there are more fundamental changes occurring than ever before.  I enjoy a good plate of fines de claires at Brasserie Flo just like in the old days; but I do not lament the passing of old ways.

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