Paris 'Business' Slum

photo: view from the grande arche to the arc de triomphe

From the steps of the Grande Arche, you can see
the Arc de Triomphe in Paris - on a clear day.

Sore Sights To Make Eyes Weep

Paris:- Wednesday, 24. January 2001:- Today is the beginning of the Chinese New Year of the Serpent and the year 2544. The weather is perfect for it, so it will be celebrated with street parades, dragon dances and many noodles with flashing chopsticks - during this coming weekend, not today.

Since this wonderful occasion is not available for today's report, I have decided to present something completely different.

You may be under the impression that modern, stylish, high-tech France is run from 19th century townhouses - called 'hôtels' locally - in downtown Paris, but this is not the case.

Downtown Paris is reserved for 25 million annual visitors and annual parades such as Bastille Day's, for New Years Eve street parties - also annual - for the finish of the Tour de France and for lots of demonstrating strikers and other ordinary malcontents. If there's any space left over, it is used for towing away illegally-parked cars.

About three decades ago, some power types decided to place Paris' business downtown out of town so it wouldn't offend localphoto: bunker bistro, euro flags sensitivities. This happened after the 56-story Tour Montparnasse was accidently built before anyone realized what an eyesore it would be - and still is.

'Euro'-flags - to signal the Grande Arche as a Euro-information center.

Also, a new President of France came along, and he stopped the mad plans to turn the banks of the Seine into freeways - after one was half built and named after Georges Pompidou.

The President of France is a pretty powerful person. I don't know if he actually had the idea, but he must have okayed the plan to go far out west - beyond the rich bourgeois neighborhood in Neuilly - and grab parts of Puteaux and Courbevoie in Paris' light-industrial and 'red' belt, and put the business downtown there.

These two places are not even in Paris; there are in the Hauts-de-Seine department. Just in case anybody was thinking of protesting against this land-grab, the new place was called 'La Défense' - as in 'don't mess with it.' Then it was given a Paris postal code.

This allows businesses to be located, somewhat offshore, in La Défense and pretend to be in Paris on their letterheads. Visiting businessmen who have business to do in Paris must be surprised that the places they need to visit are not next to the Ritz or anywhere near the Champs-Elysées.

The don't pay their own taxi fares anyway. Local residents do, but they would be too high, so the line one métro was extended beyond Neuilly to La Défense, and a regional express rail line was run through it too so working people could live far away and travel a long time to La Défense, instead of to Paris where they'd rather go.

It must have been a very high-up decision, because the main axis of La Défense lines up with the Pyramid in the Louvre, and the Obelisk at Concorde, and the Arc de Triomphe at Etoile.

To 'anchor' it all, a huge arch - called the 'Grande Arche,' and not 'Pompidou's Brique' - was built at La Défense's westernphoto: le paname and casino restaurants end and you could see it in a clear day all the way from the Louvre, if the slight hill of the Etoile wasn't in the way and if there were any clear days.

La Défense restaurants - one named after a Panama Canal swindle.

While people go around in Paris still moaning about the awful Tour Montparnasse - unless they are lost - out at La Défense newer and uglier towers are thrown up every day and nobody gives a damn, because they are all in their very own slum and hardly anybody actually lives in it. One glass and steel tower looks pretty much like another anyway.

Nobody could live in it because it is constantly under construction. This has been going on so long that a lot of things are being reconstructed - with the result, if you thought you had the place figured out last year, this year you are lost again.

For example, the main hall for the métro and RER trains at La Défense has been under reconstruction for three years, and when I asked today if it was finished a young lady sighed and said, "In 2003," without a shred of conviction.

Like anybody else with sense, I wouldn't be in La Défense to do this report for you if I didn't have some other 'real' reason to be in the place. My directions to my destination were made with a taxi or car in mind, which are totally unrelated to how to get around on foot.

A glance at an orientation plan confirms my suspicion that the building I am seeking is too new to be on it. My map at home showed this too - a blank area with the legend, 'under construction.' And my map is only about six years old.

As an extra added missing bit to the puzzle, La Défense has outgrown itself and slopped over into parts of both Puteaux and Courbevoie that it hadn't already gobbled up.

It also looks like an attempt to reduce the slum effect is underway, with the addition of a university campus - not to mention that another area the size of the existing La Défense is to be added to the west of it. This will create an unrelieved non-stop business slum between two loops of the Seine - except for a handy cemetery right behind the Grande Arche.

I guess we should all be thankful that this is all going on outside of Paris. But what I don't understand when I am in La Défense, is in the maze of Paris, with all its odd streets going every which way, no place is really hard to find.

Out at La Défense there are whole fields of concrete rimmed with huge towers and a lot of these have names onphoto: quartre temps shopping mall them. But the 'name' people have dreamed up schemes - that are the reverse of the old Gauls tearing down the direction signs so the Romans would get lost and go to Germany.

Just as I began to wonder just who I might ask - I spotted a robot info-pole. Without much hope I tapped in 'Tour Cedre' and hit the print-out button.

Concrete, steel, glass, reflections - and a grungy green mall for office workers.

Here is the message it made for me - "You are at Le Parvis, at the entry to the CNIT, La Défense 4. You want to go to Le Cedre, avenue de l'Arche, Courbevoie." 'Aha,' I thought, 'The damn thing works - if it knows where I am it might not even be stupid!'

The message continues, "On your right follow the black arrows indicating 'La Défense 7.' Then turn to your right and follow the black arrows to the 'Tour Sequoia.' You will arrive in front of the 'Thumb' monument. Go left and take the footbridge and follow the black arrows to 'Pole Universitaire.' The neighborhood of the 'Arche' is on the right of the 'Pole Universitaire Leonard de Vinci.'"

It does not explicitly say that Le Cedre building is in this 'Arche' neighborhood, but what else can I assume?

Leonardo de Vinci? Out here? Here is a name so wrong it is slander.

The directions could have said, 'Look around the northwest corner of the CNIT building 10 metres away, and go to the ceder-colored building.'

But this wouldn't have worked at night, just like the 'black arrows' won't. Also the direction message didn't mention the house-sized blocks of marble after the footbridge, that were set up as an obstacle course and to obscure the black arrows - all architecturally-designed of course.

The people I managed to meet after doing through the Tour Cedre's security maze, past blast barriers and around tank traps asked me if I had any trouble following the directions they'd sent me for taxis and cars.

Luckily, when the meeting was over, thousands of tired office workers were heading in the general direction of the nearest métro - where else would they be going? - and all I had to do was travel in their pack, for safety.

Calling La Défense a 'business slum' might seem a bit strong. But slums are where people don't live well, and in all the times I've visited La Défense I haven't 'lived well' in it.

Nobody has ever made a disaster movie to match it. If itphoto: carrousel, grande arche was used as the site for one, it wouldn't have to be demolished by spectacular explosions and helicopter collisions. As a disaster, it stands on its own.

The carrousel is a permanent La Défense fixture - but kids are not.

You can visit La Défense for the price of a round-trip métro ride. I would suggest doing this if you are in any doubt about what makes Paris great - because of all urban places in the world, La Défense is probably the most anti-Paris.

If you can say that Paris is worth saving pretty much as it is - it is handy to have La Défense so close, to see what Paris is being saved from. Of course, life is short, and there are better uses for métro tickets.

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