99% Invisible - 576- Chambre de Bonne

Episode Date: April 2, 2024

A chambre de bonne is usually one small room, on the top floor of a five- or six-story apartment building, and it’s usually just big enough to fit a bed and a table. It’s affordable housing in a c...ity where finding housing is nearly impossible. Reporter Jeanne Boëzec tells about the history of the chambre de bonne apartments, and how while cute, they are also cramped and can be unpleasant spaces for people who have to live there, a living embodiment of the gap between the rich in Paris and everyone else.Chambre de Bonne

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Starting point is 00:00:00 This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars. Ten years ago, Clementine Spilure moved to Paris, France. She was full of ideas of what her life could be. I just wanted to go to Paris. I didn't really want to study anymore. So I just packed a bag and moved to Paris, which is a pretty romantic movie-like kind of thing. So I guess I had this idea that you can you know you can make it in Paris you can you can just get there and then try to make it. Clementine was working for a wealthy family. She babysat their 11 year old twins, cooked dinner,
Starting point is 00:00:36 and cleaned the bed. At the time I was Clementine's neighbor. That's producer Jean Boissec. She grew up near Nantes, a city on the west of France. Clementine stayed in the area during her undergrad, but then she wanted to see the big city. In France, Paris is the center of everything. In exchange, the family gave her an apartment to live in. There was an interview, and then we got out of the building and walked to another building that was like two, three
Starting point is 00:01:05 minutes away. Climbed the six floors. And then, yeah, she took me to the room and she was like, ta-da, that's it. Clementine stared into her new home and discovered it was really small. Actually, it was just one room. I sat on the bed. There was nowhere else to sit on. I sat on the bed. There was a tiny, tiny kitchen in the corner. There was a shower. There was a table that folded that I basically never used because if you
Starting point is 00:01:37 unfolded it, you couldn't walk. Basically, I think you could walk three steps in the room. From the door to the window is like a small corridor. In terms of width, it was like maybe like two meters wide. I remember when I was sitting on your bed, I could put my foot against the wall. It's a good thing you weren't, I was smaller than you were, because yeah. Clementine was living out a rite of passage for generations of young people moving to the French capital. Her place was a very specific, very Parisian type of apartment called a Chambre de Bon, literally a maid's room.
Starting point is 00:02:18 A Chambre de Bon is usually one small room on the top floor of a five or six story apartment building. I lived in a chambre de bonne down the hall from Clémentine, but my chambre de bonne was a little bigger. My apartment had two windows and my own bathroom, but it was still very small. I had a bathroom so narrow I could stretch out my arms and touch both walls at the same time. So these doors are doomed? Last October, Clémentine and I returned to our old building both walls at the same time.
Starting point is 00:02:48 Last October, Clementine and I returned to our old building for the first time in years to take a trip down memory lane. You know when I remember that the stairs on the last one are higher? Yes. And it's the moment when you run out of breath and you're like, I hate my life. And you have to keep going and it's even're gonna find it and then you can begin. Yeah, but I remember like climbing the stairs and seeing all the floors, they're so pretty.
Starting point is 00:03:11 Oh my God. Also, remember the old guy who got the far right newspaper. Yeah. Clémentine lived in her chambre de bonne for three years. Yeah, it looks smaller. It looks smaller. Or did we grow? At the time, Clémentine loved her apartment.
Starting point is 00:03:31 It was a way to make her dream of living in Paris a reality, even though her employer felt a little awkward about it. I remember she was like, kind of apologizing. She was kind of, sorry, that's it. I hope it works for you. And me, I was just like, wow, I want to be this person. Like, this is like, you're under the roofs in Paris. And it's my home.
Starting point is 00:03:58 It's mine. Just like Clémentine, I loved my Chambre de Bonne. Our building was in Le Marais, a fancy neighborhood in the center of Paris, in a beautiful building hidden behind a big heavy green door and a pretty courtyard. But today, both of us see things very differently. It was kind of terrible to live in this place. I remember when I moved out, I felt how my mind was able to expand as well. It wasn't just physically.
Starting point is 00:04:29 When I moved out, I realized that I hadn't had enough space to think. It's like the space was so small that you couldn't even get out of your own limitations mentally. It also impacts your ability to think forward and it really living in such a tiny space is always a reminder even if it's unconscious that you're only entitled to this tiny bit of space. Parisians like Clementine have difficult relationships with the Chambre de Bonne because it represents a lot of things. It's affordable housing in a city where finding housing is nearly impossible.
