Gut Feelings


There are no entrails in Paris. Guts, innards, sweetbreads—they’re all gone now, by municipal fiat. The viscera’s been vamoosed. I’m not talking about a plate of haggis over at some boîte in Montmartre, either. I’m talking vast, redolent, gobsmacking entrails. Viands, man. By the kilo. Running, even, in the streets. Incredible, edible entrails.

They’ll soon be verboten in New York, see, which is why I want to talk about Les Halles. That’s where it all started, at Les Halles, the famed central Parisian wholesale food market just a short pig’s trot from the Louvre. The name itself, wrote an observer in 1978, not without wistfulness, “stirs images of exquisite slumming—onion soup and beckoning whores and huge truckers in little blue berets unloading crates of lettuces, and the marvellous gathering rhythms of a marketplace in the morning.”

Oh là là, and the entrails. Les Halles was lovingly called le ventre de Paris—the belly of Paris, its bowels, its soul. Grounded in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the glorious, sometimes mucky, always fleshly affair had stood on the site since the 12th century, boasting the choicest morsels: shad from Bordeaux, flans from Chartres, shallots from Elysium. The place really got cranking in 1851, when architects Victor Baltard and Félix-Emmanuel Callet worked up some iron-and-glass pavilions with peaked vaults and curved arches and filigrees of Gothic tracery, what their boss, Napoléon III, called umbrellas of iron. By 1935 a dozen lacy sheds gleamed amid streetscapes of silhouetted dormers, lined with boisterous, working-class victual vendors, soiled with “the intimate smell of a city.” Les Halles, with its butcher-boys and she-devils and all manner of aliments, was not the center of Paris, it was said, but the center of other centers—that is, the essential Paris.

You can glimpse this secret city in a show of circa-’68 photographs of Les Halles on view at New York University’s Maison Française through May 21 (images are also posted at horizoneditions.com). The photographer, Martha Carroll, then a 31-year-old journalist dodging les flics and their tear-gas grenades over on the Boulevard St. Michel during Paris’s legendary May événements, slipped off to the Right Bank at dawn to document the splendid mayhem of the market. Her pictures are quietly righteous. There are teetering arrays of hams and sausages and peaches and more sausages; burly vendors strutting with balletic aplomb; cartons of fresh eggs set jauntily against crumbling stone; electric saws buzzing through bone; a lone prostitute on a street corner; bales of onions heaped like bulwarks; exhaustion and detritus and gastronomy; and the heady taste of the sublime.

Les Halles is gone, of course, bulldozed along with its habitably shabby working-class quarter in 1971 to make way for the Pompidou Center and an underground shopping mall. Deemed a woeful traffic quagmire and branded a public hygiene menace—never mind that the place was fearsomely scrubbed clean every dawn, the entrails hosed off, and the neighborhood returned to its rumpled bonhomie—the market was expelled to the drab southerly burb of Rungis. Editorialists called its demolition “the surgical removal of the secret heart of the city.” A few protesters shackled themselves to Baltard’s pavilions. Placards came out and were brandished. “To tamper with Les Halles,” the slogan went, “is to tamper with Paris.” But in the event, the last night of Les Halles played out to only “a few nocturnal creatures, a few nostalgia seekers, a few poets, a few clochards.” The 700-year-old market was kaput.

And now Paris has no belly. In its place stands the subterranean Forum des Halles—”Shopping, culture, leisure: the top brands, the most fashionable shops, the foremost cinema complex in France”!—and the massively popular Pompidou Center, with its exposed, brightly hued ductwork and glass-wrapped escalators, a structure dubbed “an enormous, multicolored, and very venomous insect” and a “building with its tripes outside.”

Which brings us back to entrails. It won’t be long before New York’s fabled Fulton Fish Market embarks from its offal-slicked downtown digs and floats up the East River to its new home in the Bronx—sure to leave in its wake luxury condos with chummy names like “The Wellfleet” or “The Fo’c’sle.” And it won’t be long till the slutty old Gansevoort Market completes its makeover as a carrion-chic amenity for the lavish condos at the new “Porter House” and other imminently arriving inns and lodgings (“Good morning, Hotel Hindquarter, please hold . . . “). It will not be long, folks, before the tripe-and-cow’s-feet stalls of the Bronx Terminal Market fade into a pastel sunset, their cheerfully haggard home now slated to become “a large multilevel retail complex and garage”—a familiar insect indeed.

Are these exotic places, do you think, New York’s secret heart? Will the offal be missed? The balletic aplomb? As a practical matter, they will be mourned but by a few clochards, myself included, and perhaps a working girl or two. The entrails will be industrially vacuumed up at the pristine and efficient Hunts Point markets and the fillet men will find other trash barrels to set ablaze in the night. But look. There’s something to be said for filth.

“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.”

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.