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Paris Diary: Our Building

The ecosystem that makes up a classic Haussmannian edifice in Paris — in this case our 1899-1900 building in the 16ème arrondissement — is more complicated than that of a pre-war building on the Upper East Side. As in New York, the apartments are spacious, with large windows and high ceilings, and shops fill the ground floor, but beyond these similarities, the social profile is quite different.

Paris buildings usually have a concièrge family in the entryway flat. These folks have not been French for many generations: Italians were replaced in the 1950’s by Spaniards and Portuguese, who, in their turn, have seen the role most often taken over by Arab immigrants from North Africa — in our case, a friendly Tunisian couple, whose kids attend the local schools.

Zoning is more flexible than in New York, too. Half of our building is taken up with professional offices: small firms of lawyers and accountants, along with doctors exercising various specialities. Some flats are owned by their inhabitants and others are rented, often for decades by the same people.


The very top floor (see the small half-moon windows near the chimneys) is not accessible by the building’s elevator; it has its own back stairway. When the building was built, each apartment had two top-floor chambre de bonnes — maids rooms — for servant girls from Brittany. The small rooms have a sink and perhaps a shower, with access to communal bathrooms in the hallway.

Servants being a thing of the past, the rooms are now used by students, young workers and, oftentimes, immigrants just starting life in France. Seven flight of stairs is an ordeal just to fetch a baguette, but that inconvenience guarantees an ample stock of low-cost housing in all of the City of Light’s neighborhoods.


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