“Introduction” (to Sabine Chalvon-Demersay, Le triangle du XIVe, 2nd edition, Paris:Métailée 1999, originally published in French.)

Le triangle du XIVe, a small area near Montparnasse, saw, during the period in which Sabine Chalvon-Demersay studied it, a substantial change in its population and, with that, a substantial change in almost every other aspect of its organization and functioning. This experience is no different from that of thousands of similar areas in large cities everywhere in Europe and North America, at least, and no doubt elsewhere as well. In any country where people are free to move, within the substantial limitation of what they can afford to pay for their housing, small areas of the city will go through a continuous metabolic process. Elements — people, organizations, enterprises — leave, elements enter. After each entrance or exit, the mixture of elements that compose the whole has changed slightly. After a great many entrances and exits, the area has changed significantly.

This is to speak like a mathematician, for whom the specific character of the entities coming and going is of little importance, as long as they can be sorted into types. For such a mathematical analysis, it might be sufficient to say that there are, for instance, old people and young people or women and men, or members of this class or that, in these proportions and, if we lose two percent of the older (or the women or the bourgeoisie) and gain a similar number of the younger (or the men or the working class) during each time period, at the end of so many periods the distribution of people in the population will be thus-and-such. Some readers will perhaps appreciate the complexities such an analysis produces, when the number of types and the kinds of changes that are possible is increased. (McPhee 1963)

Urban movement and change inevitably bring together groups of differing cultures. The subgroups of an urban population not only differ by age, gender, and class, they differ in their cultures as well. They share well-defined ideas of what they want from their immediate surroundings, what they want those surroundings to look, feel, smell, and sound like. They have a, perhaps not fully explicit, sense of how they want to live, and they evaluate potential homes according to how easily they will be able to live their preferred life style there. When a new group, with ideas about how to live that differ from those of the existing population, moves into an area, the area begins to change, as the ways of life of the new population become part of the environment for those who are already there.

So le triangle du XIVe changed as the “intellos” discovered that it was a place that felt to them like “un vrai village,” containing the artisans and working people “intello” politics advised them to get close to. It had the further advantage of being near many other places they wanted to be (leading to the paradox Chalvon-Demersay remarks, in which they want to live in a particular place because, if you live there, it is so easy to be somewhere else), and was not as expensive as the Quartier Latin from which most of them were moving. Perhaps most importantly, it was a place where the older population was dying and moving away, leaving vacant apartments to be filled by the newcomers.

But many of the older population remained, and they too had ideas about what they wanted the quartier to be like. The cultures of the two groups differed on many points, and these differences had consequences for the life of the quartier.

To begin with, socially differentiated groups differ in their consumption patterns. The newcomers have different tastes in food and so, as they arrive in the area, the local shops and restaurants begin to change what they sell. The boulanger who has been there for thirty years has to compete with a newcomer who boasts that his bread is made without the help of gas or electricity, since it baked over a wood fire. The new customers appreciate that subtle difference, and what is a problem for one boulanger is an opportunity for another. This story is repeated many times over.

More importantly, the two populations differ in many of the small routines of daily life. Women hang their “intimate laundry” to dry in places where it can be seen by their neighbors or they walk around their own apartments nude (though perhaps an outline of their bodies can be seen through a translucent window), and thus scandalize their older bourgeois neighbors. The newcomers receive guests at all hours of the day and night. They make noises of a different kind and at different times than the older population. They are not responsive to the subtle hints that used to suffice to remind neighbors of the behavior that is considered proper (just as the older population is not responsive to the way the newcomers try to accomplish the same task).

So the new neighborhood reveals itself as less friendly and village-like than the newcomers had hoped. They find themselves experiencing unexpected small conflicts and social rebuffs. They imagine that they are more integrated into the neighborhood than they actually are, that the proprietor of the bistro on the corner is their “friend” because he buys them a coffee (while, in fact, he does it as a routine business strategy and actually has no idea who they are). For these and other reasons, they feel a little unwelcome and try to change the makeup of the area by helping their own friends move into apartments that become vacant. That alters the proportions of old and new in the population still further. This has the paradoxical and, for them, unpleasant consequence that the quartier begins to look like the one they left because they wanted a more authentic urban experience among the “real people.” Now they complain that, as they walk down the street, everyone looks just like them, that the stores are just like the ones in the fancier parts of the city, and (worst of all) that the price of living in this rapidly changing area is increasing. That occurs not only because the new look of the area attracts an even more affluent class, but also because some of their own group, successful in their work, start to make more money, while others inherit money and now can afford not only to rent at the new prices but also to buy apartments formerly beyond their reach.

