24 July 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood

You can't fight City Hall. In Beynes, you can hardly stand to look at it.

The old town of Beynes, the Bourg as it’s called, is a cluster of homes along the main street, the rue de la République, which crosses, then more or less follows the course of the tiny river Mauldre. Grey-stone houses, including the one in which I live, line the street, and for years, one of the more picturesque views in town has been afforded from my front door: the neo-classical city hall (now an elementary school); a fine old farmhouse, and its detached barn, a long, low two-story building.

I haven’t been here long enough to know where the farm itself was, whether it extended behind the farmhouse and barn or whether it was somewhere else altogether, outside the city limits, with all the other local farms. But until a few years ago, the farmer was still there. Around seven every morning he’d begin puttering around the grounds, and the rusty creak of his opening shutters was like an alarm clock. He lived alone, and he wasn’t talkative: I encountered him on the street a few times, and we exchanged no more than a few words.

Then one morning his shutters didn’t creak open. My next-door neighbor noticed, and she went to inquire. The old man was dead on the floor of his kitchen.

Since his death, the property across the street has been divided. The farmhouse is being neatly refurbished, but the old barn was marked for destruction. I’m still not sure which plan won out, but neither the proposed parking lot nor the proposed municipal building could possibly match the barn’s romantic charm. Folks seemed to be taking their time in tearing it down: the old clay tiles came off slowly, one by one, as if a stiff but leisurely windstorm were on the attack. This made the barn seem only more pittoresque, in the French sense, not only worthy of a picture but also falling apart. Since my friends Kara and Konrad gave me a digital camera not long ago, I resolved to shoot a few pictures for myself, and if I’d been quicker about it, I could have have posted them here. But this morning, a steam shovel pulled up, and by four o’clock, the barn was gone.

There’s a gaping hole in the farmyard now, with big white rocks piled high beside a stack of ancient timber. The builders hardly bothered to hew the tree trunks from which they constructed their pillars and beams: you can see the knobs where branches used to be.

The view out the back window of my house has changed, too. A line of poplars used to border the Mauldre, but two years ago I looked out the living-room window to see something startling: the tawny spine of the wheat-swept hillside across the river. The poplars had always blocked it from my view, but the city fathers decided the trees were sickly and had to be cut down. This was a lie. One had only to look at the fallen trunks to see that they were perfectly healthy.

When Bernard complained to city hall, a disdainful official told him that, really, he ought to trust the experts, and if the experts said the trees were dying, they were dying, and he ought not ask questions about subjects of which he was ignorant. I doubt many American officials would have dared to make such a response, but the French do trust experts, and their paternalistic government’s patronizing officials, much more than Americans would do. The loss of the poplars inspired no rebellion and only slight protest, apart from Bernard’s, which was too late in any case.

In a nation with nearly 10 percent unemployment, perhaps one shouldn’t begrudge the creation of a few jobs, and after all people did get paid to cut the old trees, to plant new ones, to install lamps, and to blaze a little jogging trail alongside the river. But the new trees are still saplings, and the riverbank is not so pleasant as it was. Maybe it’s a mercy that the summer has been so cold and rainy, because there’d be no refuge from the heat at the Mauldre’s edge.

Apart from a brief flurry in the sixteenth century, when Diane de Poitiers remodeled the Château and invited her friends to visit, Beynes was never destined to be a tourist destination. And judging from the way the townsfolk cannibalized the ruined Château, stealing stones for their homes (and, no doubt, for my neighbor’s barn), the concept of historical landmarks never did hold much weight in the local imagination. But the old town was pretty and quaint. It’s sad to lose any of that, and especially sad for an American. In the United States, there’s a rush to tear down and start fresh, and we define progress with a wrecking ball. Most structures never get the chance to grow old or to be appreciated by new generations of Americans. We lose the sense of continuity, the physical reminders that anything is older than we are.

The French haven’t always defined progress with a wrecking ball. At the Louvre, for example, successive kings sought to impose their taste by adding to the palace, not tearing it down. But modern misadventures in architecture have resulted in the outsized awfulness of les Halles, the Mittérand Library, and the Bastille Opera, and you can’t help thinking that whatever used to be there couldn’t have been any worse than what’s they’ve got now. Even in little Beynes, the new structures that replace old don’t seem worth the bother to build them: the old city hall is a stately manse, the new one a monstrosity.

Fortunately the city managed to salvage the old city hall: it was more cost-effective to convert the building than to build a new school. And therein lies hope. It would take more money than the French have got to tear down all this country’s old buildings and put up new ones.