Paris of the Prairies: What’s in the Name?

Some metaphors are meant to be purely formal. Others are endowed with some actuality and a twist of irony. The recent campaign by the local elites and “creative class” of Saskatoon to re-brand the city as “the Paris of the Prairies” falls into the latter category.

It appears as though this metaphor has no material basis. This re-branding may just be a new way of advertising the city as hip and fashionable. When I heard it for the first time, I simply dismissed it as a dumb PR campaign to promote gentrification and the bourgeois culture in general. But when I thought about the history of urban development in real Paris, I noticed an interesting parallel and contradiction implied in representing Saskatoon as its twin.

Paris as we know it today is a product of class struggle, like any other cities in the world. The most seminal transformation of the city happened between 1853 and 1870 when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte or Napoleon III, a self-proclaimed Emperor of the Second French Empire, and a protagonist of Marx’s 18th Brumare of Louis Bonaparte, appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann to direct its full-scale renovation. Haussmann’s plans included the annexation of the surrounding suburbs, and construction of new public works such as sewers, fountains, and aqueducts as well as new parks, squares, and avenues. The city centre was also peppered with symbols of modernity such as department stores and monuments.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann

Georges-Eugène Haussmann

Of course, Napoleon and Haussmann’s vision of new Paris was not only modern (in a cultural sense), but also ideological. Their plans also included the demolition of working-class neighbourhoods deemed unsanitary and overcrowded. Haussmann subsequently acquired the nickname of “the demolisher.” For Haussmann, however, these neighbourhoods were not a liability and even health hazards. They were politically dangerous.

Between 1830 and 1848, Paris experienced seven armed uprisings in which residents of these neighbourhoods actively participated. Narrowly constructed streets also made it easier for the rebels to build barricades. It was for this reason Haussmann’s plans included the construction of wide avenues and boulevards which made it easier for the troops to manoeuvre around and repress the people more effectively.

The Rue St. Nicolas du Charonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s

The Rue St. Nicolas du Charonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s

The avenue de l'Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898).

The avenue de l’Opéra, created by Haussmann, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898).

Haussmann overall understood very well that control of the population means control of the space, as David Harvey points out. Nonetheless, his plans not only failed to contain the working-class discontent, but also exacerbated it. While they sought to eradicate poverty, they only displaced it and moved it elsewhere. The speculative rise in the rents forced the poor to the city’s outskirts and the slums newly developed in the centre. This spatial segregation still persists to this day and has created conditions for social upheavals and the surge of revolutionary movement represented in the Paris Commune of 1871, the revolts of 1968, and the riots of 2005.

One of the battles at Paris Commune. Though significant, it ended in a colossal failure and most of its participants were massacred. Its lessons were learned in revolutionary movements that followed i.e Russian Revolution of 1917.

One of the battles at Paris Commune. Though significant, it ended in a colossal failure and most of its participants were massacred. Its lessons were learned in revolutionary movements that followed i.e Russian Revolution of 1917.

Nearly a century and half later in Saskatoon, Canada, a home of also very wide streets, a similarly draconian process is taking place. Like in Haussmann’s time, very little to no input is solicited from poor and working-class peoples. Posh restaurants, boutique cafes, and a hip “co-working” space increasingly occupy the core area of the city. River Landing is awaiting the construction of new luxury condos and a grotesquely modern art gallery that is going to replace Mendel Gallery but with entrance charge.

Despite the rhetoric of “diversity” and “mixed neigbourhoods,” increasing rent is already pushing the poor residents of Riversdale (mostly Indigenous and people of colour) further west and into suburbs, while the police constantly harass and terrorize them. These are all part of the bourgeoisie’s plan to transform Saskatoon into “the Paris of the Prairies.” Developers, city planners, and BIAs of this city are new Haussmanns of Saskatoon, albeit using less overt means and more liberal rhetoric. The extent of Saskatoon’s social apartheid and gentrification in Riversdale is vividly documented in Allan Casey’s reportage.

Pre-gentrified 20th Street in Riversdale, Saskatoon.

Pre-gentrified 20th Street in Riversdale, Saskatoon.

We should remember though that we are also seeing the contradictory effect of this process. It is not a coincidence that Idle No More emerged out of Riversdale and many local residents participated in it. People also took to City Plaza, a shopping mall located downtown, to hold round dances. This tactical choice was often criticized, but the location made sense. In spite of shopping malls being a symbol of hyper-modernity, consumerism and bourgeois ideology, it is also where many Indigenous residents of the neighbourhood frequent due to its geographical proximity and utility of the facilities in the building (i.e food court).

Idle No More round dace at City Plaza.

Idle No More round dace at City Plaza.

While the real consequence of “Haussmannization” of Saskatoon is yet to be seen, here is hoping that it will meet the fate similar to Napolen’s reign, as famously caricatured by Marx: First as farce, then as tragedy.

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