Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Glory of Squalor?

Roger Cohen lamented in the New York Times yesterday that Paris has lost “the glory of its squalor”:
Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.
While I’ll agree that much of Paris has become frighteningly exclusive, and that the very word “parigot” has been all but forgotten, I think Cohen is in dangerous territory when he starts to get all misty-eyed about squalor. Of course, for the tourist, squalor can be colorful, exotic, and even exciting. It can make great photos and induce us to think plenty of deep thoughts. But I’d venture to guess that for the people in those photos, it’s a different kettle of fish (if, indeed, there are any fish in the kettle).

Interestingly, Cohen starts his piece with observations on his recent visit to Havana. Yes, it’s true, there is something to be learned from a society that has completely missed the Internet revolution, and is not inundated with crass commercialism. Perhaps the lack of high tech in Havana has preserved the Cubans living there from the constant buzz of cyber-connection and the headaches that go with it. But it’s also what has kept Cubans living in poverty while the rest of the world lurches ahead. I’m no hard-core capitalist, mind you, but I’m sure that most Havanites would be willing to live with a few billboards if it meant that they could feed their children properly and occasionally buy them a new pair of shoes.

There is no glory in squalor. Ask anyone living in it. Parisians, just like New Yorkers, have the right to clean teeth and clean lungs, as well as decent jobs and toilet seats. There is a danger in tourism whereby instead of learning from what we are seeing, we objectify it, and make it into a neat decoration for our scrap books. That the working class has been all but banished from the French capital is clearly a tragedy. But the fact that the standard of living has risen dramatically in France over the last twenty or thirty years is most certainly not.


Starman said...

Perhaps the loss of squalor has Mr. Cohen feeling less superior. Tragic.

Heather said...

Couldn't agree more. Excellent post.

Adam said...

Didn't he make it to Belleville? There are plenty of 'working class' people here, what ever that label means these days. I reckon he could probably find a toilet without a seat too!

Margie Rynn said...

I know, aside from everything else, he didn't even get it right. There are still plenty of old men drinking white wine in the morning and cafés with trash on the floor underneath the zinc counter. But he probably doesn't venture very far out of the upscale neighborhoods.