Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Restoring Urban Authenticity or Reincarnating Classism?

High-class Parisians don’t want to come to the Champs-Élysées [...] It’s not prestigious; it’s not pleasant. The people who come are very common, very ordinary, very cheap. They come for a kebab sandwich and a five-euro T-shirt.

--Serge Ghnassia, owner of the fur shop Milady

If nothing else, the French are honest. The Times has an interesting if predictable article about a backlash embodied by the remark of this shop owner against the Champs-Élysées, the crowded boulevard between the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde in one of Paris's toniest districts. Like Chicago's Michigan Avenue or London's Oxford Street, Champs-Élysées attracts the rabble of tourists and commoners with its megastores and fast food restaurants, not to mention its central location to many Paris sites.

I can definitely get behind Paris's efforts to change the composition of the famous avenue, especially because its astronomic rents are only affordable to international chains; however, I don't think the more regarded Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré nearby merits high praise, as our blunt fur shop owner seems to suggest. After all, that smaller street is also mobbed on weekends, though its ridiculously decadent shops are only accessible to the richest of the rich (or those who are willing to go into massive debt for a thousand dollar handbag). So I guess what I'm trying to say is that, while Champs-Élysées is somewhat unpleasant nowadays and while it would be nice to see many more establishments unique to Paris on the boulevard, it will be no more special if it is dotted with high end boutiques--most of them chains as well. Developed societies need to get past this discourse that pits mass consumer goods against the high end, because it reeks of class snobbery and condescension and it avoids aspects of reality.

Underlying some of that resentment is that groups of young people descend on the Champs-Élysées from the working-class immigrant suburbs on weekend nights. The police keep a close watch on them, monitoring their moves.

But some old-timers praise the avenue as a sort of democratic — and free — tourist destination for the underprivileged. “The kids coming from the suburbs are coming from the suburbs to look, to see, to escape the places where they live,” [theater owner Jean-Jacques] Mr. Schpoliansky said. “We are a multiethnic country, and that reality is reflected on our street.”

Instead, the focus should be on preserving the charm and uniqueness of our cities while still constructively addressing the fact that globalization brings apparent benefits like lower priced goods, benefits that cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand by mocking upper-class interests. To some extent, Champs-Élysées has done this better than its counterparts in other cities, what with the tree-lined street; wide, pedestrian friendly walks, and upkeep of the historic buildings that house its stores.

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