In this class, we learned about how Baron Haussmann transformed Paris from medieval to modern in what is now dubbed the “Haussmannization of Paris”. During this time, buildings centuries old of all types were demolished to make way for the new, modern Paris. Due to the time having photography as a relatively new and growing area of expertise, there are very few documented images remaining of the old Paris. Photographs by Charles Marville were taken to document what remained of Paris’s history. This segment of the lesson really made me think about the mortality of architecture in the past.
Nowadays, we have pictures of places taken regularly. Many places globally are documented through Google Earth or the street view of Google Maps so that even when they’re demolished, we have some evidence of them. One example that comes to mind is the Welland House Hotel in downtown St. Catharines, a building about to be designated as a historic landmark. It was destroyed in a fire in mid-2021 on the 12th of July. This building had a significant history for the community, such as housing runaway slaves1, and while it was sadly destroyed beyond repair, clear images of it from both the early days of the 19th century to the 2020s still exist. We can look back upon these images and reflect on what the building meant because we have evidence. Unfortunately, many common buildings in the Old Paris did not get that luxury.
I also considered how the death of these buildings impact the people living in them. The Welland House was a place long abandoned by tenants and occupied by potential squatters. The places that Haussmann destroyed included the homes of many people, including many lower-class and impoverished people. In their discussion on Haussmann’s project, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker pointed out how the displacement of the citizens was addressed depending on their status. As they noted, “the wealthy were quickly accommodated. The new boulevards were lined with fashionable apartment houses. It was, as usual, the poor that really suffered.”2
This sounded familiar to me, and I realized this has a lot in common with gentrification today. Haussmann’s redesign of Paris has much in common with modern-day gentrification, the process of modernizing and making an area more valuable while pushing out the poor citizens who live there. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition states that a quarter of gentrification cases were followed up with racialized displacement.3 These communities were pushed away from their homes and neighbourhoods because it simply became unaffordable, and the insidious implication is that they were considered too poor to exist in that neighbourhood, that they were “unsightly” and something to be gentrified by the developers. By analyzing the mortality of the buildings themselves, we also can clearly see the mortality of communities of the impoverished, racialized communities, and other minorities realtors see as unnecessary.
Visual culture still stands as a way to bring awareness to the struggles of gentrification and the consequences faced by those who deal with it. By documenting neighbourhoods or collecting images of the hardships people face after being displaced, public awareness about these issues spreads globally thanks to the international nature of the problem and the widespread impact of news reporting.