‘Les Halles was more central to the idea of Paris in the minds of its own citizens than any tower or monument could ever be’
As rich in poetry and lore as had been the unreconstructed area on the Left Bank centered around the place Maubert and the place de la Contrescarpe that was forcibly gentrified in the 1960s, the real tragedy was the destruction of Les Halles, the ancient marketplace in the center of the city. It dated back to the reign of Philippe Auguste, had been modernized by Victor Baltard’s great cast-iron pavilions in 1851–1857, and was more central to the idea of Paris in the minds of its own citizens than any tower or monument could ever be. The pavilions were unceremoniously taken down and scrapped beginning in 1970, when a new market, convenient for trucks but closed to individual shoppers, was opened in distant suburban Rungis.
Les Halles had been a vital connection to the cycle of nature, a living embodiment of the chain of production and consumption, a tremendous social equalizer, a place where the jobless could always find pickup work and the hungry could scrounge for discarded but perfectly acceptable food, a hub with its own culture and customs varnished by nearly a millennium of use. It was often called the “soul” of Paris as well as its “stomach,” and it was destroyed impersonally, by administrative decree, and eventually replaced by a nightmarish pit of a shopping mall that appears to have been designed for maximum alienation.