In 1780 a French playwright named Louis-Sebastien Mercier made a brief trip across the Channel to have a look at London. He was, according to Jonathan Conlin, about to write “a series of short pen-portraits” of life in Paris, and before writing it he “recognized that there was one thing he had to do: visit London, the largest city in Europe.” He understood that there were lessons to be learned there:

“It was impossible, Mercier believed, to pretend to know Paris without knowing something of London, too: ‘Neighbour and rival, it is inevitable that in talking of Paris one comes to consider London. The parallel suggests itself. These cities are so similar and so different, yet bear such a strong resemblance to one another that, to paint the portrait of one, it is not, I think, out of place to take a look at some of the other’s traits.’ ”

Conlin takes Mercier’s observation as the jumping-off point for his own provocative examination of the relationship between the two cities from the beginning of the 18th century to the onset of World War I. An American-born historian who studied and now teaches in England, he writes: “England was the only nation that could stand up to French power and influence. ‘Paris holds sway in Switzerland, in Italy, in Germany and in Holland,’ Mercier noted, but Paris did not hold sway in England; indeed, the relationship between Paris and London was that of rivals, rather than that of ruler and subject, a relationship characterized by mutual fascination, not by one-sided obedience.” Mercier “imagined the London-Paris relationship as a conversation about how to create the ideal city or utopia,” this at a moment in history when cities were emerging from post-medieval squalor and starting to reshape themselves for the conditions of the modern world.

Conlin divides his study of how the two cities influenced each other into six sections: “the home, looking at the development of the apartment block in Paris and attempts to introduce the horizontal way of life to London”; the street, in which the “solitary, male urban walker or flaneur is held to be the quintessential representative of urban modernity”; the restaurant and how differently the two cities viewed it; places “for dancing and singing in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in particular the music hall”; the “nocturnal, criminal underworld, which provides the missing links that connect the most mundane, routine details of our lives with the remarkable, unspeakable exceptions”; and the “garden cemetery,” where “the middle class created their ideal city, a model for the ‘garden suburbs’ in which the living would, eventually, find their own resting place.”

All of these inquiries are interesting and revealing, but the crucial one seems to be the second. Walking is in many ways at the heart of urban life, or at least it was until the automobile barged in and made the cityscape considerably less safe for pedestrians. “Flaneur,” the word Conlin employs to describe the “solitary male walker, who sauntered around the city streets without any goal or purpose in mind, intent only on collecting impressions,” is of course French and was most notably employed by the poet Charles Baudelaire, but Conlin argues that the appearance of “this type of urban walking . . . so much earlier in London [than in Paris] reflected the improvements in urban design — pavements, gutters, street lamps — adopted after the Great Fire of 1666, particularly in the fashionable squares of the city’s western fringes.”

‘Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City’ by Jonathan Conlin (Counterpoint )

This was in sharp contrast to Paris, where in the early 18th century “the carriage was king,” sidewalks were nonexistent, and the streets were clogged with mud, providing a living for “the decroteurs of Paris: boys and men who gathered on bridges and major road junctions, offering to remove the filth from one’s footwear.” Not until the 1780s did sidewalks begin to appear in Paris, “as part of the redevelopment of the Odeon quarter,” which in turn led to a development of immense importance to urban culture: window-shopping. This was already well advanced in London, where the shopfronts “continued to astonish Parisian visitors throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, not only because they had windows but because those on major streets were illuminated at night, staying open until 8 or 9 p.m.”

By the mid-19th century, writers and artists in both cities “were among the first to celebrate the urban promenade as a source of delight and mystery in its own right, rather than as an unpleasant passage through the city’s monstrously distended body, undertaken only by those unfortunate enough to lack a carriage.” Advertisements rose along the street to appeal to passers-by on foot, signs that “turned even a short walk into something magical,” soon to be joined by the sandwich-man in the 1820s, “known in French as hommes affiches (‘poster men’) or affiches ambulantes (‘walking posters’),” though they originated in England and were copied in France.

If the street is at the heart of Conlin’s analysis, the night is close to it in importance. The restaurant evolved from a midday eating place to a nocturnal one, and except for the occasional matinee the music hall was entirely a creature of the night. Until the development in both cities of street lighting, “the urban night wasn’t just stygian, it was invisible. It wasn’t that city-dwellers feared the interval between dusk and dawn (though some did); it simply did not exist for them. It was dead time, a void.” Streetlights changed that forever, but night remained (as it does to this day) a time of intensified crime and gave birth to that essential genre of urban culture, the detective or crime novel. “In detective fiction the metropolis is a palimpsest,” a parchment on which the city’s story can be written:

“We are fascinated by detectives because they decipher the metropolis, reading it as a coherent whole, locating the hidden connections that unite different neighborhoods, ranks and professions. Though the web is one of violent crime, it is nonetheless reassuring to know that ‘there’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life,’ precisely because as we unravel it we are bringing justice to bear on evil. There is something comforting in knowing that the mundane trivia of our everyday lives have a meaning, that there is a signal in the white noise that forms the constant background to city life. . . . Far from solving the mysteries of the city by means of scientific investigation, the detective re-enchants it for us. He creates mystery.”

This is interesting but is perhaps most sensibly filed away in the department of academic overreaching. Conlin is on more solid ground when he turns to that repository of endless night, the cemetery. The “garden cemetery” began to appear in the early 19th century, as space in the city for burying the dead began to shrink and concerns about public health increased. The answer was provided outside Paris, most gloriously by the immense Pere Lachaise and subsequently by Kensal Green outside London. This time Conlin gets it right:

“When Pere Lachaise, Kensal Green and their imitators first appeared, they were partly surrounded by fields. Within three or four decades the city overwhelmed them. Even in their current state they nonetheless afford a remarkable opportunity to experience an ideal city, a city that nineteenth-century city-dwellers managed to create only for the dead. In these necropolises, curving paths snake among trees, subtly demarcating areas assigned to different classes of wealth. Each family has its proud plot, at once intimate and showy, located as close as possible to the ‘desirable’ central paths as the family can afford to be. Gothic, Egyptian, Celtic and Greek-style monuments sit cheek by jowl in cheerful eclecticism. Meanwhile the poor are largely invisible, relegated to unmarked paupers’ graves on the cemetery’s periphery.”

The two famous old cemeteries are not exact replicas of each other, but they leave no doubt about the extent to which Paris and London shaped not merely themselves but one another. In exploring this subject in depth, Conlin has made a most useful addition to the history of cities and the people who inhabit them.


Paris, London, and the Birth
of the Modern City

By Jonathan Conlin

Counterpoint. 312 pp. $30