City devitalization in France

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Albi, a declining town in southwest France. (NYT)

Towns and small cities in France have experienced in recent years something similar to what happened to towns and cities in America during the last half of the 20th century. In France they call urban renewal and suburban sprawl by another name, urban devitalization, the obverse of our optimistic term, urban revitalization.

France is a nation so proud of its national character and its culture that it has an official office to protect the French language from outside influences. It worked for a while but has not worked very well lately. French now bubbles with Americanisms – happy hour, brainstorming, weekend, brunch, job, swag, thug, ASAP, marketing, dress code and more than a mere host of others. The Académie française was founded in 1635 by the Cardinal Richelieu, and it still exists, not that you could tell lately.

Today the New York Times ran a story by Adam Nossiter, “As France’s Towns Wither, Fear of a Decline in ‘Frenchness,’” on the devitalization of Albi, a town an hour from Toulouse in France’s southwest. Nossiter (son of WaPo’s Bernard?) met with a French blogger, Florian Jourdaine, who has written on his blog a meticulous diary of Albi’s decline, shop by shop. Nossiter writes:

To him, Albi’s fate was a cultural misfortune. City leaders had poured money into a high-concept modernistic new culture center at the town’s edge. And the shopping mall had been built. Large grocery chains, called hypermarkets, had also been constructed outside the city, with free parking. It is not that Albi no longer had commerce, or activity. But the essence of the ancient city was being lost.

Things may be even worse in rural France. The architecture critic Robert Russell posted this comment after reading Nossiter’s article:

I was in southern France last May/June and was shocked to see what looked like whole villages closed up: every building shuttered, no one on the streets. I was looking for a putty knife and went through four entire towns before I found a hardware store. These were old agricultural villages but it looked like French ag is following the path of American mega-ag: the fields are getting bigger, the machinery is getting bigger and the farmers are going away.

Of course, plus ça change and all that. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, to take another tack, change is the only constant. Two healthy clichés that we all use all the time. So do things change or do they not? France is debating that now. America has debated it for a long time. On second thought, so has France. Does a nation have the right to place limits on change? It is even possible to avoid change? What sort of change? Is it fair to describe some change as good and other change as bad? These questions seem to answer themselves, but they do not. What is national character? Is it something we are bound to respect? In France? In America? Or do the forces that degrade it warrant equal respect? Oops! Excuse me for bringing it up.

(I have run two photos from Nossiter’s story that seem to belie the loss of “Frenchness” in Albi. Other photographs with his story seem to confirm it. Readers can seem them and the story through the link above, but maybe they should think of popping some pills, “uppers,” before reading his story. Or, as NBC puts it on certain “Dateline” reports by news anchor, Lester Holt, #DontWatchAlone.)

(For more detail on his trip to France from Robert Russell, who now teaches at Salve Regina University, in Newport, R.I., scroll down below the following photo. A reader has asked him where he went in France.)

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Street in Albi belies decline of its “Frenchness.” (NYT)

Mostly in the Aude and Tarn regions. We had a free house in a bastide – one of those fortified towns the French built when they took the south over in the 13th c. – north of Carcassonne. It had once been a bustling town (I won’t say thriving), but its population is down to about 40, mostly octagenarians. You had to go a couple of miles down the valley to get to a place that had a general store open a couple of afternoons a week.

Carcassonne, by the way, seems to be doing pretty well, though its economy is based almost completely on tourism. Most of its daily commerce has been relocated outside of town, pretty much as described in the NYT article about Albi. The same could be said for Aigues-Mortes, east, in the Bouches-du-Rhone. But it is a fake town, also based on tourism, though I’m sure the few inhabitants would object to that characterization.