Starting point is 00:05:06 But it's unpleasant for people who have to live there. And it represents the gap between the rich people in Paris and everyone else. And even now that I understand the class relationship and the fact that it was so small and it's pretty violent to make people live in such small spaces. Today, many people live in Chambre de Bonne apartments because there's not a lot of small,
Starting point is 00:05:32 affordable housing in Paris. And the city is so dense, it's impossible to build new housing. So the Chambre de Bonne is an imperfect solution. But today, the Chambre de Bonne are disappearing. And many are wondering, where are those people going to live? The Chambres de Bonne was invented as a housing type during a major redesign of Paris in the 1850s. It was led by a man named Georges Eugène Haussmann, whose name I will pronounce the English way. In French, it's more like…
Starting point is 00:06:05 George Eugène Haussmann. Yeah, I don't know how to say it that way. Anyway, Houseman was the prefect for Paris for 20 years. He was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III to overhaul the city's architecture. Napoleon wanted Paris to be masterful and a capital of the world. To reflect these grand ambitions, Houseman created wide boulevards and avenues. A lot of people say, Haussmann made the bourgeoisie visible in Paris. He destroyed working class neighborhoods
Starting point is 00:06:34 and replaced them with luxury buildings. Paris was a mess of construction for 50 years. Workers from all over the country came to serve Haussmann's vision. Suddenly, in the streets of Paris, you could hear accents and songs sung by workers from all over France. They created some of Paris's most iconic landmarks, the Avenue de l'Opéra, the Boulevard Haussmann, the Boulevard Voltaire. But all this construction was at a cost. In some cases, Haussmann cut buildings in half to make room for new ones. Some people called him an artist demolisher. Haussmann only designed apartments because that's where everyone lived in Paris at the
Starting point is 00:07:15 time. And he designed every apartment building to be the same, inside and out. That's Mary-Jeanne Dumont. She's an historian of architecture. Mary-Jeanne says in Haussmann's buildings, there was always one apartment per floor. And in those luxury buildings, the families expected to have rooms to house their servants. to have rooms to house their servants.
Starting point is 00:07:49 In the 1850s, during the Houseman redesign of Paris, there was a large influx of young women moving to the city to work for the bourgeoisie. They came from poor regions like Brittany in the west of France. At the time, French regions were mostly rural, They came from poor regions like Brittany in the west of France. At the time, French regions were mostly rural, and coming to Paris was a way to find a job and send money to your family. All those people who came were quite young, 14 or 15 years old in many cases. Life was hard for these servants, and many of them were living inside their employers'
Starting point is 00:08:23 apartments, which made them available to work 24 hours a day with very few breaks. In 19th century France, it was common for rich French people to wake up their servants in the middle of the night for small annoying tasks like fetching a glass of water. The work ruined many of these young workers, who returned home after life in Paris, exhausted and demoralized. Marie-Jeanne is explaining that before the Chambre de Bonne, in the 18th century, servants lived in areas above the kitchen or the stables. Chambermaids would sleep in tiny rooms near the employer's bedroom, very small rooms, usually with no window.
Starting point is 00:09:07 But the Hausmann redesign changed that. The construction of the bedroom is also linked to a constructive system. Marie-Jean says, before Hausmann, Paris apartment buildings had small, triangle roofs made of zinc. There was not a lot of room to install an attic under the roofs, but Hausmann's redesign included a series of sloped, mansard roofs. The mansard roofs were sweeping and dramatic. They were a popular design.
Starting point is 00:09:32 But Haussmann created these sloped roofs because of something very mundane. Municipal height restrictions. At the time, Paris had a height limit on new buildings. Every building could only be 65 feet tall. But that height limit wasn't for the very top of the building, it was for the cornice line where the roof begins. So the mansard roof is kind of like cheating, it allowed the building to be taller without violating city laws.
Starting point is 00:09:59 Now the very top floors were all big triangles, and they could put big attics under there. These triangle attics weren't desirable for the bourgeoisie living in Paris. You could not rent it out like the rest of the apartment. But the bourgeoisie decided that they would pay a little extra money for the space and put their servants up there. That's how the idea of the Chambre de Bon was born. Instead of living with their employers, now maids and servants could live in a private space above them.
