Corner in Neon, David Drebin, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Contessa Gallery.

Paris, Exposed

The layout of the French capital is famous for its density and opaqueness. Under attack, suddenly transparency is the norm.

Two days before I moved away from Paris, in July, I met a guy I’d known a while for a drink. The next day, he wrote to say he’d wanted to kiss me. I had to catch a plane. This rush, and the quickness to sentiment it precipitated, embarrassed us both, I think. I imagined him slightly relieved I’d gone with his untimely confession to a continent that would absorb it. Leaving is brutal. In French, it is called violent.

News of the attacks on Paris reached me Nov. 13, and I remembered that he lives on the Canal Saint-Martin, near the shootings. I didn’t email—nerves, fatigue, I’d moved away for good—but saw his bar go green before I went to sleep. By 5 a.m. Paris time, 76 of my Facebook friends there had marked themselves “safe” through the site’s feature; 22 had not, though they were OK. Everyone I cared about and their cropped avatars were there, arrayed algorithmically, as if the city were waving at me.

As Parisians posted with the hashtag #porteouverte to indicate homes they opened to those who’d run or become stranded, the hashtag #rechercheParis also developed, with an account to relay it, @RecherchesP. Porte ouverte means “open door” and recherche Paris means “search Paris.” A couple from the Gironde region, which lines the sea around Bordeaux, made the Twitter account, according to Libération. Janyk Steenbeek, a Dutch web developer, built porteouverte.eu with a colleague to list hospitable addresses for a few days after the attacks. Le Parisien eventually listed victims. One had worked at the café that was my neighborhood café. The ancient, layered city had become a series of lists. Paris is rarely so transparent.

A French equivalent to the Humans of New York empire is a Facebook group, #WANTEDbons plans, which Luc Jaubert started in 2011; that year, it had 600 members. Now, the group includes 141,478 members who post, mostly in Paris, about furniture for sale, tickets for sale, iPhones for sale, restaurant recommendations, résumés, missed connections, missing people, scouted film locations, litters of puppies and guinea pigs, discreet locksmiths, homeopathy, rent, jokes, makeovers, and so on. Occasionally, a member posts a photo of a rash or wound or insect infestation and simply asks, “What’s wrong with me?” One click can suffuse you with quick-fix empathy. The group’s tone is light because of Parisian culture, as well as this joke: Paris is visible all at once. Barthes described the Eiffel Tower as a “pure” sign, by which he meant flexible. The historian Colin Jones actually proposes it’s yonic. Paris is unknowable, the joke goes. People don’t come together. Every city balances togetherness and separation—assembly and atomization—characteristically. Everyone knows Paris as cradle of the Modern. According to this idea, its people live closely and yet alone, densely and invisibly.


Rue de la fontaine au Roi, Nov. 15, 2015. Credit: Jean-François Gornet.

The Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi, where shots killed at least five, stretches 850 meters from 32 Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple to 55 and 49 Boulevard de Belleville. At its narrowest, it’s 12 meters across. A path existed under another name as early as 1652. In 1750, the path was built up and dubbed the Rue des Fontaines-au-Roi. It changed names during that century. Each name came from the aqueducts that fell into central Paris from the Belleville hills. In 1871, the Commune’s last barricade might have stood on this street, though sources disagree. Louise Michel, who defended it, wrote, “At the moment that they fired their last shots, a young girl coming from the barricade on Rue Saint-Maur arrived, offering to help. They told her to go away from this place of death, but she remained despite them. It was to this ambulance girl of the last barricade and the last hour that J. B. Clément dedicated, much later, his song ‘Le Temps des Cérises.’” In the telling of Michel, who became a folk hero, the girl becomes a song. A city absorbs violence, which is an impossible, repeated feat.

The Rue Alibert, where shots killed at least 12 on the corner it shares with the Rue Bichat, stretches 278 meters from 66 Quai de Jemmapes to 161 Avenue Parmentier. At various points along its length, it is 13 or 15 meters wide. It existed as early as 1740 under other names: Ruelle Dagouri, Rue Notre-Dame, Ruelle des Postes, Impasse Saint-Louis, Cul-de-sac de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis. In 1840, it was named for a doctor at Saint-Louis Hospital, to which it leads. From 1860 to 1873, this street housed the municipal undertakers’ offices, at building number 10.

Saint-Louis Hospital, on the Rue Bichat, which is 670 meters long and 12, 12.5, or 15 meters wide, was built on a swamp and so, built with no basement. In 1562, 1606, and 1607, the years the plague swept Paris, the Hôtel-Dieu hospital strained to care for the victims it housed. The victims numbered 68,000. Those who ran Saint-Louis quarantined the disease. Its plague personnel worked separately. It served Parisians in further epidemics, including those of 1670, 1709, and 1729, and often closed in off years. In 1731 and 1740, the building of magnificent stone, now one of Paris’s oldest hospitals, with 2,500 employees, gardens, and a chapel, served as a depot for wheat.

In the place I’ve moved, New York City, I pin stars on a Google map. They make no constellation. No order arises from them. The Boulevard Voltaire, where the Bataclan stands, runs for 2,850 meters and is 30 meters wide. While numbers reliably produce information, nothing reliably produces meaning. A page about Rue Alibert illustrates a barber shaving amid the superfluous figures typical of old paintings, which represent the masses as they were, masses and not an online chorus. Men in top hats trade gossip. They are, like so many renderings of this city, incomplete.


Jacques Hillairet’s Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris aligns the information I have listed on the rues Alibert, Bichat, and de la Fontaine-au-Roi and the Boulevard Voltaire with dignified black-and-white illustrations across two columns in two heavy volumes. The format of its entries, soothingly consistent once patterns are grasped, lists events by street and then by number. Thus at numbers 160 through 174 of the Rue de Belleville stood a monks’ convent until the Revolution, when a prison replaced it.