We made one trip to Toulouse and on to Moissac in the Midi Pyrenees. We stayed off the A-roads (autoroutes – French high-speed toll roads) and took the national roads, which take twice as long to get anywhere. They also go through the many old villages bypassed by the fast roads, places you have never heard of: Cabardes, Lastours, Revel, Villemur-sur-Tarn, Labastide St.Pierre, La Ville Dieu du Temple. That last one takes longer to say than to drive through. Those are the places that are dead. The farm machinery is too big now to fit in the old barns, so it sits out in the weather.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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7 Responses to City devitalization in France

  1. The NY Times asked for comments. Below is one.
    The article writer quoted a resident: “They always say yes to the shopping center developers.”
    Well it seems like that quote explains why the town’s mayor was avoiding him: Was he and other politicians paid off?

    The article was very good in painting the picture of a depressed place. It failed to explain why the city center was so dead. Sure, it mentioned the shopping center outside town. But other towns in Europe and USA have refused big box retailers. The writer was too subtle about why the big boxes got built. He should have examined more carefully if the politicians were paid off. That possibility would explain the behavior of the mayor and others (their avoiding contact, which is a typical modus that earmarks the crooked).

    But key to downtown vitality is life, namely having a critical mass of people living there. Why did people stop living in the Albi town center? That was never explained.
    Probably because the housing quality was too outmoded, maybe even slummy, and the landlords never made improvements, despite charging too much rent. So people moved to the new subdivisions on the outskirts, where developers got permits to build. In some parts of Europe subdivisions are allowed beyond the greenbelt borders that most Europe countries have established, because the politicians ignore the zoning and planning laws. If you wonder why, then watch some of the British television detective dramas, like Midsomer Murders, that deal with town planning connivance.

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  2. barry says:

    So depressing, I’ve been in Albi with its fine parks, fortress like old cathedral, wonderful Toulouse-Latrec museum, its hard to believe this fine town could decline so much, no wonder others with less tourism potential are hurting. I hope tourists will keep coming despite some decline.
    Two underlying factors:
    the drive everywhere-free-parking culture which replaces downtown commerce with suburban “hypermarches,” all almost alike in having one ugly building with a big, big market with everything, a few smaller stores, an indifferent cafe/bar with plastic food, maybe a cafeteria, and acres of free parking. For those who can afford to drive, the convenience of these places is too tempting though this personal convenience is ruining the beautiful, historic centers. Hard to see what can be done about it, a good example of “Tragedy of the Commons” where everyone pursuing rational self-interest ruins the commons for all. Even when there is a critical mass of people downtown, auto traffic deters use of the traditional sidewalk cafes which are eroding away, though sometimes semi-pedestrian zones helps keep some going. (plus being allowed to smoke only outside.)
    The other issue which is sometimes deliberately underplayed relates to masses of unassimilated immigrants who by and large do not appear to accept French cultural values but when numerous enough deter others from being in the area.

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    • So sad. I assume the old town centers in France are becoming even more exclusively the domain of the wealthy, with modernist control of development deterring the rise of new places of beauty there as in the U.S., bidding up the price of existing such places. There is little reason to expect things to change for the better, however many New Urbanists there may be, what with even New Urbanism expressing doubt about beauty. Maybe the last hope for the democratization of beautiful places is about to vanish. Hope not.

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  3. We’ll be having a brief stop in and around Albi for about 2 days on our way up to the department of Aveyron.

    It’s not good to hear of this. France has always held such an allure for me, but reading this, it looks like it’s going the way of the UK.

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  4. David,

    The French only get what they deserve! As elsewhere in the world where wonderful historic cities have died, some portion of the population wanted shopping centers and strip malls. The people’s democratically-elected representatives eagerly approved them, and the global multinationals who own the chain stores moved in. That’s the end of local commerce.

    But wait for the next step. As the old historic center dies or fills up with legal/illegal refugees, real-estate speculators buy it up for next-to-nothing, then bulldoze everything to build glass office towers. Or maybe a “state-of-the-art” convention center. A lot of money can be made from destroying millennial culture since the common citizen no longer values it.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

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