Dear city of light
Staying in Paris for a more extended period than I have found possible in recent years, I have been reflecting on the character of this city and have traced out some of its more striking features. It has always been for me a place of enchantments. A good many years ago, when I was sixteen or seventeen years of age, I was on my first visit abroad staying with an aunt in England. I wanted very much to go to Paris; more than that, I wanted to fly across the channel in one of the rather insubstantial airplanes of that period. My aunt would not let me consider such a rash act without permission from my family.
So I cabled home, and presently received the reply: "Young man, spread your wings." I thought that was pretty generous, and my first visit to Paris was the more enjoyable because of the parental liberation.
Later I knew Paris at various stages of my live, the city seeming to reveal new aspects according to the occasion. I remember it after the war, cold and blackened after years of the German occupation, the quays along the river, today so noisy with the flood of traffic, in those days, silent except for voices and footfalls. I came here with my French wife soon after the Liberation to introduce our first child to its grandparents. Now we have returned -- our son in his turn having taken a French bride -- to be present for the birth of ourm first grandchild.
We have been staying in Montmartre, having made with friends an exchange of our place in New York for theirs in this romantic, memory-haunted quarter of Paris. (The system of exchange, incidentally, can work very well, and seems adapted to the circumstances of today's living).Around us are many reminders of the village existence that artists found here before World War I: the diminutive streets and houses, the steep stairs, the famous vineyard still growing incongruously in the urban airs. But the tourists, even in November, come in great numbers to remind us that this is now a picturesque relic; while further afield there is ample evidence that Paris, for better or worse, is becoming one with the modern world.
The light still falls exquisitely upon the public monuments and the open spaces of the historic city. On a more practical level, the subway system, infiltrating like a system of veins the subterranean areas, still runs quietly, with trains coming at the expected intervals. But I hate to say it: vandalism and graffiti begin to make themselves apparent. The sidewalks, above on the streets, are not only often barred to pedestrians by parked cars, but are not as clean as we like to remember them. Three million or so inhabitants of the central city are accompanied on their daily walks by at least two million dogs, causing a problem with which, for some reason, the rational and authoritative minds of the French officials seem unable to cope.
In more permanent ways, modernity encroaches. Skyscrapers begin to intrude upon the horizon -- now an isolated tower as at Montparnasse, now grouped in haphazard configurations as at the Front de Seinem and La Defensem . They seem to show the worst features of our American buildings, without the originality or grace one expects of French architects.Only a change in administration saved the Left Bank at Notre Dame from being devastated by a super-highway. Elsewhere the old domain of lovers, philosophers and fishermen has been taken over by the ubiquitous automobile.
Yet one must not grow sentimental. The Paris that so many of us have loved was essentially a beautiful anachronism, the remnants of a nineteenth century metropolis. In the past it has adapted itself to change -- to widened streets, a larger building scale, to the coming of the tramway and the autobus. The church of the Sacre Coeur, that lies framed in the view before me as I write, may seem with its bulbous domes and stark white surfaces hopelessly at odds with the Parisian style; yet it is a beloved landmark. Of the original project for the Eiffel Tower, it was said by a committee of French architects that "the odious shadow of this column of tin" would spread like a blot of ink over Paris. . .
Every great city is in constant change, an amalgam of old and new, of things being born and things passing away. This dear Paris, this city of light, may yet emerge from the tensions of the present with its personality confirmed and with unexpected beauties revealed.