Starting point is 00:10:33 I visited a typical, classic chambre de bonne with Marie-Jeanne Dumont. This apartment is in the 11th arrondissement, right near La Place de la République. We are in a very small, typical Bonne chamber. It was lit up by a small window. Mary-Jeanne is telling me that this chamber de Bonne was pretty typical of its era. It was lit up by a small window. The space is very well preserved. It actually looks like it came straight from the 19th century. The Chambres de Bonne, by definition, are not very big,
Starting point is 00:11:10 especially at a time when the expectations were very small. So architects had to make the most of every square foot of space. This old-style Chambres de Bonne is a lot smaller than the one I lived in. Based on Hausmann's designs, the original Chambre de Bonne were usually about 75 square feet. You could barely fit a bed in there. It was typical for these rooms to have one iron bed, a small table, a chair, and a small piece of furniture to store things.
Starting point is 00:11:43 There was no water inside. The only bathrooms or sinks were in the hallway. The early chambres de bonnes were not well maintained by the rich people. Some bourgeois didn't even change the sheets when they hired new employees. Life was awful up there. Domestic workers would die because there was no ventilation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Parisians became very concerned about tuberculosis. They started to believe that the Chambord-a-Bons were so filthy,
Starting point is 00:12:10 they made workers sick, and that the maids brought the diseases into their employers' home. So the very first Chambord-a-Bons were abandoned, and employers moved servants into slightly bigger rooms. This wasn't because they wanted better living conditions, but because they were afraid of the disease. But the new chambordobans were still really small, and the problems continued. Things didn't change much until the early 20th century. During World War I, women were authorized to work in factories for the first time, and
Starting point is 00:12:50 being a servant became a lot less appealing. The factory jobs had a proper salary, and women preferred them even if the work was more intense. to work as a domestic worker in a bourgeois family. And so bourgeoisie called it the domesticity crisis. Marie-Jeanne explains that bourgeois called this the domesticity crisis. It was harder in many ways to work at a factory, but young people thought it was better than being a servant. So there was nobody available to do things like cooking and cleaning. With this labor shortage, there was a available to do things like cooking and cleaning.
Starting point is 00:13:25 With this labor shortage, there was a pressure on rich people to make the Chambres de Bond more livable, and French politicians at the time were passing labor laws creating more rights for workers. In 1904, a law was passed. Now all apartments had to be 86 square feet. The old closet-sized Chamb de bont weren't allowed anymore. The new apartments were still just about 9 feet by 9 feet, but it was an improvement. Slowly, the chambre de bonts got even better.
Starting point is 00:13:54 Landlords added windows and more toilets in the hallway, and after World War II, France developed a middle class. By mid-century, it wasn't servants and domestic workers moving to Paris to live in the Champs-Élysées. Now it was a popular housing type for students and young people coming to the city for the first time, and they had higher expectations. But it was not until 2002 that France passed another law to make apartments bigger. The new law said no one should live under 97 square feet out of decency. In 100 years, Parisians only gained a few feet of space.
Starting point is 00:14:29 Many of the existing chambre de ban apartments were no longer in compliance. So many landlords decided to demolish the walls between two or three chambre de ban to make a single, larger apartment. This rule has led to a lot of Chambres de Bonne being combined, and that has created some very strange apartment layouts. My name is Manisha, I'm 22 years old. I've been living in Paris for a year and living in this Chambre de Bonne for 10 months, and I work in a publishing house. I wanted to meet up with Monisha because she lives in one of the new style Chambres de
Starting point is 00:15:09 Bonne. Her apartment is 150 square feet, it's on the seventh floor of a building in the 11th arrondissement, and it's very obviously two apartments that were smashed together. So this is your house? It is. In my flat, more than a house. So tell me a bit about it. So we're in the first room? Yeah, well, there's only one room, but it's separated by a wall, I guess. In the middle of the apartment, there is a wall with no door.
Starting point is 00:15:43 That wall separates the bedroom-bathroom area from the kitchen-dining room area. So this is the kitchen. There's a small table, two chairs. Here I have my clothes because there's not a lot of storage... And it's right behind the door. Yes, so you cannot fully open the door, but that's okay. And there's a window. Yes. Manisha doesn't like her apartment very much.
Starting point is 00:16:18 She was living in a bigger place in Lyon, in the south of France, where she studied. This place she's living in now is small, it's imperfect, but she can afford it. There are so many people looking. The flats, as soon as an ad is posted, it's like gone. Yeah, there's a lot of demand. The Chambord-Auban is still an important part of the housing ecosystem. The average rent for a one-bedroom in this neighborhood is 1400 euros, or about $1500 per month. This apartment costs about one-third of that, and since Manisha is making the French minimum
Starting point is 00:16:56 wage, it still takes up about 40% of her salary. In some ways, Manisha is lucky. Because our situation, a young person with little income renting a cheap Chambre de Bon is becoming rare across the city. Against all odds, the Chambre de Bon is becoming a valuable commodity. The price to rent a Chambre de Bon has been going up in recent years. There are a couple of reasons for this, including the newfound popularity of elevators in Paris apartment buildings. According to Marie-Jeanne Dumont, the elevator has changed who is living on the top floor of buildings.
