Shape Shifting

Shape Shifting
Bird's eye view (from my window)

Friday, 20 October

Our local bookshop closed this week. The Labo Land photo developer next door to it and the Café Mucha next to it will soon follow suit. The block of buildings has been bought by a developer who has revoked their leases. Their disappearance marks a significant advance in the march towards the hollowing out of life in our 7th arrondissement Paris neighbourhood.

"What is happening to my 'hood?" asked a concerned citizen

The turning point for me was 2015, when the Ministère de la Défense right across the street from our apartment (and across the square, to the right of the now empty book shop Albin Michel in the above photo) moved to a new compound in Balard, at the edge of the city.

The vast expanse, known as the Îlot Saint Germain, "shaped the quartier". Its façade on the boulevard Saint Germain is longer than a football pitch. The building then continues around the corner onto the rue de l’Université on one side...

...and back to the rue Saint Dominique on the other, all the way to the rue de Bourgogne.

Once upon a time, this hive was thriving. When I returned from my morning dog walk at 8.30, hundreds of workers were entering the building. At lunch, they emerged, buying sandwiches at the bakery or using their tickets restaurants (lunch vouchers that are part of many French pay packages) at the local cafés. 5.30pm on the dot, out they flowed for home.

In the course of the day, small groups of militaires jogged together, chatting chirpily in their skimpy shorts on the way across the river to the Tuileries gardens. Traffic was stopped on the boulevard St Germain to allow visiting contingents to drive through the gate with fanfare. We used to blame spotty mobile phone reception on their "systems" and complain about the motorcycles they parked in front of our door, but when they were gone, what a forlorn hole the great, empty hive left.

As is so often the case, the Îlot’s history began with religion. In 1640, when the area was still largely farmland and swamp, the convent les Filles du Saint Joseph set up shop with a mission to take in poor orphans and teach them Christian values and embroidery. When Madame de Montespan was pushed aside by Madame de Maintenon as Louis XIV’s mistress and confidante, she built un hôtel particulier (big house) on the property and "retired" to it, thus increasing the convent’s prestige among the growing number of nobles who were moving here from the Marais.

Along came the Revolution. Nuns and nobles were evicted (or worse), and the religious institution was converted to the Ministry of War. For a while, Napoleon’s brother (until they fell out and Lucien fled to Italy), then mother, lived in the hôtels particuliers on the premises, but those too were eventually handed over to the army. New buildings, plus a double-faced clock tower, were built when Baron Haussmann bulldozed the boulevard in his remaking of the city…

The good old days

...and modern blocks got plonked in the middle of the enclosure during the 20th century...

Between church and state

...and German Big Bertha howitzers damaged the façade at the end of the World War I...

Pock marked

...but the Îlot endured.

When the Ministry moved out eight years ago, speculation about the compound's fate was rife. The elite school Sciences Po was buying it, some said. The whole thing will be turned into social housing, said others. No, it'll be a(nother) fancy hotel, said still others.

In the end, the property has been divided in three. The hôtels particuliers still belong to the armed forces. Another part was sold to the city of Paris and their conversion into to social housing, a gym and a child-care facility is almost complete. The third part, as a letter from our arrondissement mayor Rachida Dati confirmed last month, has been bought by Constellation Hotels (owned by the Qatar Investment Authority) and will be turned into “a palace [luxury hotel], spa, car park, private apartments and several restaurants.” An odd juxtaposition with the subsidised rental units, but such is our crowded world.

She invited us to a meeting last Monday, which I attended.

Face to face

As you can see, Tasha and I are not the only concerned citizens.

The mayor gave us her spin about preserving "the quality of life in our arrondissement". The construction company gave us their spin on sophisticated methods for tempering the noise and tamping down the dust, but the rue Saint Dominique residents particularly were not convinced.

And this is just the beginning

The works, they said, are already making their walls quiver. But breaking two-metre thick bunker walls is bound to disturb the peace.

Most of the questions regarded personal inconveniences during the works and, once it is done, the noise level at night emanating from the café-restaurant and infinity pool on the roof. Someone asked about the plane trees on the boulevard Saint Germain and how they would survive the trauma.

Only one person addressed the fundamental question: Why this luxury complex in the first place? The mayor's Cabinet Director (Madame Dati was long gone) answered that with the Hôtel Lutetia having been somehow demoted, "the Left Bank does not have a palace hotel".

Which begs other questions, such as why does the Left Bank need a palace hotel? And once we have our very own palace hotel, how will it contribute in any way to our "quality of life"? Its presence will mean even fewer practical shops for us residents.

Listening, I could not keep the broader context in which this Xanadu is being built out of my mind. The Ministère de la Guerre may be gone but wars themselves are proliferating. The world gets scarier by the day, and enumerating the perks for this shape-shifting project that will not be finished for at least five years seemed in bad taste, even fate-tempting. But the Qataris, I guess, have money to spend; they already own innumerable hotels in the city.

The Îlot Saint Germain has been the backdrop to our life for 25 years. It's hard to be happy about its new countenance.



You can visit my website here and follow me on Instagram here