I have left out much, almost all, of the subtle detail that distinguishes Chalvon-Demersay’s analysis. Readers can and should follow the intricate argument themselves. I want now to indicate some of the analytic tools she uses to arrive at this subtle understanding of the process of urban change, tools which can be used beyond this specific case, so that the book serves as, in Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) expression, an exemplar on which further studies can be modeled.

The analysis, to begin with, is comprehensive. It does not focus on this or that set of actors in the drama to the exclusion of the others. It is not a study of the newcomers alone. It looks with equal interest on the people who were there when the change began. It is not a study of the inhabitants alone. It looks with equal interest on the shopkeepers. It is not a study of attitudes alone, though attitudes and beliefs and ideas are accounted for. It looks with equal interest on material objects and their functions (how the decoration of a mailbox serves as a sign of the social and political category of the people who get their mail there and therefore on their potential as possible friends); on practices of daily living (doing the laundry, cleaning the house); on people’s convivial activities (who can and will be invited, with what kind of warning, and with what kinds of understandings as to what will happen, to what kind of informal social event); on the practices that govern the relations of voisinage (who informally accepts what kinds of responsibilities for another’s household, whether it is accepting deliveries, letting in repairmen, or dealing with unattended children).

The analysis is also sequential. It does not, in the fashion of so many analyses of social phenomena, proceed as though things happen all at once. It does not assume that a variety of “variables” exert their effects by simply combining into some sort of vector of forces which then “produces” a result. Instead, the analysis suggests that social change consists of many small events, repeated, which happen in sequence, each stage of the sequence creating the conditions for the next steps to occur. An important example of this is Chalvon-Demersay’s analysis of how the first wave of “intellos,” having taken partial possession of the quartier, induce the changes I referred to earlier, which begin to turn it into the kind of place they no longer feel at home in. This is what it means to study “process” seriously: to identify the stages of change in the thing we are studying and to see how and why they succeed each other as they do.

Being sequential leads, in a way that seems natural and even inevitable, to being historical. That is, to situating the events of this relatively small change in the urban landscape in sequences of events that cover longer time periods (the period since Haussman changed the city so dramatically), noting the way events taking place at other times have created the conditions for the change studied here. The events of 1968 thus enter the story naturally as one of the major sources of the ideas and desires and tendencies to affiliate of the newcomers to the quartier.

Similarly, the analysis leads in the same natural way to the consideration of larger spaces. The city of Paris is seen as the larger board on which the game of social mobility and the search for a place to live take place, the XIVe and this small part of it being judged by the people involved in relation to the other opportunities available for housing and social display.

All this means that the analysis here presented is, in the manner of the best social science work, deeply involved in the particulars of this story, in exactly what has happened, down to the smallest and seemingly most trivial details, and simultaneously relevant to the largest sociological and political issues of contemporary urban life. We know all about the possibilities and disappointments of the people who live in this section of the XIVe, their hopes and fears for their children, their shopping habits, the cushions on the floor of the apartment. And we know why these are important in the daily lives of the inhabitants.

At the same time, we see more general processes at work, the abstract social forms of which these cushions and these children are the specific embodiments in this time and place. We see how differences in economic position, however expressed, lead to the disintegration of what had been a solidary social group. We learn that modifications in the balance of different population groups lead to shifts in judgments of the desirability of housing. We learn how the fulfilling of a dream leads to its destruction. These processes occur in a multitude of urban settings in modern societies and we learn from the detailed dissection of them, as they work themselves out in the specific case of the XIVe, what to look for elsewhere. We do not expect to find the same details everywhere, but we can expect to find the same general relations between differentiated population groups and the historical situation in which they intersect. We know that we must look, in any new situation of urban change we study, for the specific, perhaps quite different, details that embody the same general processes we now know well enough to recognize in new clothing.

The book, finally, is distinguished by its wit, by its ironic appreciation of the paradoxical situation these people have gotten themselves into, of the way their own activities provoke exactly the outcome they do not want to happen. We can hope that more social scientists will profit by this example to learn that wisdom need not be dull, nor insight a bore.


Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McPhee, William. 1963. Formal Theories of Mass Behavior. Glencoe: Free Press.