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Paris’ mode moderne

Times Staff Writer

WOULD Ernest Hemingway approve of Wi-Fi at the Cafe de Flore?

If Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has his way, free wireless Internet will soon be on offer in public places throughout the city, including the cafe haunts on the Left Bank where the master of the chiseled phrase used to write longhand in small black notebooks.

Though it may be a little hard to imagine Hemingway writing “A Farewell to Arms” on a laptop, Delanoe is betting that “le Wi-Fi” (pronounced “wee-fee” here) is one of many changes in Paris that will attract creative spirits as well as legions of young people who might otherwise flee the tradition-bound city for places closer to the cutting edge.

Delanoe, 56, a socialist with strong views about how to make Paris competitive in the 21st century, has been reshaping the city’s image since he was elected in 2001. He wants to make Paris greener, more high tech, less uptight.

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“Paris is extremely strong when it is most welcoming,” Delanoe told a news magazine shortly after his election. Previous mayors and the national government, he said, had “museumified” the city.

His goal is both to attract young people, some of whom in recent years have chosen to move to London for employment opportunities, and to attract new business, which increasingly looks to Eastern Europe or the Far East when opening offices.

“We can’t leave Asian cities like Seoul or Tokyo, or American cities like San Francisco or Philadelphia, to make the running” -- that is, to dominate -- “in digital matters,” said Delanoe this year when he announced plans to create 400 free wireless hot spots.

A mayor has little control over some of the policies most needed to assure that young people have prospects, but when it comes to making the face of Paris more inviting and helping the French capitalize on their leisure time, Delanoe is doing all he can. Since his election, the city has launched an impressive array of projects.

Paris Plage, the beach on the Seine, complete with brightly colored deck chairs and umbrellas set among 2,000 tons of sand trucked in by the city, has been an international sensation and a hit with Parisians stuck in the city during the dog days of summer. Year-round, roller-bladers and walkers replace cars along the quays on Sundays, and soon it will be possible to rent bicycles at low cost in the Metro subway stations for those who want to bike around central Paris.

Less well known is the massive work being done on a tramway designed to circle Paris, allowing residents of outlying districts to travel from one to another without having to go through the city center. The tram, which will be bordered by lawns and thousands of trees, is one of an array of policies aimed at improving the polluted Parisian environment. The hope is to reduce pollution emissions in the city by 50% by 2010.

The city also hopes to lay fiber-optic cables to 80% of its buildings by 2010 and has just inaugurated the Paris Biopark, a 333,000-square-foot complex for biotech companies.

“When we came into office in 2001, we had a city proud of its history, its beauty, its tourism, but employment was decreasing, population was decreasing, young families could not afford to stay here because they had trouble finding affordable housing,” said Christian Sautter, deputy mayor in charge of economic development and finance. “So we decided to work in three areas: culture, high technology and transportation.”

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The new tram should be an incentive for people to leave their cars at home, mayoral officials said.

“We had buses that went around the city’s borders, but they had 60,000 passengers a day, people were packed like fish in boxes,” said Stephen Leclerc, a senior transportation expert in Delanoe’s office.

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BEAUTIFUL, expensive, crowded and beset with gridlock traffic from early morning until late evening, Paris offers the traditional urban mix of glamour and vexation. Immigrants struggle to afford to live in the city so that they have access to work; people in the suburbs are furious that getting into the city remains so difficult.

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Notwithstanding the Wi-Fi, Paris remains an old-fashioned city in many regards. Supermarkets close at 9 p.m., most restaurants close on Sunday and do not serve after 10:30 in the evening; the long working hours common in London, New York and Tokyo are unheard of here.

When Paris does embrace the modern, it often comes in the form of avant-garde art or architecture rather than deeper alterations in its infrastructure -- or its culture.

In the last 2,000 years, Paris has been remade many times by powerful rulers, each intent on putting his imprint on the city. Delanoe has tried to balance the interests of Parisians who venerate the city’s 19th century architectural heritage with those who want to see the city innovate and respond to the massive need for subsidized housing for low-income families.

“In Paris, the remaking is not finished,” said Michel Carmona, a historian at the Sorbonne University who has written extensively on the history of Paris. “And maybe you can say it will never be finished.”

