Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Les Misérables" and urban planning in Paris

Death of Eponine, from the novel
Cindy and I just saw the movie, "Les Misérables," which is outstanding. It provides a good illustration of one of the reasons why Paris was redesigned in the 1860s, when narrow twisting streets were replaced by wide boulevards. Baron Haussmann was the designer and builder in charge of that project, and in a previous post I talk about his work and how it produced the city plan as we know it today.

Urban historians have shown that one of the reasons for the redesign of Paris was to make it harder for protesters to seize the streets and block them with barricades, as in the final part of Les Misérables. The death of Eponine, at the barricade, was illustrated in the original novel, and it is a big scene in the play and movie. The uprising in Victor Hugo's novel took place in 1832 (the novelist experienced that event first hand). There had been an earlier protest in 1830, and then the most successful of these contentious events was the 1848 revolution.
Death of Eponine (Samanta Barks), from the movie

So, how did Haussmann's new plan of Paris help reduce protest in the streets? First of all, the new wide, straight streets made it harder for protesters to block off neighborhoods with barricades. Also, the wide boulevards made it easier for troops to move from one area to another quickly in case of a rebellion. The railway stations, one of the most important kinds of transportation infrastructure in the 19th century, were the origin points of many of the boulevards. This allowed troops to be moved into place efficiently by train and then dispatched to problem areas.

The urban histories (see the bibliography in my original post) note that the 1871 rebellion (the "Paris Commune") was quickly put down, in part because of the military advantages of Haussmann's redesign. But the 1832 uprising of the students and immigrants (sometimes called the "June Rebellion") was also quashed pretty quickly, as in the novel.

The movie barricade

See my earlier post for more on the redesign of Paris. And who knew that Russell Crowe could sing?