Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bourgeoisie Mentality

I live on one of Haussman’s boulevards in Paris in an old bourgeoisie building which fits Haussman’s charming “street-wall” façade regulations splendidly.  The ground floor is for storefronts mostly—pharmacies, bakeries, boutiques, and the like—but amidst the storefronts is a large double-door that acts as the entrance to the apartments on the floors above the magasins.  The first floor apartments have proper balconies with iron railing while the following second through fifth floors (in France, the floors start at 0) have similar façades as the first floor, sometimes with, but often without, a balcony or railing of any kind.  The apartment façade is completed by a mansard roof with a 45° angle and dormer windows.

At the end of the hallway from the street-entrance to the apartments is where the concierge lives, and where a lavishly carpeted staircase leads up to the bourgeoisie apartments.  There are two bourgeoisie apartments on each of the first five floors, one on the right of the staircase, and one on the left of the staircase.  These apartments each take up half of the floor and contain several rooms, much like any apartment would.  Whereas in the western United States, one might rent an apartment only until a house can be purchased, a Parisien is a little more like a New Yorker and rents or owns an apartment for the mere sake of living in the city.  And owning an apartment in this part of Paris is what one considers “well-off.”  There is no ill connotation to the word apartment, here.  Furthermore, it’s apparent by the red-carpeted staircase and the extravagant hallways and the red doors of the first-five stories of apartments that you are standing on the doorstep of someone who lives in Paris like one might live in Beverly Hills: no qualms about social status.

Yes, this is the apartment building where I live.  Only, I don’t take that main staircase to one of those nice bourgeoisie apartments.  Instead, I walk through the small inner courtyard off of the hallway on the ground level, where they keep the trash bins, to a door that leads to the old servant’s staircase: narrow, damp, wooden, dark—no carpet.  The staircase winds up to each floor of the building, leading to servant’s entrances to each apartment, until it comes to two floors of servant’s quarters.

(Rachel, notice apparition.  The team has debunked this as a dust particle.)

I was intrigued by the history of these old staircases before I was struck by their blatant separation of the classes.  After living in Paris for even a short amount of time the mentality one adopts concerning architecture and old buildings changes.  Though the 21st century inhabitant of my building can take an elevator up to the sixth floor and follow the hallway to the servant’s staircase up to the seventh, the elevator is such an unabashed ‘addition’ to the building, one is immediately aware that it exists for the pure sake of convenience than as a statement of social status.  I didn’t realize it until I came to Paris, but that’s what an elevator is in the United States: a sign of social status.  In America, for cultural reasons of our own, the newest and best technology is expected of the rich; but in this bourgeoisie building, the elevator is not efficient, nor is it fast, nor is the building the proud owner of the elevator (assuming buildings can feel pride).  So what one understands, as she uses the elevator every day, is that if Parisien’s could have gotten away without adding an elevator to their old buildings in the latter half of the 20th century, they would have.

As a resident of the seventh floor, I am quite pleased with the advent and addition of the elevator.  It took the maintenance of the elevator for me to understand just how pleased, for without it, all those living on the two upper floors of the building have to take all six or seven flights of stairs up to their floor.  As there is no electricity in the servant’s stairwell, it is impossible to see the steps, the wall, the handrail, or even your own hand—even during the day-time—until you get to the fourth or fifth floor, where seventh-floor skylights and glass blocks affixed into wall afford some light.  In addition, whereas the bourgeoisie staircase grants its climber a steady and gradual ascent to their floor, the servant’s stairwell is steep and too narrow to heft even groceries comfortably.  In my exodus to the seventh floor, I couldn’t help but imagine building maids, leaving their rooms on the seventh floor five minutes before their day began so they could stop outside the servant’s entrance to their employer’s apartment and catch their breath.

Servant's entrance
An American might ask, Why not take the main staircase up to the fifth floor—enjoy the climb, at least—and then take the servant’s staircase the last two levels up?  Our misunderstanding of any sort of class system makes this a fair question, albeit a non-applicable one.  There is no access to the sixth and seventh floors from the main staircase—you must take the servant’s staircase.  Furthermore, there is no secret door or hidden hallway connecting the two staircases.  Here, I get images of some young maid cleaning the steps of the main stairwell on the fifth floor, only to realize she’s forgotten something, have to go down all the steps to ground floor, out to the servants staircase, up all seven flights of stairs to grab what she needs, only to come down seven flights of stairs and up another five to get the job done.

After my own hike up the staircase, I was entirely aware of the class differentiation endured by those living atop the sixth and seventh floors.  And to be honest, the structure of the building ensures that not much has changed.  At best, the elevator was an attempt to equalize the social status of the buildings occupants, particularly in the case of the upper floors.  But even with an elevator which services the sixth floor as well as the first five, the lives of the two types of inhabitants are quite separate.  Much like what one would expect of the bourgeoisie and servants of late 19th century Paris, there is no crossing paths by way of staircase; nowadays the only interaction is the occasional ‘Bonjour’ when exiting the elevator on the ground floor.  No one is treated poorly or looked down on—it is the 21st century—it’s just the way the whole staircase/elevator system works.  But the history of bourgeoisie apartment owners and their servants who once lived above them explains the reason for that system.

