Paris Toujours: A Reply to Roger Cohen

On December 8, Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times about how much Paris has changed since he lived here in the seventies. He says it hasn't changed for the better; I have to rebut him.

True, Roger, the city has changed. Evolved, I'd say. It has succumbed to the lure of the internet, to the ring of cell phones, to the bounty of supermarkets, and has even cozied up to air conditioning.

But it is trying, in some ways, to stop the alluring march of "progress." The introduction of Vélib' -- 20,000 city bicycles for public hire -- is one outstanding example. (Yes, bikers are viewed with disdain by motorists, and with alarm by pedestrians who have to dodge them at every corner.)

Paris Plage, the riverside playground which was introduced several years ago as a summertime installation, has been a huge success, copied by many other cities in Europe. (It would be mean-spirited to complain about the blaring music every night.)

As Cohen notes, the Métro is less odoriferous and that is a welcome change. And smoke-free restaurants are a delight. (A true chef would not tolerate perfume wafting over his creations, much less tobacco.) But the chummy puffing-and-quaffing at local bars is sadly to be missed. The only place now where smoggy politics and philosophy can be aired is outdoors -- en plein air.

I've lived in Paris for 30 years, so like the frog who is put into a kettle which is slowly brought to the boil, I haven't been startled by the changes and jumped out of the pot. I'm still here, appreciating what has changed for the better: The beautiful lighting on every bridge; the new automated Métro Line 14 that looks like a spaceship; the Bastille Opera House which, in spite of its ungainly hulk, has wonderful acoustics; the brilliant renovation of the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais; the meticulous cleaning of Notre-Dame; I. M. Pei's daring glass pyramid at the Louvre; and even the weird Musée du Quai Branly, which now houses France's greatest collection of "arts premiers". (Bowing to political correctness, it was decided not to call it "primitive arts".)

The changes that vex me are little things, like the fast food joints on the Champs-Elysées and the Starbucks cafés percolating everywhere. I regret the disappearance of my neighborhood bookstore and hardware store and dry cleaners. In their place, there are shops selling iPods, DVDs, and costume jewelry. And I deplore the closure of La Samaritaine, the ultimate Parisian department store, soon to be transformed into luxury apartments.

Paris, in many ways, is a victim of its success, not unlike Venice. France attracts sixty million visitors per year -- equivalent to its population -- and most of them go to Paris. Catering to these foreigners can be a lucrative business, but inevitably, it unravels the historical social fabric. The question currently being raised -- by mayor Bertrand Delanoë in particular -- is whether Paris should remain "a museum city" or "move forward into the 21st century". Urbanists and architects are having a field day with this. Under the banner of "Le Grand Paris", they are proposing to erect half a dozen new, unconventional skyscrapers on the fringes of the city, mostly for office space.

It seems unreasonable to bring more commerce into the city while there is still a serious shortage of housing. And relegating these bizarre buildings to the periphery is rather like keeping your unruly kids out of the parlor, for a very good reason: These towers could never sit comfortably in the city center.

And so I'll grumble about the project, and probably grumble about other innovations that threaten to alter my beloved town, but I know the French are right when they say, "Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose".

And that reassures me.