polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Paris: Night and Day

by Alex Schafran

The city of Paris has a deputy mayor of the night. It is hard to think of a bureaucratic job title with more global cool cachet, even if large parts of the job involve overseeing sanitation, street repairs and other decidedly unromantic and under-appreciated nighttime activities that make cities functional. The city also has a powerful and well-funded cultural machine, which every year puts on an all-night contemporary art festival known as Nuit Blanche.


Nuit Blanche, which literally means "white night" in French but translates as "all-nighter," is a pub crawl of at times interesting but often terrible installations, performance art and spectacle. The true purpose is to wander the city with art map in hand, poking your head in seemingly every church, theater and gallery space across multiple arrondissements. Tens of thousands of Parisians and tourists get their avant-garde flaneurie on every year, and the event has spread like wildfire across European capitals and to "cool" cities around the world. It is part of a global urban trend of late-night art: museums staying open later and hosting party-like events and regular open gallery nights that are now a staple of urban culture.

Nuit Blanche is classic Paris — mostly white; very bourgeois, arty and pretentious; and "global city/creative classy" before we knew to call it that. It would be easy to criticize if this was all that public Paris sponsored, but it is just one night on a calendar of public spectacle that has become increasingly inclusive.

Fête de la Musique is another global phenomenon hatched in France that sees every burg in the Republique drag out its collective flugelhorn and channel an inner Brassens and IAM. The deputy mayor is busy that night, trying to manage a city in which every teenage garage band, local marching band and new hip-hop crew is camped out on corners for all to hear (of course, not on the same corners, but that is a different post).


My favorite public Paris spectacle is Paris Plage, not because it is a fake beach, but because of the Paris it is designed for. Created to give a bit of summer fun to local kids and families who may not have the resources to head out of the city like the bourgeois masses, Paris Plage occupies stretches of the Seine riverbanks and the now-thoroughly cool Canal Saint Martin for a month every summer. Everything is free: water sports for kids, petanque for beginners, the old-school cool of the guinguette (think public barn dance) and of course, sand. The best part is watching hipsters like me wandering around our normal territory of the Canal banks, displaced temporarily by picnicking Indian, Chinese and French-Arab families and groups of old folks from the neighborhoods.


What makes this all possible are two factors increasingly missing in American cities. One is an urban government with the resources and willpower to sponsor truly public spectacles. So much in the U.S. is dependent on private money and initiative that few events feel truly public and truly free. The second is the sad state of violence, especially in my California cities. San Francisco is canceling iconic nighttime events like Halloween because it cannot solve its violence problem and reigning in unique parties like Bay to Breakers in what some call the "war on fun." Oakland is debating a youth curfew, which is surprisingly common throughout American cities.

There is more to cities than fun, and more to solving inequality than open public space, but at least Paris seems to recognize that public fun — day and night, young and old — is part of a healthy and happy polis.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

+ share