When our expat family first moved to Germany in 2002, we decided to head for Paris, only four hours away by car. I had passed through Paris repeatedly back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it wasn’t my favorite town.
In those days, it was suffering from the same ills as New York City. Paris was grimy, run down and full of nefarious characters including pickpockets and other petty criminals. There were metro stations, such as the infamous Gare du Nord, that you avoided if you could. Vendors were abrupt at best, and Parisians grumpy. Public transport workers were on strike most of the time. Paris had gone from being “The City of Light,” to the City of Blight. So, I briefed up my family about what to expect, which turned out to be only completely inaccurate.
We exited the Louvre on a brisk February day, walked out on the Pont de Carrousel and looked down the Seine at a city that sparkled in the winter sun. Parisians would follow us around to make sure we got where we were going, and commuters offered their seats to Cheryl, who had then-baby Lale. Suddenly, we had a new favorite city.
Yes, there were areas such as Les Halles and parts of Marais where sketchy characters and rundown buildings were off-putting. Now even that is changing.
Terror-attack headlines have blocked out the news about Paris being revitalized, the most ambitious changes since Baron Haussmann opened up the boulevards so Napoleon III’s soldiers could enjoy better field of fire when putting down revolts.
Dispatches is getting news releases and alerts about projects all over town, including the just-completed redevelopment of the aforementioned Les Halles. What had been Paris’ central market in the 19th Century was replaced in 1971 with an underground mall, converting the entire area into a giant concrete mess, irresistible to drug dealers and hustlers selling knockoff Louis Vuitton purses. It was also one of the most congested parts of Paris with almost a million commuters per day passing through Gare de Châtelet – Les Halles, Paris’ busiest train station, which was below the mall.
Now, the area is more open and inviting, with playgrounds and a public park, according to the group charged with refurbishing Les Halles. (Warning – the website is in French.)
Construction began in 2011 and is scheduled to wrap up this year.
- The underground Les Halles mall has been demolished, replaced by a covered open space, La Canopée.
- La Canopée also houses arts organizations and new retail spaces.
- Subway access was reconfigured into a new forum and updated.
- Construction of a new park/playground for kids up to 11 years old is complete.
- Surrounding La Canopée, Nelson Mandela Park opened in December 2015.
So, the problem is gone, replaced by a public garden, a larger pedestrian district, more easier-to-use pathways and routes, a larger, more functional regional train station, an enlarged, refurbished shopping center, more cultural facilities and a better organized underground road network, according to parisleshalles.fr. That’s pretty amazing considering how little time it took.
More amazingly, that’s just the beginning.
“Réinventer Paris” is a new plan to reconstruct 23 buildings and squares by the year 2020. The squares include the Place de la Republique, which has always seemed like a featureless transit point on the way either to the Louvre to the southwest, or down to the Place de la Concorde and the Place de Vosges on the southeast.
The idea is to make Paris more appealing to the “creative class,” in an attempt to woo talent away from Berlin, Stockholm and other innovation centers with more green space and more people-friendly settings. And remember, Paris is already one of the most inviting cities in the world, with acres and acres of open spaces such as the Tuileries Gardens.
Some of the designs proposed by Paris’ top architects include greening up unremarkable existing buildings with a canopy of trees on roofs and balconies, and at least one structure reimagined as an organic urban farm.
Also, there are other projects coming Dispatches told you about earlier this year including EuropaCity, which still hasn’t gotten much publicity in the English-language media.
The project is planned as an almost self-contained city on the edge of Paris, with cultural/arts/museums, leisure, restaurants and retail, hotels and urban parks. Dalian, China-based Dalian Wanda Group. Dalian Wanda announced in March the gobal commercial/retail developer will invest $3.3 billion through 2024 in EuropaCity. So it sounds like it could happen.
Now there are even more reasons to go to Paris this summer, which could be a quiet one because of all the bad news lately. That said, this isn’t necessarily a travel post. This is an “Expats, if you get the chance to go, go!” post. We can’t think of a better time to take a chance with a startup in Paris, or pick up a corporate assignment there.
So, let’s not say “goodbye,” but “a tout a l’heure.”
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.