Putting the 'Grands' Back Into Boulevards

photo: boulevard montmartre

A winter view of part of the Grands Boulevards.

Modest Paris Plan to Make Part of City Centre
More Congenial for Residents and Visitors

Paris:- Wednesday, 19. February 1997:- Since coming to Paris some time ago, a great many new and huge monuments have sprung up, without me taking much notice them until they were there. Long before my time, the Tour Eiffel was thrown up and it's been a hard act to top.

'Not paying attention' is a lame excuse for not noticing the Grande Arche at La Défense before it was complete - one day I was at La Défense and voilà there it was, as if it had moved in overnight.

Now I am paying attention. (Now that really big new things seem to be out of the question.) After the renovation of the Champs-Elysées over the past few years, the City ofphoto: theatre des varieties Paris has announced its intention to 'upgrade' the Grands Boulevards, and work will start this year.

With true investigative spirit, here I am at métro Rue Montmartre, to capture the essence of what is; to see the treasures that will be preserved and to try and imagine the possible value of renovation.

Jean-Paul Belmondo's antique but operating Théâtre des Variétés.

Unfortunately, despite the best 'investigative' intentions; the corner of the Faubourg, the Rue and the boulevard Montmartre/ boulevard Poissonniére, is nearer to the middle of the project than the beginning - whether it is the Place de la République in the east or at the Madeleine in the west.

In all there is a string of 11 of these boulevards, totalling 4.5 kilometres in length, and today I will be looking at only a short stretch on account of sheer laziness - from this métro stop at Rue Montmartre to the Opéra, by way of the boulevard des Italiens. This part dates to 1676 and was the location of the old Charles V wall.

This corner where the métro is, is lively. Small bursts of traffic are popping over the slight hump, east at Bonne Nouvelle. Although 'Grands' is part of the name, the traffic is no more than four abreast, because there are the usual buses and taxis in the curb lanes, and the usual double-parked delivery vans. Traffic comes up the rue to the boulevard, turns left or goes straight through and up the faubourg Montmartre.

From where the boulevard Haussmann begins, and Montmartre turns slightly into boulevard des Italiens; where the rue de Richelieu crosses them all - the city is thinking of reverting all of the eastern 'Grand' Boulevards into two-way traffic again. A 1910 photo shows two way traffic on the boulevard des Italiens, composed mostly of double-decker buses and horse-drawn cabs and a few cars. For some reason, there is also a low-flying monoplane overhead.

On the sidewalk where I have emerged from the métro, there is a newspaper kiosk, that fills half of it. Construction workers are dismantling a building; sliding the interior of it down a chute into a dumpster, also on the sidewalk. There are loud noises and the kiosk lady needs ear-plugs.

Further along, there are trees poking through their grilles in the pavement. I thought they were all Plane trees - 'Platanes' - but there are also Catapla - 'Indian Bean' - and Sophoras, a tree originating in the orient. These should be of fairly uniform height with their leaves, later in the year, and throw good shade on both sidewalks.

Also right here, are the entries to the passages: Jouffroy on the north side, with the Musée Grévin in the Hôtel Ronceray and the Panoramas on the south side. Both are fairly intact, and peering into them from the boulevard reminds me of bazaars in Istanbul.

There was a magic age, when Parisians first had middle-class jobs and better than working-class clothes, when they had discretionary money to spend, and time to spend it in - these desires created the need for clean places to walk raised from the mud in safety away from the unpredictable traffic of horses, slipping on the cobbles.

In this age, Parisians flooded the grand boulevards, the passages - meeting places of the 'Incroyables'- these dandies - and the 'Merveilleuses' - extravagantly dressed men as well as ladies, during the period of the Directoire at the end of the 18th century.

Dress was not the only thing extravagant - when Monsieur Thayer's Passage des Panoramas opened in 1800, its entry was flanked by two towers, each 17 metres in diameter. The 20-metre high towers were covered in paintings, about 100 metres long by 20 high. The first two showed a panoramic view photo: le grand taverne of Paris as seen from the highest tower in the Tuleries, and a scene of the English retreating from Toulon. This attracted a large crowd to the passage and a third, bigger, tower was added.

These towers launched a 'ramamania' throughout Paris - géoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, diaphanoramas, navaloramas and other diverse cycloramas. Despite the dismantling of the towers in 1831, the passage was enlarged and grew more popular than ever.

The present-day entry to the Grand Taverne.

Next door to the passage, is the Théâtre des Variétés. On 8. June 1806, Napoléon decreed that there be no more than eight theatres in the city, and the Variétés was one of them. But it was at the Palais-Royal and had to find someplace else.

Its director, Monsieur Montansier, rented the gardens of the Hôtel de Montmorency-Luxembourg, called since 1800, Panorama Gardens, from Mr. Thayer and the 1,600-seat theatre was built and inaugurated on 24. June 1807. The first show was a vaudeville by Désaugiers, the 'Panorama de Momus.' 'La Belle Hélène' by Offenbach premiered here on 13. December 1864.