While the seventh floor was most certainly the old servant’s quarters, the sixth floor of this building is an anomaly.  The hallway of the sixth and seventh étage is floored by red-clay hexagon tiles, rather than wood or carpet, the walls are textured white, and the doors are painted dark green, the color of Paris’s park benches.  On the first five floors of the building, there are two apartments per floor, each with multiple rooms; on the seventh floor there are sixteen individual doors to sixteen individual apartments.  Given that the seventh and final floor of the building has roofs angled in at 45°, the space for these sixteen apartments proves even smaller than any other floor.  These apartments are mere rooms; even ‘studio apartment’ fails to express their size, for when an American thinks of an old studio apartment, she thinks of Joe Bradley’s quaint living space in Roman Holiday, not an apartment the size of a guest bathroom.  The sixth floor has seven green doors, meaning the apartments are larger than that of the seventh floor, but still significantly smaller than that of the apartments below.  Though the exact capacity of the sixth floor is not formally documented, some old bourgeoisie buildings had one or two upper floors for middle-class families, merchants, or perhaps head-of-staff employees.  Now, the apartments on the sixth floor have been altered to create three larger apartments.

I had my mother ask me about my apartment when I first moved in, which despite my scathing review of their size, I am quite fond of.  I described it to her.  The man, who bought the old chambre de bonne, repainted it, installed a shower, a desk, and a small kitchenette.  I sent her pictures.  I received an email from my sister later in the week with connotations of the belief I was living in squalor, for, “Mom saw no toilet in the pictures.”  I explained that my toilet was across the hall in a separate room, which I had a separate key to.  In other buildings, the toilet is often shared between many tenants of the old servant’s quarters.

My own apartment
The view out of my window

Later, when I met a neighbor who moved in across the hall from me, and I started spending some time in her apartment, my suspicions of each apartment on the floor being owned and renovated separately were confirmed.  While each one of the sixteen green doors used to lead to a separate room, now, many of the rooms have been combined to create appropriate livable square-footage.  I recounted the size and shape of my neighbor’s apartment to my family, and expressed how interesting it was that three of the old chambres were combined to create her apartment.  My family asked several questions about her apartment—Why is her apartment the size of three rooms, and yours the size of one?  Why does she have a toilet, and you have to walk to a separate room?  Why does she have a shower with a curtain, and yours is merely an alcove?—all of which confused me; they were hardly applicable to the interesting fact I had just relayed about the history of the apartments.  Weren’t they more interested in the living conditions of someone living in a room a third of the size of my neighbors?  Weren’t they curious about how the old maids would have kept clean, or used the toilet?  Instead my family was preoccupied with why my neighbor’s apartment was so different from mine.

Then I realized the misconception at work in my family’s questions.  American apartment buildings are typically several stories high, and no matter which level you live on, each floor has the same blueprint.  Furthermore, each individual apartment typically has the same layout.  The structures are built to fit a certain number of apartments which apartments will house a certain number of families which families consist of a certain number of family members.  The person across from you has an apartment with a mirrored layout to yours; the person under you has an apartment with the exact layout as yours.  It wasn’t that they didn’t understand why my neighbor’s apartment was different from mine, they didn’t even fully comprehend the whole system of bourgeoisie apartments: the fact that the lower floor you inhabit, the better-off you are, the fact that the main staircase doesn’t even go to the sixth and seventh floors, the fact that in order to get to the top of the building, you are forced to take the servants entrance.  Hearing I had a studio apartment sounded more like I lived in an apartment complex with several other studio apartments, not that I lived in the top floor of a well-to-do bourgeoisie home where social class was separated by floor levels.

And it runs deeper than that.  It’s not that Americans don’t understand class and social status, in fact, our class system is just as complicated as others’.  It’s that in the United States, the poor, the middle-class and the rich don’t live together in any capacity.  The person living across the hall from you, above you, or below you, is usually at the same economic status as you are.  Even if the person who lives across from you is an immigrant, or if your child goes to a better school than the children of the family living below you, your economic status is accepted as being in the same range.  And when it isn’t anymore, and an American believes that the people moving in around them are of a lower class than they are, they move.  Take Harlem as America’s best-known example: what used to be an area inhabited by the wealthy and old-Dutch families of New York, in the 20th century became a place renowned for crime and poverty.  It’s also true that there are poorer parts of Paris, where the well-off do not live, but the difference is that they never lived there.  The difference is that the French would never consider moving out of the Luxembourg Quarter just because their new neighbors might seem to be of a lower class.  After all, the Luxembourg Quarter is the Luxembourg Quarter.

