Sewers? Yes, and a worthy subject it is. For in the grand sweep of French history, the sewers of Paris hold a privileged position.
For centuries, thiefs and subversives used the sewers as hiding places and staging areas. During the Nazi Occupation, the Germans used the sewers for air-raid shelters, and during the liberation of Paris, the Resistance used branches of the sewers as command posts and first-aid stations.
With such a distinguished past, the sewers often have been celebrated in French literature and film; in "Les Miserables," Victor Hugo even deemed the Paris sewers an ideal prism through which to ponder the human condition:
"The history of men is reflected in the history of sewers," Hugo wrote. "Crime, intelligence, social protest, freedom of conscience, thought, theft, all that human laws prosecuted or have prosecuted was hidden in this pit. . . ."
Following Hugo's lead, author Donald Reid has come out with a fascinating book, "Paris Sewers and Sewermen." Reid is a history professor at the University of North Carolina, and in his search for what makes France France and Paris Paris, no one can accuse him of not digging beneath the surface.
In an earlier book, "The Miners of Decazeville," Reid focused on one mining community and through it examined the political, economic and social forces shaping industrial France. His new book is both an informative social history of the Paris sewers and an insightful study of the guiding vision of the city planners who helped make Paris into the urban model it is today.
As Reid makes clear, the French conceive of Paris not just as a city but as a vast political, economic, social and technological creation, a living work of art. Participatory art. Where else in the world do city planners and the general public so readily come to blows over prestigious urban projects? In the 1970s, the flash-point was the ultra-modern Pompidou Arts Center. In the '80s, it was President Francois Mitterrand's decision to place a futurist glass pyramid right in The Louvre's Napoleonic courtyard.
As heated as these controversies were, they pale beside the civic outrage that Reid describes during earlier phases of the creation of Paris, when a city garbage policy known as "\o7 Tout a la rue\f7 ," meaning throw everything into the street, produced mountains of waste: "Each \o7 quartier\f7 created dumps outside the city walls. Some achieved such heights that in the reign of Louis XIII they had to be incorporated within the city fortifications for fear that enemies would use them for gun emplacements during a siege."
Long before Paris became known as the City of Light, decaying refuse, cesspools and a sewer system that was little more than open gutters earned Paris the nickname the City of Mud. All sorts of stench, pestilence and plague emerged from this untamed flood of waste, which in turn generated civic unrest and periodic threats to the political and social order. In a detail that would delight city planners and sanitation engineers, Reid describes the city's efforts to bring all its human and organic waste under control, first by means of a central city dump and then by the development of a city-wide sewer system flushing sewage down-stream into the River Seine.
Bureaucratic in-fighting slowed the plan, and by the time of the French Revolution, the sewers were still a provocative symbol of urban decay and royal indifference. "Fears of mysterious goings-on in the sewers fed the culture of suspicion which infused the period," Reid explains. Gendarmes frequently searched the sewers for caches of explosives or political outlaws in hiding.
Reid frames his narrative with sewer-related allusions from such distinguished writers as Victor Hugo, Alexis de Tocqueville, Emile Zola, Jean Giraudoux, even Sigmund Freud. These references are important, for they reflected public perceptions of the sewers and sewermen. As Reid stresses, planners understood the sewers' clean-up had to be accompanied by a cleansing of the system's public image. Sewermen too needed to be publicly rehabilitated; how could an aesthetically pleasing and efficiently run city be created if some of its most vital workers were perceived to be malodorous and diseased?
The clean-up was laced with ironies. In the 19th Century, the sewer administration urged its workers to dredge out salvageable goods so that they could be cleaned and sold to junk dealers, in what amounted to an early form of recycling. One item of especial worth was corks, as Reid explains: "The administration directed sewermen to skim these corks off the top of the water. It then sold them to perfumers, who cut them down for use as stoppers in perfume bottles. Thus did the foul meet the fragrant."