Starting point is 00:17:37 With the invention of the elevator, poor people and domestic workers started to move down to the first floor, closer to street noise, and rich people moved up to the penthouse suite. This was a common phenomenon around the world. But Paris was pretty late to the party. When I lived in a Chambre de Bonne, it was very strange for an Haussmann building in Paris to have an elevator. You had to climb sixth or seventh floor to get to your small apartment. But more and more, landlords have installed elevators
Starting point is 00:18:06 across the city. Back in October, Clementine and me were shocked to discover an elevator, we actually say, an ascenseur, in our old building. There's an ascenseur! Oh! Oh! That's funny.
Starting point is 00:18:20 So, here, on the other hand, there's a fucking elevator! For those of you who don't speak French, Jean and Clementine are, you know, let's say disappointed that the landlord waited until after was no room for an elevator, voilà, a beautiful new ascenseur. It probably explains why our old places are more expensive today. I left in 2016. When we talked to the new tenant, I was surprised to learn the rent had gone up. The Chambre Bon is becoming more expensive, but it's also beginning to disappear as a housing type in Paris.
Starting point is 00:19:26 In 1968, there were 66,000 people living in Chambre de Bon apartments in the city. According to the most recent public data, that number is down to just over 17,000. The disappearance of Chambre de Bon is striking. A big reason for this is people with money taking old Chambre de Bonne and renovating them. In fact, today, wealthy Parisians will buy up a whole floor of Chambre de Bonne apartments and make them into one big living space. The apartments have gone from cramped living quarters
Starting point is 00:19:58 for poor people to some of the most valuable real estate in Paris. Is that where you were when Notre Dame burned down? We didn't see it. I was in the apartment. You didn't see it? valuable real estate in Paris. This is Guillaume. Years ago, he did one of these renovations. He is 50 years old and he lives in the 5th arrondissement, right near the Place Saint-Michel. It's a very fancy part of town. You can actually see Notre Dame through the window of his living room, which is pretty unusual in Paris. Nobody has that kind of view.
Starting point is 00:20:34 One of my ancestors built this building, and in exchange for his work and participation in the reconstruction of Paris, he was paid in real estate. That's how the bourgeoisie I'm from was created. The wealth is entirely rooted in real estate. This building has been in my family for 150 years. The memory I have of people who worked for my parents and who were housed here, the domestic workers did the groceries, cooked, everything. They lived and worked here full-time.
Starting point is 00:21:07 When Guillaume's mother died a couple of years ago, his father passed down all the real estate to their kids. One apartment went to Guillaume's sister, and the top floor, which contains the servants Chambre de Bon was given to Guillaume. It was the beginning of the 2000s, and Guillaume decided not to rent out the old Chambre de Bonne.
Starting point is 00:21:25 Instead, he kept it and did a big renovation to make one apartment for his family. By knocking down walls and extensive reconstruction work, Guillaume and his wife took seven Chambre de Bonne and made one big, beautiful living space. You may have mixed feelings about this. It sounds bad during a housing crisis to take seven rooms and make one big apartment. But to Guillaume, those rooms just couldn't be used as apartments anymore.
Starting point is 00:21:53 I think it was more like an obvious decision. It was a pretty obvious decision. These little walls, they weren't usable for an apartment. They were really tiny. Well, there were squat toilets with a water tap that went into a tub, so I was obliged to change the layout. It wasn't usable. And besides, he needed somewhere to live with his growing family.
Starting point is 00:22:24 Today, Guillaume has four kids, and finding a place for a family of six is virtually impossible in Paris. Renovations like Guillaume's are becoming more common across Paris. In many cases, these renovations take a small, cramped apartment and make them livable. But this kind of renovation has also reduced a valuable source of affordable housing. Ultimately, it's not up to people like Guillaume to preserve affordable Chambord-a-Bont apartments. That's a problem for the decision-makers at City Hall.
Starting point is 00:22:57 Paris is a city that is majorly a city of... Yann Brossard is a senator from the Communist Party. He just got elected last September. But before that, he was a deputy mayor in Paris, working specifically on housing for nine years. He says that Paris is a city of tenants, and most Parisians are concerned about rent. Brossard says the rent in Paris is too high. He says when families grow, they can no longer afford to live here because they cannot afford
Starting point is 00:23:28 to rent a bigger place. Yann Brossa says Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, so there isn't much opportunity to build new housing. The city is already too built up. Paris is a dense and historic city, where it's actually illegal to construct high-rise buildings. So Paris can't just build a lot of tall apartments. And with the lack of housing stock, the prices keep going up.
