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Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital

Author(s):Yates, Alexia M.
Reviewer(s):Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent

Published by EH.Net (January 2017)

Alexia M. Yates, Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. xv + 353 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-08821-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology.

Selling Paris investigates the French capital’s real estate market from 1870 to World War I. This was the time of the second building of Paris.  When Napoleon III came to power in 1851, he faced a city that had been built up almost haphazardly over the previous half millennium.  He wanted change and the prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, is associated with a plan that did just that.  His territorial annexations more than doubled the surface area of the city and he designed broad new avenues both along the now useless eighteenth-century fortifications and throughout the city.  New buildings sprang up on both sides of these new thoroughfares.  These are the classic five-to-seven story buildings of Paris. Yet most of these were built long after both Haussmann and the emperor had lost power.  The long construction boom between 1870 and 1914 involved a complex dance between real estate promoters, builders, real estate owners, the city and the national government.  This dance is the subject of Yates’ book.

To develop the material for this book, Yates has relied heavily on novels and plays, newspapers and broadsheets, official reports and to a lesser extent on archival material.  Her key focus is debates and they provide quite lively material.  Depending on how one looks at it the capitalists who rebuilt Paris enjoyed or endured protracted tussles over every aspect of Parisian real estate.

Chapter 1 starts with a set of key political economy questions: access to land and building permits.  Starting with Haussmann, the French state put its might into the rebuilding of Paris. When a new avenue was developed, landowners on both sides were expropriated, their buildings torn down, the new street laid out, and land was then awarded back to private owners in a system of auctions or concessions.  As Yates shows, Paris in 1900 was engulfed in the same debates that exist today: gentrification, nimbyism, corruption, political access and the like.  Chapter 2 focuses on speculators and on the value of location.  Somewhat at variance with chapter 1, it documents the fierce competition between speculators and the importance of securing tenants — for Paris was a city of renters.  Chapter 3 carefully documents the debates over who would pay for and control new streets and thus who chose where the streets would be laid out.  From the city government’s perspective the most advantageous would be to set the plan and let speculators build out the streets, while speculators wanted the opposite (and at times wanted to privatize streets).  That debate continued throughout the period with no resolution.  Chapter 4 focuses on the intermediaries in the market for property: notaries, real estate agents, and to a lesser extent on property managers.  Property was mostly transferred voluntarily through sales finalized in the offices of notaries.  In many cases — when the owners were public entities, incompetent or too deeply divided to come to an agreement — an auction was held.  In all cases, notaries were in control of the final steps.  Real estate agents arose after 1870 to some extent to help buyers and sellers find matches, but more importantly to help renters and landlords find each other.  Here the system remained stable with notaries firmly in charge of property sales.  Chapter 5 deals with advertising and the tug of war between a centralized system (as exists in U.S. cities today) for sales and a decentralized system for listings (as continues to prevail in the rental market).  The chapter documents both the very wide array of material produced mostly about new buildings that owners wanted filled at once.  Also it seems that this form of advertising targeted the upper middle class rather than the bulk of the population of Paris. Chapter 6 focuses on a new form of ownership: the real estate company, and in particular the Companie Foncière de France. Its development was quite rapid, as it was founded in 1880 and by 1891 owned 167 buildings that contained more than three thousand apartments.  It was joined by banks, insurance companies, and other corporate real estate investors so that it is likely that a significant share of buildings in Paris were no longer owned by families but now by firms whose shares were traded.

Economic historians will lament two missed opportunities that seem to characterize the new history of capitalism’s desire to study economic history without economics or quantification.  First Yates could have engaged more fully with the fact that at all times before 1914 Paris was a city of renters.  That the real estate maps she displays in chapter 2 report rents per apartment per neighborhood is not an accident — more than 90 percent of the city’s households rented.  For tenants more development was always good because it lowered rental prices.  Thus the political conflicts documented in chapters 1 and 5 are really conflicts among the very top of society — the owners.  One speculator wants his project to go forward and to slow down that of his rivals and he will stop at little in terms of rhetoric to try to do so.  The discussions of overbuilding in chapter 2 were of little consequence to most people, what they cared about and feared was too slow an expansion of housing. But of course the working class does not write much and even less in newspapers.  Second, it would have been desirable for Yates to follow her own observation that real estate was being commoditized, and to do a bit more quantitative work. For instance, the Statistique de Paris and the Livre Foncier — both of which she cites — tell us there were 68,000 buildings with 757,000 housing units in Paris. Clearly, the Companie Foncière de France’s 167 buildings was a drop in the real estate bucket.  That the largest building owner in Paris was tiny is not a surprise. Indeed, real estate was different from other capitalistic activities where the dominant players typically attained market shares that were sufficient to try to influence price.  Nonetheless, Selling Paris offers a very good introduction to the world of Parisian real estate — one economic historians will fruitfully rely on before embarking on new investigations of the French capital.

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Subject(s):Business History
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century