What's Left of the Left Bank

Host to notables from Ben Franklin to Oscar Wilde, this bohemian Paris district now is besieged by the likes of Cartier, Gucci, and the Gap.

Picasso painted here. Isadora Duncan danced. James Joyce avoided his creditors, and a young T.S. Eliot loafed around. Richard Wagner composed, St. Thomas Aquinas taught, and Benjamin Franklin hustled support for the American Revolution.

The ever-discriminating Oscar Wilde, before succumbing to illness in a local hotel room, told those gathered around that either he or the wallpaper had to go. He went.

Paris's Left Bank has been a bohemian and intellectual mecca for centuries, drawing in a Who's Who of French and foreign writers, artists, composers, and thinkers.

Of the Left Bank, author Henry Miller once wrote that "The streets sing, the stones talk. The houses drip history."

Even now, you can retrace literary and artistic history by wandering the neighborhood's twisting cobblestone streets. But you'd better hurry.

Glossy boutiques and chain stores - drawn by the area's panache and money-laden tourists - have moved into the heart of the neighborhood, steadily replacing the bookstores, cafes, and galleries that have given the area its unique character. The result, residents worry, is that before long the Left Bank's special je ne sais quoi will be irretrievably lost.

Some are philosophical about the change, but others are putting up a fight.

"It's urgent that we act to stop Saint-Germain-des-prs from becoming a tourist bazaar," says French Sen. Jean-Dominique Giuliani, who has started a group to preserve the Left Bank environs. "We have to protect a way of living, thinking, and dreaming that's unique in the world."

The commercialism running rampant here has a distinctly tony quality. The luxury-goods vendor Louis Vuitton began the invasion by opening a boutique a year ago in Place St.-Germain-des-prs, the square around which most of the change is centered.

As other stores followed, neighborhood icons quickly fell. Gucci, the red-hot fashion house, snapped up a former publishing office. Christian Dior Monsieur bought out the area's oldest bookshop, Le Divan, and the jeweler Cartier replaced a much-loved all-night music shop.

The change hasn't all been high-end: Le Caf Appollinaire is now a branch of an inexpensive clothing chain.The March St. Germain, one of Paris's last covered markets, has become a mall featuring the ubiquitous Body Shop and Gap stores. Rue de la Huchette, once full of jazz clubs frequented by Beat poets, is lined with lackluster Greek restaurants.

"It's becoming a shopping center," complains mile Solo, the manager of the bookstore La Hune. Even this local bibliophile shrine is being eyed by the leather-goods vendor Herms, locals say.

If the departures of old favorites had residents reeling, this year's demise of Le Drugstore was a wake-up call. On the other side of Place St.-Germain-des-prs, Le Drugstore was a catch-all emporium where those craving le Coca-Cola, a new CD, or a foreign newspaper could find them at 1 a.m.

In its place, Georgio Armani is fashioning a boutique. The thought of one of the area's most colorful watering holes becoming a temple to overpriced ecru clothing was more than some could bear.

Conservation groups sprang up, among them, "SOS St.-Germain-des-prs." Led by singer Juliette Greco, muse to the area's existentialists and jazz musicians in the 1950s, and with help from neighbors like actress Catherine Deneuve, the group circulated a petition. The thousands of signatures presented to city hall were enough to get an injunction. Work on the boutique halted until Armani promised to provide the same snacks and services Le Drugstore had, and on the same wee-hour schedule.

"If Armani stays open late at night, it will help keep the square hopping," says Armande Goubert, who runs a family newsstand across the street from Armani, directly in front of La Hune.

Old-timers worry that with fewer stores open at night, fewer people will come and spend money.

"We want this area to be a little lively at night," explains Francis Boussard, manager of Cafe Flore, once the unofficial headquarters of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

"Some of the new stores don't change [things] much," Mr. Boussard says. "What's dangerous, though, is that the publishers and bookstores are disappearing - that's what this area is all about."

Mrs. Goubert already sees a difference. She has opened her small newsstand at first light and shut down around midnight for 20 years. Bundled in bulky woolen layers against the cold, she explains how her clients reflect the neighborhood changes.

"They spend less, and they spend differently," she says, pausing to chide a customer who lacks exact change. "Once they'd buy three serious journals at a time; now they buy one. And now I sell more foreign newspapers and fashion magazines. Fewer intellectuals, more tourists.... Is that bad? We have to wait and see."

A few feet away in Louis Vuitton, where $7,000 handbags are displayed and lit like museum exhibits, a saleswoman returns the compliment. "The neighborhood has an atmosphere that reflects our store - chic, refined," she says.

It's hard to imagine what Ernest Hemingway would have thought of all this rarefied air - or drowning his sorrows over rejection slips at Les Deux Magots, where an orange juice now costs $7.

Still, aligning the area's new glitz with its artistic tradition remains the goal. Senator Giuliani has appointed Jeff Gall, an American composer and Paris resident, to find spaces for young artists to gather.

But purposely re-creating the heady fizz of creative exchange that once occurred spontaneously has left Mr. Gall a little discouraged. "Even if we wanted to create an artificial semblance of a cafe where people could hang out, buy dinner for [$5], debate, and show their films and art, it's going to be impossible."

For starters, high real estate prices make it unworkable. That's why young artists today work mostly out of industrial neighborhoods. "The flavor of the area has changed irretrievably," he says. "It's so inundated with money and fashion."

Self-image dies hard though. Cafe Flore awards an annual literary award; Les Deux Magots bills itself as the "rendezvous of the intellectual elite." The mayor has declared both cafes historic landmarks.

For those with a longer-term perspective, the changes - and the struggles against them - are just part of the neighborhood's natural ebb and flow.

"There has always been change here," says a spokesman for the area's historical society. "It's a natural function of youth to change things, and it's the natural inclination of the old to resist."

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