Last Words on the Left Bank

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Nursing an espresso at a sidewalk cafe table in Paris' Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, 82-year-old Yvonne Leylavergne recalls the times when writers, artists, jazz-crazed youths and musicians turned the quarter into a cauldron of activity and conversation. "The place was so gay and noisy," she says. "It was like an ongoing fête." Those were the postwar days when French youth flocked to basement jazz clubs like Boris Vian's Tabou and danced all night to the pounding rhythms of Sidney Bechet and other expatriate American musicians. Above ground, existential writer-philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were conceiving their books and essays at the Flore and Deux Magots cafes.

For at least two centuries before that, Saint-Germain-des-Pres, with its theaters, cafes and fine arts academy, had been one of Paris' most culturally rich neighborhoods. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau debated in the Cafe Procope. Later generations of writers and philosophers, ranging from Baudelaire to Wilde and Hemingway, left their mark on the legendary Cafe Voltaire, the Brasserie Lipp and such bookstores as Le Divan and Shakespeare and Company.

All that welter of life and creativity is threatened by an invasion of boutiques and upscale chain stores. The transformation began in 1966 when the first of four Yves Saint Laurent stores opened there. Three years ago, Le Divan bookstore was replaced by a Christian Dior outlet. Next to go was Le Drugstore, a late-night rendezvous where one could buy books, have a meal or see a movie; it was transformed two years ago into a sleek Emporio Armani clothing store. With the subsequent arrival of Cartier, Lancel and others, the area risks becoming a ghetto de luxe. The upmarket invasion has contributed to an exodus of the traditional residents. "Money has replaced the existentialist philosophy," charges Annie Maillet, a local art gallery employee. "It's a sad period for Saint-Germain."

Locals have formed no fewer than six associations to fight what they denounce as a "catastrophic" situation. The closing of Le Divan has "put in jeopardy the identity of Saint-Germain," says Pascale Joannin, spokeswoman for a group of 1,500 residents — among them Catherine Deneuve and Charles Aznavour — formed to preserve the cultural history of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

Joannin's association and another local committee of cafe and shop owners have tried to fight back, sponsoring exhibitions to give artists the opportunity to display their work in stores, hotels and bookshops. "We are trying to merge business and culture," she says. The Cafe de Flore also plays its part. The first Wednesday of every month it houses "Cafe des Philosophes," where people can meet upstairs from 7-9 pm to "share thoughts on human existence, the arts. etc." The discussion is in English. The Flore also holds play readings in English, because many of the newcomers to the area are English speakers, the first three Mondays of every month and ends each month with a French reading of an English play. Actors present works by authors such as Christopher Hampton, George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard. Jacques Mathivat, proprietor of the Deux Magots and founder of a committee of cafe and shop owners, says the goal is not to resist commerce but to involve the stores in the community's cultural side. To celebrate the artistic souls that have flourished in the quarter, Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres was last month renamed in honor of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

But there is little chance that resistance by locals can hold back the tide. Two years ago, two of the area's jazz clubs closed their doors. "Only wealthy tourists can afford to come in this place," says Stephane Roger, drummer for six years at Le Bilboquet, Saint-Germain's last remaining jazz joint. A year ago, the popular Cafe Saint-Sulpice was replaced by the Sequoia chain store specializing in chic leather bags. Rumor had it that the next victims might be the Cafe de la Mairie or even the venerable Deux Magots, but both insist that, while they have fewer customers at night, the influx of new shops has actually helped their business.

Those who are spearheading the changes deny that they are destroying the neighborhood's cultural fabric. LVMH marketing executive Patrick Ville argues that the 1950s philosophy and the jazz age are long gone and that the locals should simply resign themselves to the changes.

"To preserve the spirit here, one has to have a spirited mind," says Sonia Rykiel, whose fashion house has four boutiques in Saint-Germain. "Dior and Armani have that." Indeed, Dior has added a kitchenware section to its store, while Armani has included a cafe, a newspaper stand and a music corner in its megastore.

But many locals see these blend-in gestures as symbolic, rearguard actions in a battle that is already lost. "Things are changing, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," sighs Yvonne Leylavergne, as she finishes her espresso and prepares to walk home. Will her familiar cafe table be there tomorrow?