David Harvey, the famous social geographer, is not particularly known for his work on cultural matters, having spent most of his career working on issues of political economy, spatial organization and (some) philosophy of the same. Nonetheless, "Paris, Capital of Modernity" is a partially cultural, partially political-geographical history of the modernization of Paris undertaken under the famous leadership of Georges Haussmann (1809-1891), who created the monument, park and boulevard systems for which Paris is now justly renowned. As context, Harvey analyzes the works and attitudes of famous writers of that period in Paris, such as Flaubert and De Balzac, in addition to providing many nice photographs and maps charting the changes and developments in France's capital.
As one can expect with Harvey, most of the work is spent on tracing the geographical and spatial aspects of the modernization and industrialization of Paris and its political background in the persons of Napoleon III, Emperor of France between 1852 and 1870, and Georges Haussmann. He shows the constellation of class forces that allowed Napoleon III to play various classes against each other, shifting support from financial capital to landlord powers and back, and the position Haussmann's developments had in this political ensemble. Although the initial material is a little dry, things get better as Harvey digs into the meat of the matter, where Haussmann does not appear as much as the hated enemy of the workers and wrecker of ancient Paris as he is often depicted, but rather as an embodiment of the 'creative destruction' that capitalism is when it fully comes into its own, as it did in France around this time. The tensions and furies caused by the combination of capitalist industrialization on the one hand, and the spatial and economic restructuring of Paris as such by Haussmann and speculators both would finally erupt into the Paris Commune of 1871, which inaugurated the permanent end of the power of both reaction and a bloody repression of socialism in France.
The book is written with the usual subtlety, political understanding, and nuance of Harvey's best work. Whether the literary additions to the work are an improvement or a distraction perhaps depends on taste, all the more since the first chapter, entirely on De Balzac's oeuvre, is rather at variance with the topic of the rest of the work. But although the topic of Paris' furious ascent into modernity is not quite a new topic (addressed famously by Walter Benjamin, for example), Harvey's book is a worthy addition to Marx' own studies on the history of France: "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte" (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) and "The Civil War in France" (The Civil War in France: The Paris Commune).
Collecting David Harvey's finest work on Paris during the second empire, Paris, Capital of Modernity offers brilliant insights ranging from the birth of consumerist spectacle on the Parisian boulevards, the creative visions of Balzac, Baudelaire and Zola, and the reactionary cultural politics of the bombastic Sacre Couer. The book is heavily illustrated and includes a number drawings, portraits and cartoons by Daumier, one of the greatest political caricaturists of the nineteenth century.