Saturday, September 8, 2012

Changes afoot on the Seine River expressways

After fifty years of noisy traffic clogging large parts of the banks of the Seine River, the Paris city council has finally decided to change things in favor of Parisian pedestrians. Following a €35 million plan to renovate the banks of the Seine approved last year, the city completed the first phase of the plan on August 31, and I've made yet another video showing the changes.

The Voie Express Georges Pompidou is a kind of expressway that runs along much of the right (north) bank of the Seine River through Paris. It was a pet project of the late French president Georges Pompidou, after whom it was named. Since the 1960s cars have been racing along the expressway from west to east, except for month-long interruptions for Paris Plages during the summer over the past decade.

The changes made this summer include narrowing the expressway, installing sidewalks and grass for Parisians to enjoy along the river, and installing traffic lights that force traffic to stop and start along the expressway and also provide pedestrians with a way of reaching the water's edge. The results are much prettier than the old expressway. And despite dire predictions made by opponents of the changes, traffic doesn't seem to have become much worse with the new arrangement.

In fact, 80% of Parisians don't even have a driver's license, much less a car, and use public transportation to get around. The cars and scooters whizzing down the expressway are mostly from the suburbs. So Parisians suffer very little from these changes and profit from them substantially, while suburbanites who insist on driving through central Paris are going to find doing so to be even slower than it used to be.

The modifications seem to be partly inspired by Paris Plages, the very successful transformation of the expressway that is carried out every summer, turning it into a kind of giant beach resort. I tried walking down the new sidewalks, and apart from the noise of traffic, it was quite nice. The traffic moves in blobs, because of the traffic lights, and the contrast in noise level between the moments when traffic is passing and the moments when it's not is astonishing.

The video was made on September 4, the first day with any real traffic on the expressway. Things looked pretty smooth to me. The first phase of the changes concerns only the stretch between City Hall and the quai Henri IV. It incorporates an existing riverside park from 1933 that has been completely modernized and renovated.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An almost secret garden, and well-hidden memorials

Even as the clouds of doom gather in the distance, I continue to produce videos. One is a video of an extremely secluded park in Paris, the other is a video of some Holocaust memorials.

The first video shows the Anne Frank Garden, a small park just east of the Pompidou Center and practically unknown to everyone who doesn't live in the immediate neighborhood. It's at the end of a twisty, dead-end, pedestrian street, and you can easily walk past it without realizing that it's there. It was opened in 2007 and was named after Anne Frank, that German girl who hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands for a time during the Second World War and was eventually betrayed and deported to a concentration camp. She is famous because of her insightful diary, perhaps in part because so many people are unwilling to believe that a 13-year-old can have intelligent thoughts.

Anyway, this little park is divided into three parts. The first part features a tree descended from a tree that Anne used to admire near her hiding place. The second part is a renovation of a 17th-century garden adjacent to a mansion that is now a museum of Judaism (although there's no direct access between the museum and the park). The third part features a tiny garden maintained by a local non-profit association.

The park is completely surrounded by buildings, except for the small pedestrian street that leads to the entrance.

The other video shows two memorials to the WWII mass arrest and deportation of Jews in France that is known as the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police, at the behest of the German occupation, arrested 13,152 Jews and crammed 8000 of them into the Vélodrome d'Hiver, a multi-purpose sports arena that emphasized cycling competitions. The doors were locked and the windows screwed shut, there were no toilets, no food, and only a single water tap, and they were kept there for four days before being sent off to Auschwitz. The willingness and eagerness with which French police cooperated with the Germans, even above and beyond the German instructions (as by arresting 4000 children, even though the Germans did not order this), have made the incident one of the darkest and most shameful days in French history.

There are two memorials. One is a simple plaque near the site of the vélodrome (which was torn down in 1959), the other is a small memorial near the Seine River. It's ironic that the former location of the vélodrome is now occupied by the Interior Ministry, the same government entity that sent the police out to arrest all those Jews in 1942. The plaque and the flowers are on the boulevard de Grenelle and are very inconspicuous. The other memorial is even more secluded, hidden from the quai de Grenelle by bushes and at the end of a long plaza. It's almost as if … as if the government were trying to hide these memorials.

That two consecutive videos are linked to the Holocaust is a coincidence, though. I chose the Anne Frank Garden for a video simply because it is so sneakily hidden, and I chose the Vel' d'Hiv' memorial for a video because I was already filming in the same area and some people have asked me about the incident since the release of the movie Sarah's Key. I'm not one of those Holocaust fanatics setting up new memorials on every city block, but I do find the behavior of the French government in the Vel' d'Hiv' incident to be worse than despicable.

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