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  • Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital by Alexia M. Yates
  • Isabelle Gournay (bio)
Alexia M. Yates
Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015.
353 pages, 33 black-and-white illustrations, 2 maps, 1 graph, 4 tables.
ISBN: 978-067-408821-4, $49.95 HB
Kindle, $39.46

Strolling through commercial streets all over France, one notices countless storefronts showcasing photographs of apartments or houses for sale or for rent. Selling Paris addresses, among many paths of inquiry, how the ubiquitous profession of agent immobilier (realtor) came of age in 1870s Paris, the outcome of a frantic upsurge in residential construction. The period adage "Quand le bâtiment va, tout va" (When building goes, everything goes), which equates a thriving building industry with a healthy economy, remains the credo of French politicians and economists and—anecdotally but not insignificantly—Largier and John Arthur et Tiffen, two key realtors and property managers studied in this book whose firms are still operating today.

Envisioning real estate as a commodity and a "social product" (10), Selling Paris aims to "reorient" scholarship "away from the spectacle of the boulevards" in order to address "the business networks, legal frameworks, professional statutes, and social ambitions that structured the production, distribution, and consumption of Parisian property" in the late nineteenth century (17). Instead of civic monuments erected under the authoritarian stewardship of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, this books targets largescale, profit-driven construction of apartment houses during France's years of untested democracy, roughly 1870 to 1890, following the traumatic Commune uprising.

An economic and business historian, Yates is mostly concerned with unwrapping financial and social forces and understanding them on their own terms. She considers Paris as a sort of abstract case study, as opposed to a unique place with a living legacy of real estate practice shaped by culture, custom, politics, conflict, technology, and other historical contingencies. She explores—and thoroughly so—the human and corporate framework behind such forces. Unfortunately, this approach leaves urban and architectural historians, as well as lovers of Paris, yearning for a more precise and tangible outlook on property. Selling Paris is most endearing in its analysis of tenancy patterns and the methods builders and rental and sales agents used to promote new housing. Indeed, even today lavish brochures and imaginable—easy to grasp, simply delineated—floor plans remain the strong suit of French real estate operators. (To find alluring images, however, the book goes beyond its initial timeframe of 1879–1885, when 13,500 new buildings were erected in Paris, to encompass the Belle Époque, while the epilogue alludes to development practices in the interwar period, a topic that Yates has explored elsewhere.)1 The bulk of the book, however, concerns more obtuse elements of the city-building process: balance sheets, legal frameworks, corporate governance, and lending practices.

Selling Paris nonetheless stages a fascinating cast of characters, some of whom have been neglected in other scholarship on Paris, at least in English. These range from the notaires (estate lawyers), who, in addition to their legal leverage, competed with realtors in selling property (this remains true today) to rural migrant workers, a cheap but ostracized source of construction labor. Civil servants and elected city councilors (Paris had no mayor at the time) were key stakeholders with whom developers and investors had to contend. We also find how ambitious architects claimed their share of the speculative pie, while journalists and specialized critics are quoted for their shrewd observations and acerbic comments. A tantalizing nugget of information relates to the significant number of female realtors, at a time when so few French middle-class women entered the workforce. However, as clearly demonstrated in this book, individual players in financing and developing residential real estate were increasingly replaced in the late nineteenth century by corporate entities, such as the Compagnie Foncière de France, the archives of which Yates has extensively plowed. And it is this transition, as well as the emerging logic of these bodies corporate, that seem to be Yates's true interest.

Yates defines Paris's post-Haussmann landscape...


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pp. 95-96
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