Paris' First 'Reporter'

photo: rue d'orfevres

The Rue des Orfèvres had a different name in
the 13th century.

On Foot for 30 Years

Paris:- Friday, 27. April 2001:- I have been using the term 'Internet Reporter for Paris' for quite some time now. I realize it has a ring of hyperbole to it, much as Paris itself often has. If I wake up with the grumbles, going out and being the 'Internet Reporter for Paris' usually fixes me up.

If I leave off the term 'Internet,' then 'Paris Reporter' has a long history. One man actually invented the notion - and the word 'Reporter,' and practiced it for over 30 years. I first heard about this when he was honored with a exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris in the spring of 1999.

Louis Sébastien Mercier was born in Paris on Monday, 6. June 1740 on the Quai de l'Ecole, between the Louvre and the Pont Neuf - not far from the Samaritaine water pump with its 23 bells, 'louder than those of the neighboring churches.' Widened, this is now the Quai du Louvre and the water pump and its bells are no more.

I don't remember what has made me recall Mercier again. But every Thursday afternoon I pass through his immediate neighborhood on my way to and from the Café Metropole Club, located on the Quai du Louvre in the café La Corona.

I usually leave the métro by one of its exits on the Rue de Rivoli. It used to be the one in the Rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune, but this has been closed for months.

When it was open I could take the old Rue Lantier halfway and turn towards the river on the Rue des Orfèvres and then turn right into the Rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, and followphoto: entry, theatre des dechargeurs it to the Rue des Bourdonnais before going out onto the Quai de la Mégisserie.

At other times, if I have a quarter-hour to spare, I cross the Rue de Rivoli to its north side and take any of the streets going to Les Halles, such as the Rue des Déchargeurs or Bourdonnais, up to the Rue Saint-Honoré where I can go either right or left and still be in old streets like the ones on the south side of Rivoli.

With about the same name for 700 years - the Rue des Déchargeurs.

The Rue de Rivoli is a recent invention. Poking it through disappeared a lot of streets. Now this wide street - between the Boulevard de Sébastopol and Place du Châtelet in the east, and the Rue du Louvre in the west - is in a frenzy of renovation, making itself ready to be an avenue of shopping no less - and maybe more - than the Boulevard Haussmann.

But still, by taking Sébastopol and Châtelet as the eastern boundary and Rue du Louvre and Rue de l'Amiral de Coligny as the western, the Seine as the southern and the Rue Berger by Les Halles as the northern, this is a major part of 'oldest' Paris on the right bank.

Within it, within metres of Rivoli and Samaritaine, or off the Rue Berger, or a few steps from Sébastopol or Châtelet, and the same from the Rue du Louvre - in this area where Mercier played as a boy, with the houses and buildings older than he was - traces of them remain.

So then, on Thursdays, sometimes I go west on Rivoli to see the future 'in construction,' dodge the traffic of the present - and at other times I take a longer, slower way around - in very old streets sometimes devoid of cars and trucks, sometimes lacking even people.

This would have been no good for Mercier. Paris is and was its people. The Pont Neuf was more than a bridge, it was a highway bringing the country into the city - into a scene where every class was concentrated and forced to exist elbow to elbow - the aristocrats next to the mud removers.

Mercier, writer, playwright, chose to record - to 'report' - this interaction. At the same time, he chose to ignore history, ignore topography, and concentrate on the actors of his life and time and their dramas.

Mercier's counterpart was Restif de La Bretonne and they divided Paris into day and night. Mercier took the 'day' and had the firstphoto: rue st germain l'auxerrois volumes of 'Tableau de Paris' published in 1781. In the same year he moved to Switzerland - the 'Tableau de Paris' was revolutionary in more ways than one and royal spies were more common than fleas.

In the 9th century, the rest of a Roman road - since 1450 called the Rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois.

Restif had his first book, 'La Familie Vertuese' published in 1767, which ended his already long career in the printing trades. In 1775 his 'Le Paysan Perverti, ou les Dangers de la Ville' was published - while Mercier was churning out plays such as 'La Brouette du Vinaigrier' and arguing with the Comédie-Française.

Backing up a bit, while Restif brought out 'Le Marquis de T*** ou l'Ecole de la Jeunesse' in 1771, Mercier's 'L'An 2440' was published, thus establishing him as history's first writer of 'science-fiction.'

A year before the Révolution Restif published the first twelve volumes of 'Les Nuits de Paris,' followed by two more volumes in 1789. He was still writing, and printing again, in 1792 when Mercier was elected as a national deputy to the Convention.