Starting point is 00:24:01 Brossard says his team made some progress on housing when he was deputy mayor. They managed to get the amount of social housing in the city up to 25 percent. But the city is still facing a major lack of affordable housing. The Chambre de Bonne could be a useful solution for this, because many of them are vacant. According to the most recent data I could find, 85 percent of the Chambres de Bonne in Paris are vacant. This is largely because of the law passed in 2002 to guarantee a minimum apartment size. Many Chambres de Bonne are just too small to be lived in. Jean Brosson says that the Chambres de Bonne could be a breeding ground for new housing
Starting point is 00:24:42 in the city. Obviously, these apartments have to be combined, but Brossard says there is great housing potential under Parisian roofs. There's a potential under the roofs that should be better exploited. When I first moved to my Chambre de Bonne, I remember how big it felt.
Starting point is 00:25:02 My dad was here to help me, and one of his first comments was how small it was given the rent. I could not see it. I was too happy to move to Paris. I was doing my first internship in public radio. To me, apartments are more than just a place we live in. They are also a place where we make memories. I always remember the sound of Clementine's lock in the morning when she left her room, and the text we used to send each other at the end of the day, I'm downstairs, do you need anything? So that the other one doesn't have to climb all the stairs a second time in the day.
Starting point is 00:25:39 When I moved out, two years later, I got sad. Clementine took a picture of me sitting on the floor in the empty room covered in sweat after moving all my stuff. More than saying goodbye to my apartment, I was saying goodbye to this part of my life. And Clementine had the same experience when she moved out. Some friends came to help me move out, and one of my friends who'd never been here looked at my empty room and was like, you lived here the three years? And we just stood there and I had never looked at the room that way and I think because I was leaving I finally could look at it and be like,
Starting point is 00:26:20 I had to be in a lot of denial to be able to have a daily life in such a tiny space. It's barely made to sleep at night inside of it, but I was having a very normal life. I would have friends over. So yeah, I understand why it's easy to get nostalgic about the Chambre de Bonne. But maybe it's time to retire this type of housing and find a better solution for Parisians. One thing is clear, if the Chambre de Bonne disappears forever, we need to find something to replace it. When we come back in many places, the entrance to Jean Bourbon apartments are hidden and only accessible by a special set
Starting point is 00:27:06 of stairs. More with Jean Boisac after this. So we're back with Jean Boisac. Hey Jean. Hi. So in this episode, we talked about your ordeal of climbing six flights of stairs to get to your Jean Bourbon. But something we didn't get to in the episode is this idea of service stairs. Can you explain
Starting point is 00:27:29 service stairs to me? So service stairs are most of the time hidden and they are how many people get into their Chambre de Bon apartments. The service stairs connect the Chambre de Bonne to the first floor. So it's not the main stair that you use. So to understand this, first we need to talk about private mansions in Paris. So before Haussmann, most bourgeois who lived in Paris live in Hôtel Particulier, which are private mansions. You can still see examples of this in Paris. For example, the Musée Carnavalet,
Starting point is 00:28:07 the museum of the city of Paris. It used to be an Hôtel Particulier. So in these mansions, they had separate staircases for servants. And they had the opportunity to separate where the people who live there actually go in and where the servants go in and go out. And it was separated.
Starting point is 00:28:30 They use the front door and servants the back door, just to be clear. And then Haussmann comes along and we get all these apartments for the bourgeois. And in many cases, they retain the idea of the service stairs. It's connected by the kitchen. And the idea was all the ugly stuff leaves the apartment by those stairs. So groceries, coal, trash, and the servants. We don't see them. And they would still have a separate staircase for the people living in the Chambre de Bonne. Actually service stairs were the only stairs going all the way up to the Chambre de Bonne.
Starting point is 00:29:04 The main one wouldn't go all the way there. Just for you to have a better understanding of the difference between the main stairs that was used by the bourgeois and the service stairs that was used by the servants, like to imagine it, you need to think about an Haussmann building and the stairs. Like we always talk about the stairs in Haussmann buildings, they have a nice red carpet and it's super nice. Well, when you think about the service stairs, it's the opposite. It's very narrow, very small.
Starting point is 00:29:38 It's just stairs, one point to another point. And so how do they work? How do you get to the service stairs inside of a houseman apartment? You think about like an houseman building and

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