Almost everybody has heard of the Champs Elysees avenue: its malls, cafés, cinema theaters. It is one of the busiest places in Paris. It is also one of most symbolic streets, and a gathering place on special events. For example, after France won the soccer world cups in 1998 and just recently in 2018, it is where most of the Parisian population came to celebrate and gather. And on the National Holiday, July 14th, the military parade runs down the avenue, starting from where the Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon stands, down to where it starts at the Concorde plaza, which is both the revolutionary square which hosted the beheading of Louis the XVIth, recognizable by its Egyptian obelisque, the most ancient monument in Paris.

What is this avenue? How did it turn into a central artery of the city?

Let us go back in time. During the Ancien Regime and all the way back to the early 1700’s, the Champs Elysees area was simply a marshy area covered mostly with fields leading to the Faubourgs (suburbs) of Saint Honoré, Saint Philippe du Roule and Chaillot (the current Trocadéro), which were villages located on the outskirts of the city. Processions would regularly leave from the central Louvre area heading west, but it was not at all a well-traveled path. Le Notre, who was the chief gardener of Louis XIVth,  added a road after the Tuileries garden, all the way to the middle of the actual avenue. Moreover, police archives show that it was one of the city’s crime centers in the 18th and 19th century. Public lighting appeared only in the early 19th century and it was a haven of muggers, thieves and prostitutes. The term Champs Elysèes, literally meaning  the Elysian fields, is a direct reference to Elyseum, which was the sanctuary of saints reserved to the very purest souls in Greek antiquity, and located within the deepest parts of Hell—especially for warriors who died nobly on the field of battle. The triumphal arch built by Napoleon to commemorate and celebrate the victories of his soldiers, as was in fashion in Roman antiquity for victorious armies, contributed to the allusion.

The Champs Élysées in 1855, with a view on the Palace of Industry built for the World Fare

In the middle of the 19th century, the industrial revolution thoroughly changed the morphology of the area. Fortunes emerged in the bourgeoisie, in sectors such as finance and banking, international commerce, steel, rail, textile and coil. The new wealth built their mansions in this area which was free and vacant, and the neighborhood began to assume the character that we now know.

Parisian population celebrating the world soccer cup victory on July 15th 2018

Nowdays foreign fortunes have taken over a certain amount of the avenue’s activity, a lot of Arabic an Far Eastern investments (the Virgin megastore building with its supermarket were recent taken over by a Qatari investment fund for 500 Million euros). But the entertainment  places and shops are ever thriving.

D.A.