Tuesday, 17 January 2012

City of poo

Night scene in Paris as featured in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris

In fairness to Manchester, which I recently described as “city of puke”, I thought I might evoke another urban sketch by way of pavement obstacles, having observed, or should I say navigated, the streets of Paris. It is estimated that around 20 tons of dog poo — crotte de chien — is deposited daily in the city. I confess that I am not a natural fan of dogs (or cats) but that is beside the point. Parisians love their dogs and are reputed to have more per head of population than any other city. As a visitor to Paris you must watch your step, especially since there are so many interesting attractions to see. I don’t know whether the amount of dog poo is increasing or whether this is related to the embourgeoisement of the city — dogs as fashion accessory — but we are not talking about the kind of stray dogs that one may encounter in the cities of south-east Europe.1 When I visit Paris I normally stay in the rather shabby nineteenth arrondissement near the Gare du Nord and I am sure that the streets here are just as, if not more faecal, than elsewhere in the city. In the early nineteenth century, in the absence of a functional drainage system, Paris was known as “city of mud” — la ville de boue — so what might the epithet “city of poo” tell us about the city in the early twenty-first century? In his book The foul and the fragrant, the cultural historian Alain Corbin describes a shift in attitudes towards human waste as part of a wider transformation of the meaning of private and public in the eighteenth century but what does the contemporary politicization of dog poo presage?2 A belated post-post-modern rediscovery of the material world, an enlightened civility towards others, or perhaps just another facet in the inexorable drive towards the sanitization of public space?

1 Ger Duijzings, “Dictators, dogs, and survival in a post-totalitarian city” in Matthew Gandy (ed.) Urban constellations (Berlin: jovis, 2011) pp. 145-8

2 Alain Corbin, The foul and the fragrant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1982])

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