The Place des Vosges is one of the most charming residential squares in Paris. It was built by order of Henri IV starting in 1605 on the site of a former royal palace. It was the first European planned community. All the residences were to have uniform façades composed of red brick with white stone quoins and vaulted stone arcades around the perimeter. The square was designed to be entered through three vaulted arches at both the north and south sides. Their names are the Pavillon du Roi and the Pavillon de la Reine (the Pavilions of the King and Queen), although no member of the royal family ever lived there; it was simply good marketing. Today the Pavillon de la Reine is a 4 star hotel.
Although there were never royal residents, many important people have called this square home. Madame de Sevigné, prodigious letter writer and hostess of one of the Enlightenment Salons, the great writer Victor Hugo, Henri IV’s minister Sully, and Cardinal Richelieu, among other luminaries, dwelt among the rosy brick façades. Hugo’s home is a museum operated by the city of Paris with free admission. The center of the square is a lovely park, shady trees with benches beneath, four fountains, and places for children to play.
A couple of years ago a rather different group moved into the Place des Vosges – Jeudi Noir. This group of 33 squatters, many of them students, unable to find decent affordable housing, occupied a magnificent apartment that had been vacant for over 40 years. They were hardly clandestine, as they unfurled a huge banner across the front and invited the press and politicians to take up their cause. They were ultimately expelled from the building, but not before bringing much needed attention to this important social issue.
In France, everyone has the right to un logement décent (uhn losjmehn daysahn), or decent housing. The problem is, there simply aren’t enough government subsidized or fully-funded apartments to go around. The current economic climate isn’t propitious to create the many thousands that are necessary, either. While I feel for the situation of those without a safe, affordable place to call home, I also feel for the property owners on the Place des Vosges. I can’t say I’d welcome a squat in my neighborhood.