A year later, in January 1793, Mercier voted for a suspended sentence for Louis XVI and in April voted for the prosecution of Marat. On Wednesday, 3. October he was arrested and jailed. When Robbespierre fell in 1794, Mercier was released - he sat out the 'Terror' - and returned to his seat in the Convention.

The foreword to Mercier's 'Le Nouveau Paris' was completed in November of 1798 and the new book - for the new revolutionary age! - was published in 1799.

Four years later Restif was applying for welfare, which he received a year later, before dying in 1806. Mercier picked the right time to die in 1814 - as a Republican - in the time between the abdication of Napoléon the Emperor, and his brief restoration.

'Report No. 438 - from the 'Tableau de Paris'

"Sidewalks or pavements are absolutely unknown in the streets of the capital, despite the example of London. They are about to begin with them on one of the two sides of the new Théâtre-Française street.

"But they've made a mistake by badly placing the boundary-stones that prevent wheels from rolling on the sidewalk. Carriages and wagons carefully avoid them, but they reduce the width so much that where three carriages could easily pass abreast, now only two can.

"They made the same mistake long ago, at the narrowest part of the Quai de l'Horloge-du-Palais. Two carriages can barely pass abreast because of the boundary-stones, which have narrowed the street. How obvious, and how can they repeat such a mistake?

"The pavements in London are low and without boundary-stones. The wheels don't go up on them - their little parapet is enough to stop this.

"They've put boundary-stones with rails on both sides of the fine Rue de Tournon. With sidewalks six inches high and bordered by iron rails that hinder the carriage wheels - this givesphoto: rue sauval more room for pedestrians. For a long time the poor army has demanded their removal, to have room for marching more easily around this turbulent town.

"It is possible to put them in other places, there's enough space for it, but it should be done with solid flagstones, and not paving-blocks.

Sidewalks and no-parking poles were not a 13th century feature of today's Rue Sauval.

"Sidewalks are especially necessary on the big roads that approach the capital. In bad weather the paths beside these roads are unusable. If one walks in the road one risks getting flattened - therefore one has to walk in filthy and slippery mud. People carrying heavy loads can fall and injure themselves.

"Above all, the worst is certainly the deadly wall that dominates everything from the Saint-Denis barrier to La Chapelle. All the panniers of foodstuffs arrive by this way. Several women have broken arms and legs there. It happens all too often.

"The religious community of Saint-Lazare should, at their cost, make a good sidewalk along this wall. A gift like this for the crowd of porters who bring us vegetables of every kind, should be equal to their good work. The property would rise in value - because - and pay attention - every good done for the public has its rewards."

Today's Note No. 1 - 'Boundary-stones,' resembling low tombstones, are all over Paris. With their cousins, the waist-high metal posts, it is hard to tell how many pedestrians are injured by overlooking them. They are placed on the sidewalks, and not on the street surfaces. The 'War of Traffic' in Paris continues to this day.

Mercier ranged the streets of Paris, threaded his way through the crowds and the traffic, looked in shop windows, observed the work of artisans and noted the cries of street vendors. He set it all down in 12 volumes with 1,050 chapters. All of this was reduced to a mere 8000 pages for the 1999 exhibition.

Mercier himself was not a literary highbrow. As a 'reporter' he was the first to turn the usual catalogue of a guide into a real story of city life. He said he walked a lot to do the 'Tableauphoto: pizza, rue bourdonnais de Paris,' so he allowed himself to say he did it with leg-work.

It was called 'Tableau' because photography hadn't been invented. About 100 years later, Eugène Atget did his photos the same way - on foot.

Here we are, another 100 years later. For myself, the photos get in the way of words. On the other hand, as on this page, they allow visual information to act as an annex to the words.

Old and not so new, in the Rue Bourdonnais.

The photo of the entry to the Théâtre des Déchargeurs above saves me from having to describe it. The photo saves me from writing another 500 words. It hasn't saved me from the 'leg-work' though.

With time passing as it does, it's a wonder any of Mercier's Paris is left. But it is. Maybe it will still be here in the year 2440. Between now and then, I'll watch for it on Thursdays, between Châtelet and the Quai du Louvre.

Musée Carnavalet - Histoire de Paris, 23. Rue de Sévigné, Paris 3. Métro: Saint-Paul or Chemin-Vert. InfoTel.: 01 44 59 58 58. Open daily except Mondays, from 10:00 to 17:40.

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