Gut Feelings

Paris got purified in 1971. Will New York regret moving its smelly old markets?

"Where are the powerful odors, the smells by which one recognizes so many cities," the historian Louis Chevalier wrote in his 1977 book The Assassination of Paris, ruing what by then was known as the consumer society, a place without the stench of blood from the old Chicago stockyards, without the sweat of labor, without the smell of thighs or the odor of armpits, above all without entrails—"a closed universe, disinfected, deodorized, devoid of the unexpected, without surprises, with nothing shocking, a well-protected universe providing one does not leave one's room and understands that one can always be attacked in the elevator." For Chevalier, Les Halles symbolized struggle against "the de-Parisianization of Paris." Against the end of collective life in the city. Against the commissions and the technocrats and the unending press releases that chirp, "Au revoir, you beckoning whores and you lumpen literariat! Bonjour, festival marketplaces!"

New Yorkers, we know the routine. Behold, it's the de-fishification of the fish market! The de-meatification of the meatpacking district! Even—God forbid—the de-Gowanusization of Gowanus! But places have a way of enduring long after they've been squelched. "Whether or not it was Satan," wrote Chevalier, who died at the age of 90 in 2001, "it must be noted that there was something about the resistance of Les Halles, something about the place itself, something mysterious." Les Halles lives on, in its beguiling way. Perhaps even in New York.

As the gendarmes closed in with their antiperspirant grenades and Les Halles began to crumble, a hand-lettered sign was soon plastered to a doomed block of buildings. "The center of Paris will be beautiful," it said. "Luxury will be king. The buildings of the Saint Martin block will be of high standing. But we will not be here. The commercial facilities will be spacious and rational. The parking immense. But we won't work here anymore. The streets will be spacious and the pedestrian ways numerous. But we won't walk here anymore. We won't live here anymore. Only the rich will be here."

Pigging out: Les Halles in 1968
photo: Martha Carroll
Pigging out: Les Halles in 1968

And as everyone knows, the rich have no odor.

Consider this a cautionary tale. A decade before Louis-Napoléon unfurled his umbrellas of iron at Les Halles, the French savant Alexis de Tocqueville pondered this peculiar power, which turns the wildness of life into something you spend a pretty penny on at the lingerie store, and makes democratic nations into flocks of well-turned sheep. "Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence," he wrote in 1840; "it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

In other words, my friends, we're all just pigs in a blanket.

Jeff Byles is a recovering vegetarian. He is working on Rubble, a cultural history of demolition.

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