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As is often the case with the mayor’s approach to urban planning, the city is looking back to go forward. In 1900, Paris had more than 100 tram routes; by 1930, they had almost all been dismantled as the Metro expanded and more people could afford cars.

Now, with traffic often at a standstill at peak hours, trams are looking attractive again. The first section of the new tramway will open in December. Also on the agenda for this year is extending Metro hours on weekends -- it now closes citywide at 1 a.m. and reopens at 5 a.m. -- and increasing bus service on weekends, when the trains are scarce.

The focus on public transportation is part of a larger effort to reclaim the city’s sidewalks and boulevards for pedestrians. That effort also includes programs to create small parks in every neighborhood so that people would be able to walk to green spaces rather than having to climb into their cars or crowd onto the subways to get to the vast Bois de Boulogne or one of the other large parks.

In 1898, when the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro completed his haunting cityscapes of the Avenue de l’Opera in sun and rain, the street life he captured was a world of gracious boulevards, outdoor cafes with ranks of sidewalk tables and above all a sense of space. Urban, yes, but never crowded. There was plenty of room for ladies with parasols and men in top hats to wend their way across the avenues traversed by horse-drawn carriages and even more room to promenade on the broad sidewalks.

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The Avenue de l’Opera today still has a gracious air, but it is crowded with cars that overwhelm the lungs with exhaust fumes and the ear with the sound of horns and the roar of engines. Motorcycles careen between cars and pedestrians, making crossing the street hazardous. The trees that once lined many of the avenues are gone, either killed off by pollution or removed as the streets were broadened to accommodate more cars, Leclerc said.

“Since the late 19th century, sidewalks have been progressively redone,” he said. “Today they are one-third of the width that they were then. Trees were destroyed.... The municipal government is trying to take space from cars and give it back to pedestrians.”

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THE work is gradually paying off, although some of the policies that planners believe are essential for Paris have some politically unpopular corollaries. In Paris, for instance, the result of discouraging people from using their cars and limiting surface parking has been a proliferation of motorcycles, which creates problems of its own -- as the mayor heard at a recent town hall meeting.

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Delanoe, who favors an informal American style of politics, holds a couple of town meetings every month, each in a different arrondissement, or district. This one, held in the ornate Salle de Marriage of the City Hall for the 4th arrondissement, drew about 500 people although it was a rainy weekday evening.

The 4th arrondissement is a buzzing neighborhood on the Right Bank of the Seine. Once a Jewish quarter, it is crisscrossed with small streets lined with chic clothing boutiques, a crowded gay bar scene and one of the most beautiful squares in the city, the 17th century Place des Vosges. It also often is beset with all but impassable traffic because of the combination of cramped streets and busy commerce. During his town hall, Delanoe got an earful.

“The car traffic decreased 15% since 2001, but the two-wheel traffic has increased by 20%,” said one indignant man who had stood in line for the open mike. “Everybody can see that the sidewalks now are obstructed by motorcycles. The drivers maneuver the motorcycles into the bus lanes where the bicyclers are also supposed to ride, and that makes it very dangerous for a family that is bicycling.”

Delanoe sighed. He knows that reducing traffic is a Rubik’s Cube. “We’ve been asking Parisians to use their cars as little as possible. A lot of them chose to use motorcycles. Now, I can’t ignore that they’ve taken that first step of not using their cars -- it’s progress.”

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On a sunny Sunday, the Parc Monceau again hums with life. Originally designed as a sort of private garden for the luxurious mansions of the fashionable 8th arrondissement, it has long since become a public park, extending into the more bourgeois 17th arrondissement, populated by Parisians of more diverse backgrounds.

Beloved by impressionist painters for its duck pond surrounded by neoclassic arches, the park’s twisting paths pass by statues half hidden in the foliage, making its few acres seem far larger.

Under Delanoe, prohibitions on sitting on the lawn have become a thing of the past, and fathers and sons play soccer, performance artists juggle, families picnic, and couples sit reading.

The park’s delicate poplars and broad maples have changed little over the last 200 years, but on this Sunday, Asians and Arabs, white Europeans and black Africans all saunter through the trees, offering a glimpse of what Paris could become: the past and the present, with a future.

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alissa.rubin@latimes.com


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