A Lutheran missionary, I learned, built the A-frame near my house on the Rue de Crimée. Now, it is a Russian Orthodox church. I showed American guests its woodwork, herbs, and still bells, hoping to impress them. At times, I walked there alone.

This part of the Nineteenth Arrondissement had belonged to the town of Belleville before Paris annexed Belleville in 1860. I moved there in June 2013, after I had lived in Paris for seven months, and stayed there until this past July. The old name for my neighborhood, the Combat Neighborhood, derived from cock-, dog-, and bullfights locals organized where Communist Party headquarters now stands. Stone quarries once riddled the neighborhood. Trains had roared below the park. I crossed their unused tracks and dreamed. Huge things had used this land to disappear, which enchanted me.

Nouveau Plan de Paris en 20 Arrondissements, A. Vuillemin and J. Migeon, 1869. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I was working on a research project about Paris and thought I could be sure of what was small, reducing the vast city to facts. This summer, before I moved away, I frequently visited the street dictionary in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the municipal history library, on the Rue Pavée. The book lived on a shelf to the right-hand side of the reading room, where seats of cracked green leather bolted to wood bore numbers on gold placards in a serif font. The wood, maybe oak, turned gold thanks to tall windows which opened onto a courtyard. The librarians allowed each reader a single small bottle of water, which had to stay capped in the reader’s bag or backpack. Readers perused yellow documents, studied, or watched demonstrations of push-ups on computers shoved near shelves of periodicals including English-language magazines, the intrusion of which I felt like resenting. I watched a painting on a far wall, behind a raised dais at which librarians sat. One told me that an architect had prepared the painting for a Universal Exposition, maybe the one at which the Eiffel Tower made its debut, depicting the city as it looked before the fall of the Bastille. The painting situates the viewer on the Right Bank just above the intersection of the Rue de Chemin Vert and the Boulevard Beaumarchais, and around him and before him up to the disappeared hospital of Quinze-Vingts spreads a quilt of lush farmland. The buildings are ranged low in rows and sleepy, pinkly tinged. Laminated cards arranged below the painting label its monuments, including the ones since vanished in italics: Le château de Bercy et la rue de Bercy, L’abbaye Saint-Antoine, La Bastille, L’île Louviers, aujourd’hui le terrain entre le bd Morland et le quai Henri IV, le couvent des Célestins, aujourd’hui la caserne de la Garde républicaine bd Henri IV, L’ancienne église des Minimes, L’ancienne église Saint-Paul, L’abbaye et l’église Saint-Victor, aujourd’hui la faculté de Jussieu. The coloration is hazy like that of a sepia photo, confounding blues and greens, and so I first mistook the green trees of the Boulevard Beaumarchais for the blue Canal Saint-Martin, and though I understood such a rendering would have sent the Canal veering in the wrong direction, I accepted it, glad I had worked out that the painter had stood where I lived, in the city’s North and to the East of the Canal. When I resolved all such dissonance, correctly or not, I would have finished writing, and I’d move away. Through the street dictionary, I indulged a belief in this task as discrete.

The impulse I admired in Hillairet, to catalog every event at each street number, seemed Parisian. Maybe such dictionaries existed for other cities. I blocked the thought and wanted not to be corrected. If history underlay every fact in Paris, I could list facts, automatically convey more than data, and in this way ease into feeling.

I check the accents on the vanished buildings. Paris held this allure to me. It was uniquely dense with meaning. No event without its referent. One sunny day, on a medieval street beside the library, a grinder played Piaf songs on an electric organ, from which hung two monkeys, stuffed. I never saw him there again.


Before I call myself ready to return, I have to ask whether I was ready to leave, which would admit to some brutality.

Whenever I walked from the house where I lived in the Nineteenth Arrondissement to the area that would become the site of the killings, I took one of two paths. I followed the crescent of Buttes-Chaumont Park and descended through Belleville and down the Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, where prêt-à-porter dresses of vinyl and plastic sell cheap and market days exhaust the street. Or, I walked to the Bassin de la Villette, which is lined by white streetlamps like strings of pearls, and followed the green canal to the Rue Alibert, dodging steel balls, pétanque games, or observing the Jaurès locks, which froth when they’re let out. Cobblestones like these were yanked up for the barricades, of which these stones, naturally, bear no sign. Cities, characteristically separate or together, are emotionally or intellectually experienced. Sometimes in my last weeks, I read the street dictionary, thinking not feeling, tempting staircase spirit.

The Cambodian restaurant on the angle where they fired shots stands out for its bright terrace tables from the rest of the Rue Bichat: bars, a gluten-free bakery, and a newish organic restaurant where in July I struggled to tell another French friend goodbye over loud fans that churned hot air as if into butter. This summer, I liked to blame “visa problems” for my departure: inarguable. Technically this was true, though I thought that if I really wanted, I could find a way to renew the papers. I gave the excuse more easily than I explained I’d always meant to return to the US; our friendships had been, in that way, temporary. A foreigner, as I played it, is a ghost who can pass for human, one with a funny accent. If I think as small as I can, there’s always a way. French is useful. New Yorkers shell out Benjamins to speak it to their toddlers. This apartment’s paintings, a Parisian boyfriend made them. Now they’re souvenirs, I think sadly, like all this information. Before I call myself ready to return, I have to ask whether I was ready to leave, which would admit to some brutality. Who leaves this city? Where the Rue Bichat meets the Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, walls were going up, gaping, for almost as long as I lived in Paris, resembling faces. Who will live there? Saying goodbye so finally exhilarated me for an instant. Exhilaration is a quick emotion that often implies a lie. There’s the old stone hospital, ridged like a spine, and opposite it a stop for the 75 bus, which once took me straight home.