The American culture of capitalism was another road-block for my family to truly understanding my living situation.  Surely, someone realized the profit to be made from renting the top floor apartments to young students, bought up the entire floor of sixteen rooms, and renovated them to create eight apartments—for there are eight tenants currently living on this floor.  Each of the apartments would be affixed with a kitchenette, and a shower, and use a bathroom down the hall.  The fact that my neighbor’s apartment was different meant that someone made the two apartments noticeably and intentionally inégal.  This makes no sense to an American—and probably wouldn’t make sense to the French either, if the argument were presented that way.  Except this idea of snatching up this real-estate city space, improving it, and renting it out for a profit is an American mindset, not necessarily a French one.  The French might be more likely to think, “They’re just the old servant’s quarters, after all.  Writers, students, and the elderly sometimes rent them because they can’t afford anything else, but the rooms are probably better suited for storage space,”—which is perhaps true. 

But this doesn’t answer the question: If the area is unfit for living, why doesn’t someone gut the whole thing and make it fit for living?  This is, after all, what an American would do to a nice bourgeoisie apartment building like this one, in the middle of a nice area like the Luxembourg Quarter.  The French wouldn’t.  The French wouldn’t gut any building built before 1915—if they’d consider gutting any building at all.  They’ll demolish them, and tear them down, and build up around them.  But they won’t tear out the insides of a building that is just fine the way it is.  Recall my explanation about the elevator; how if the Parisien’s could have gotten away without adding one, they would have.  They are not the proud owner of the contraption, it is just a convenience.  Similarly, gutting out the servant’s quarters to create nicer apartments would be like fixing something that isn’t broken.  Let me also use my own apartment as an example: the apartment may have been wholly renovated to include electrical outlets, a kitchenette, a shower and a heater, but the floor remains the red-clay hexagon tile.

Consider the idea that it’s in the blood of American culture to improve on what isn’t broken and to consider broken what is merely less efficient.  Europeans in general—particularly when dealing with domestic buildings—are not this way.  The British have a saying they use often, “I couldn’t be bothered.”  It’s not a thoughtless, rude or dismissive statement—it is recognition that there are some things there is no reason to doing, like turning the page of  newspaper when there’s still a story on the front page that interests you, or getting up for a chocolate when there are almonds in a bowl beside you.  It’s not that the idea isn’t worth doing, or that there wouldn’t be a point to doing it, or even that doing it is a significant amount of trouble.  It’s just that it works fine the way it is, and no one is really complaining, and individual proprietors are improving the apartments little by little, so why should anyone be bothered?

I lost my audience long before I could accurately explain these cultural differences I find so fascinating: something as simple as a staircase or whether or not an apartment has a toilet is attached not only to history but to mentality—a mentality which runs deep.  Buildings aren’t just about form or function; they aren’t just about changing and being changed.  In fact, it’s a little more than that.  Carl Jung afforded to artists the responsibility of tapping into the collective unconscious and presenting its truths to the world, but it turns out that cultural experience is organized not only by painting or tapestry, but by the very halls we walk in, and the very stairs we climb.  The detailed truths of how we consider the world around us are presented to us by small inefficient elevators, by the remnants of old doors in the hallway, and by whether or not we would gut our seventh-floor servant’s quarters for a profit.  The very fact that an American would do something so differently than it has been done here is proof that our histories have a place in our cultures, that our cultures have a place in our mentality, and that our mentality shapes the world we inhabit.


  1. You didn't lose me, I always like reading your posts, thanks for sharing. Those are interesting ideas to be sure, I recently wrote a sociology of development paper regarding the stratification of societies, differences in varying countries histories that change the way they are now and many developers claim for the need of a strong middle class etc. and seeing some of these social class principles in play even in architecture and space and living conditions and pieces of culture today where you are was interesting and thoughtful. You are clearly very aware of the culture you are in despite its differences from your own and it's a great perspective to see through your posts.

  2. How do you find your own mentality being shaped by your experiences in ol' Paris? In a place like this little Tibetan community in South India, cultural differences tend to be so diametrically opposed from US norms that they are often charming/shocking, though a bit of an open mind and critical thinking generally reveals reasons for their existences and normalizes them.Paris is a Western country, with differences coming in at angles generally other than 180 degrees. How do you find yourself being affected by these differences, not so much intellectually, but emotionally/internally/reflexively?

    I've found that it is generally easier to accept beliefs and actions that are far different than my own, and that the beliefs and actions that grate on me most are the ones that differ only in small ways. I think it's one of the reasons folks who live in third world countries for a while are likely to feel Proustian about their paradis perdus when they leave: Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus.I don't tend to hear similar sentiments quite as much from folks who study abroad/live for a few years in another Western country.The third world sentiments are readily absorbed, while other first world sentiments are judged much more qualitatively and more often rejected. This is just a suggestion - I'm sure it's not true in many cases.

    So, back to the question - how do you find yourself being shaped by your time along the Seine?

  3. Also important question - how do you find the Seine being shaped by its time along you?

    Have you found anything out about where Americans would stay historically speaking? Did they just mesh in with the French depending on social status? Or did their status as foreigners push them further up in the apartment building or to other neighborhoods?

    Okay, so many questions, but do you find yourself struggling with the tiny apartment, or do you get used to it? I have always kind of liked the idea of small living spaces. Maybe not that tiny, but I don't really like big houses. I am curious about the reality.