Take a close look at the photo below. I shot this picture from the balcony of our hotel room. It shows Rue Sophie Germain, an alleyway next to our hotel, which itself is off Avenue Du General Leclerc in the Montparnasse section of Paris. My family and I recently spent eight nights here. You may have seen pictures of Parisian streets like this one before. It was rather typical of the Paris that we saw, at least inside the city itself.
This is the Parisian way of living. The street level contains businesses that serve the neighborhood. People live above the street level in apartments. Each building almost looks like a townhouse, except they tend to be seven stories tall. The houses on this block look old. I do not know exactly how old they are, but I would guess they are one hundred years old. While they certainly look weathered, they are not flimsy. These solid buildings were clearly built to last.
Now, courtesy of Google Earth, here is the same view from the air.
Do you notice something different? Notice that the backs of these buildings do not push up against another row on an adjacent block. Inside the outer ring of buildings, there is often (as in this case) a large courtyard full of trees. Here there is both a lovely courtyard and even some houses inside the courtyard. Depending on how apartments are arranged, one apartment may face the street or alleyway, another may face the courtyard. If your apartment faces the street, you would expect it to be noisier. If it faces the courtyard, it is a relatively quiet oasis in the midst of an otherwise busy and bustling city.
This may be old fashioned, but this way of living strikes me as very smart. Moreover, it is an excellent way to comfortably fit a large number of people into a relatively small area. Doing so provides both the convenience of being in a major city, yet also provides the ability to escape into a setting that is quieter and more bucolic. You may escape to the courtyard to read a book in the shade of a tree, or to catch some rays on the grass in the sun. Your children might use it to play with other children living in these flats, yet doing so in relative safety and under the watchful eye of many neighbors.
If you need to go shopping, there is no need to get into your car and drive for miles to a Safeway or Costco. There is likely a grocer or two within a few hundred feet of your apartment. Yet this is just the start of it. Just wandering down this particular alley we found a number of restaurants, a Pizza Hut carryout, another small hotel and a dry cleaner. Around the corner was an apothecary. Just a block and a half away was a Monoprix, France’s equivalent of a supermarket with a wide selection of foods at reasonable prices. The Monoprix also had a bakery facing the street selling baguettes and wonderful pastries. There were two banks in the same block. To quickly leave the neighborhood you simply had to walk across the street and descend into a convenient subway stop.
There is no grass to mow, but you can, like most residents, attend a geranium or other potted plant in your window or on your balcony, or decorate your apartment with other living things. You can spend your time at home at leisure, rather than consumed by the incessant chores of maintaining a house.
No wonder I had such a hard time finding a stressed out Frenchman. Here in America we like to think we have mastered the art of good living. From my perspective, the French have mastered it. Almost all of life’s needs are readily available for a short walk. There is no need to get into your car to go out to dinner either. On any block there are bound to be at least several cafes, most of which serve excellent food at reasonable prices. An automobile is truly superfluous. With the limited street parking, almost all of it metered, owning an automobile affords no particular advantage. It is doubtful that even if you had an automobile you could make better time than by taking the subway or bus.
I am sure it is not perfect living. Perhaps you hear noisy neighbors above or below you. In eight days in our hotel room though, which was clearly just another converted blockhouse, we never heard our neighbors. We heard plenty of noises from the street, so an apartment facing the street is likely trying to those sensitive to noise. And while the buildings look very solid, they are also old. Although it is generally not needed in these northern latitudes, they probably do not come with central air conditioning.
I do not know how Parisian urban living compares with the rest of Europe. I suspect their means of living is fairly unique and offers many significant advantages. It is a form of urban living that we Americans could and probably should emulate. Rather than tear down more forests and put in yet more suburban housing in hard to reach areas far from our jobs, why not put in denser housing designed to last for generations in our more blighted inner city neighborhoods, and build in the conveniences like ready food, restaurants and shopping within a short walk that Parisians take for granted?
“Community” is a word that has almost lost its meaning here in America. In my suburban neighborhood, I know a handful of my neighbors by name. Some others I know by site, but not by name. The vast majority of them though will remain complete strangers. We share a neighborhood so we are technically neighbors, but we do not have a real neighborhood. In Paris, your neighbors are likely a lot more in your face. It would be difficult not to get to know your neighbors, and become well acquainted with their quirks and personalities. Each block is a community in the best sense of the word. It is hard for me to believe that such an environment would not foster the community values we say we want to have, but to which we mostly give lip service.
As I noted, my father’s retirement community is also a real community. Just as in Paris, he lives in a community where it is impossible not to know your neighbors. You meet with them every night at community dinners and bump into them repeatedly in the hallways. You sing songs with them in front of the piano in the town center. You play bridge or chess with them in the evenings. Perhaps that is why, nearing age 80, he seems so amazingly happy and content. Perhaps Paris’ engineered neighborliness explains why the crime rate in Paris is so low compared to most American cities. You would think that living in such close proximity to each other would breed ill will. Instead, it appears to draw people closer together. These communities are the real deal.
Sign me up.