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How money ruined New York and Paris in the mid-twentieth century


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Belgian-born, US-based writer Luc Sante is perhaps best known for his book Low Life, an exploration of the seedier side of New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when it was a much poorer, but freer, place than it is today. In his new book The Other Paris, Sante gives the same treatment to the French capital. He spoke to The Guardian about how an influx of property development starting in the mid-twentieth century radically changed both cities:

Sante’s undying relish for little guys thinking and acting big, for texture and tonality, for the black comedies and rough-edged circus of city life is present in every page of The Other Paris; it’s complemented by a political critique of the ways in which Paris – like New York, like so many global cities – has been tamed by capitalism. Its final paragraph reads: “The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay. Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artefact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death.”

How does he feel about that passage in the wake of the recent Paris attacks? “A lot of Americans have the impression that Paris is the capital of liberalism,” Sante declares. “While there’s something to that, there’s also a force of almost equal strength – the French right – which has been around since the reaction to the French Revolution. France has come awfully close to fascism on numerous occasions and it can happen at any time. But fascism is also what happens when you sacrifice everything for safety and security. When people are so terrified … they are going to be tempted to cash in all their chips: that’s when you lose the flavour of life.

“I lived in New York when crime was in the streets much more than today. What you gonna do? Stay at home? I did a lot of walking alone in the middle of the night in those years. Goodness knows I could have been killed. But I was not about to sacrifice my freedom for the experience of not worrying about unknown forces.”

Sante, never one for slogans or the pieties of the left or right, pauses for a moment. “Look, I wanted to render the experience of a working class which is submerged now in Paris. The people in my book are now mostly in housing projects. The actual streets are all gone. Terrorism may last some time and of course it is tragic …”

Another pause. “My book is a kind of love letter to the city as it was and before it got overtaken by money. Money, for me, may not immediately kill people in the way terrorism does, but it does certainly change the fabric of daily life in much deeper and more insidious ways. The terrorist may be defeated in 50 or 20 or 10 years, but money is going to be much harder to defeat.”

Image: A jazz band performs in Paris in the 1950s. Via the Guardian.