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  • Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-Siécle Capital by Alexia M. Yates
  • W. Brian Newsome
Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-Siécle Capital. By Alexia M. Yates (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 353 pp. $49.95).

In Selling Paris, Alexia Yates explores the role of private enterprise in the construction of Paris's built environment—particularly its housing stock—during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rather than privileging state and municipal actors, Yates focuses on the ventures of developers, architects, estate agents, and even renters. She builds on the scholarship of Jeanne Pronteau, David Van Zanten, and Ralph Kingston, who have analyzed the contributions of building entrepreneurs in the early 1800s, as well as the work of Pierre Pinon, who has highlighted the impact of the same over a broad sweep of time. But by concentrating on the years between the Commune and World War I, Yates deciphers the evolving forms of finance, commerce, and real estate that molded "both the built form and the social experience of the modern metropolis" (5).

The Prussian siege (1870–71) and the suppression of the Commune (1871) resulted in the damage or destruction of many Paris buildings. The city council managed a number of subsequent development projects, but the latter were hardly sufficient to meet demand. And municipal officials were unwilling to [End Page 577] return to the concessionary schemes associated with the Second Empire. Building entrepreneurs instead mobilized capital through limited liability joint stock companies (sociétés anonymes), which had been liberalized in 1867, just a few years before the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Speculators like Paul Fouquiau established 250 such corporations in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Those enterprises built hundreds of apartment buildings, chiefly but by no means exclusively in the capital's fashionable western and northwestern districts. Corporate development was not without controversy, particularly in the wake of the housing bust of 1883-84, but it became ever more prominent, even though small-scale builders remained more numerous (and more active in working-class districts).

In the new corporations, architects like Théodore Lautier participated as partners alongside investors and tradesmen. The speculative endeavors of these architects generated consternation among some of their colleagues, such as municipal architect and École des Beaux-Arts professor Achille Hermant, who emphasized their artistic role. Yates probes this professional controversy with considerable skill, making a significant contribution to scholarship. She does much the same with her analysis of "the information networks through which property was mobilized and a vision of Parisian growth was constructed" (72). To investigate this topic, Yates draws on a wide array of publicity journals, advertising columns, and property manuals. These publications, Yates convincingly argues, produced a vision of a holistic Paris property market—a vision that in turn shaped the activities of building entrepreneurs and thus molded the built environment itself.

Equally impressive is Yates's investigation of property sales and property rentals. By systematizing and distributing relevant information, specialized estate agents came to play an important role in both fields. At the expense of notaries, estate agents positioned themselves as key mediators of the property market, connected the latter with nascent consumer culture, and shaped that culture in significant respects, including the method of searching for a home. Rather than wandering from street to street, prospective buyers and renters could first consult brochures, fostering a sense that the modern metropolis could be known and mastered. Such pamphlets not only listed location and price but also floorplans, thus reflecting and affecting concepts of domestic space. Yet as important as the role of estate agents was, the social distinction they sought took decades to materialize. Only in 1970 did the state sanction official licensure. By capturing estate agents' fin-de-siècle efforts at professionalization, Yates provides another crucial lens onto Paris's social history and a fitting parallel to her analysis of the architect-entrepreneur, who produced the structures that estate agents marketed.

At the turn of the century, visions of property ownership also evolved. As the concept of labor value took hold, property owners sought to combat images...


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