More recently, since Monday, 21. October 1996, Jean-Paul Belmondo has been playing the lead in 'La Puce à l'Oreille,' which is a piece in the Variétés tradition. Mr. Belmondo owns a part or all of the theatre, where Napoléon laughed a little, Louis XVIII laughed loudly, Charles X smiled and Louis-Philippe laughed, also resoundingly.

Another way to keep warm was to go directly across the street and into the Passage Jouffroy, which was built in 1835, and was Paris' first heated passage. The hotel built on top on it was called Le Grand Hôtel de la Terrace Jouffroy in 1847 and is now named Hôtel Ronceray.

The hotel is to the left of the passage, and the wax works of the Musée Grévin is to the right. Cartoonist, famous for his album 'Les Parisiennes' and his designs in the 'Journal Amusant,' Alfred Grévin opened his museum on 10. January 1882 and it hasn't closed since.

So far, I am still within about 50 metres of the métro exit, and there is still the rest of the boulevard Montmartre to explore - not to mention the remaining 4,450 metres of the 'Grands Boulevards.'

This particular stretch had a number of newspaper offices and other hotels, whist clubs, shops and cafés; with the final building at the Richelieu corner, being at various times an Italian icephoto: musee grevin cream parlor, a hotel, a gambling house and a newspaper office. Balzac was evicted by his tailor-landlord on 1. April 1842.

This is where the boulevard des Italiens starts, and like the rest of the 'Grands Boulevards' only got sidewalks after 1830. The present Opéra-Comique used be the Théâtre des Italiens, and that is where the present name of the boulevard comes from.

The Grévin Wax Museum has more than just wax.

Along here were the famous cafés; the 'Grand-Balcon,' the 'Café Rich,' the 'Café Anglais,' the 'Café Hardy,' the 'Maison Dorée,' the 'Tortini' and the 'Café de Paris.' The 'Bains Chinois' rounded off the reputation of the number 'one' boulevard.

Unlike the passages, the Variétés and the Musée Grévin, these cafés are all gone; replaced by less lustrous duplicates. The Opéra-Comique remains in place - as does the Théâtre du Vaudeville, inaugurated in 1869, and now occupied by the Paramount cinema. Strictly speaking, this is the beginning of the boulevard des Capucines as the boulevard des Italiens ends at the Chaussée d'Antin. The Paramount has been here since 1927.

Of lesser interest, unless you need some cash, are the banks. The main Crédit Lyonnais building is on the south side, and the slightly sinister-looking Banque National de Paris is on the north and extends through to the boulevard Haussmann.

The truly grand time of the boulevards was in the second half of the last century; there was an incredible profusion of theatres, cafes, large shops, clubs, private mansions - all of which changed owners rapidly; came into and went out of fashion, where sold, bought, re-built - where journals and newspapers were published, where all of the day's famous authors gathered, as well as most of the 'romantic' figures and characters of the time. There were the 'nouveau riche' and this is where they played.

Since the fifties in this century - the songs of Yves Montand - they have lost interest as the sidewalks have become crowded with waffle-wagons and spin-the-wheel stands, the terraces of restaurants edge towards the gutters, and fast-food restos come and go.

The passages are still intact; the Variétés is open, playing and looks as new as it did in 1807. These represent perhaps one percent of the total activity once taking place within 500 metres of the Montmartre intersection. The city's modest plan will cause no overnight resurrection of all that was.

Without spending much of its own money, the city wants to preservephoto: metro richelieu drouot what original architecture there is, regularize the width of the sidewalks and upgrade the street furniture, and bring order to the chaos of signs. Paris did this sort of thing with Champs-Elysées only a few years ago and turned spirits around there - it is all of a piece now without being overly uniform.

This is what the city thinks is 'clutter' - so the non-conformist kiosk will have to go.

Reading about the past activity of the Grands Boulevards sets me to dreaming, puts my imagination back to the middle of the last century. This lasts all of a few minutes - it is not going to come back. Nobody has time for it.

A reader has just written, announcing a "squeeze-weekend' visit to Paris. Modern jet aircraft make this possible; sitting beside the pool in California, how easy it is to actually think of spending the weekend in Paris. And going ahead and doing it takes no more than a phone call to get it started.

The reason I can dream at all; the first time I came it took three days on a train and twelve days at sea. With that behind me, trying to get back on time for the Monday office was out of the question. In fact, from the time I first got off the ship in Europe, it only took me another 12 years to get to Paris.

I guess then, if somebody does open a huge café on the Grands Boulevards - one that I can sort of use as an alternate living room - I might become a customer. I've got time to spare, but beside the unwillingly unemployed, I don't know who else has.

Except for minor corrections, the above text is the original. The layout has been changed and the photos have been reformatted.

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