Published on June 4th, 2019 | by Pascal Ordonneau1
An Introduction : The History of the United States told by the streets of Paris
Paris told by its streets… it is a beautiful adventure that I pursued for a few months and which became a book. A Parisian is spoiled by the embarassment of choices: the streets of Paris are a succession of famous names, illustrous battles, but also religious testimonies and significant events.
Could we say that following the streets of Paris we would go around the history of the world ? Could one note how much the French capital is an almanac of universal glories? Let’s admit that this would leave Paris a beautiful role in the telling of the history of the world ! Too beautiful maybe? We saw « la Ville Lumière » in less glorious situations.
She carefully avoids recalling her defeats. No “Waterloo station” but “Austerlitz station”. No “Trafalgar square” but an “Avenue of Eylau”… what’s the matter with this attitude ! One cannot imagine that people would have the strange idea of inscribing on the walls of its streets the names of the events that made it suffer.
But now things are getting complicated. The history of France is full of regime changes, hatreds and detestations. Those that were brought to the pinnacle tumble down from their pedestals. The now hated names are erased and replaced by the new heroes. Examples ? The street of Berlin lost its name in 1914, replaced by the street of Liege, the place Louis XV will change several times of name and will finally become the place of the Concorde. Until the next change?
Yet there are streets whose name does not move. It has been installed. That would be forever? These streets represent the beautiful idea that France has of the United States. It is true that the “American” names of Paris are very recent, in unison with the history of the United States. It is true that the French have no reason “to erase” American names renowned for their courage, their temerity and their glory. By the way ! We could tell Paris by its streets. Could we tell the United States story by means of the streets of Paris?
I want to try the adventure. There are many American streets in Paris. They were offered to famous American politicians, generals, artists, and events as well. They are often prestigious, not always, and sometimes the name of a famous American is attributed to a modest street.
Do these American streets tell the United States History ? It would be an illusion to believe that they are so named to teach the children and their parents the story of the United States and its Great Men. These streets are Parisian streets. They are built according to the Parisian style. In other words, they have nothing American except the name. So, what’s it about with this name? It is about Paris inhabitants knowing how to be grateful. Because also, Parisians (said “Frenchmen at their worst”) like to wave to people they admire. Because, finally, what is the best expression of esteem than that which invites the anonymous passerby of Paris to remember the United States, its heroes and its deeds?
Thus will we go from streets to streets, to make them known, to remember the reasons that pushed the Parisians to want to register the names and facts of their American friends on dozens of street corners. We will describe them. We will be surprised by funny situations ? Nevertheless keep in mind that for a Parisian, a street name is not a joke, it’s a piece of his city, and since he thinks that his city is the most beautiful in the world, he also thinks that he honors to an American citizen when inscribing his name on a small dark blue glossy plaque written in white letters.
Because we must begin at the beginning: it is from the place of the United States that we will begin our journey.
And this will be the subject of our next column.