Thursday, 9 October 2008

What the Crash of 1873 Means Today, Or Emile Zola, Greed and the Current Economic Mess

Of all the novels by Zola, why did you choose La Curée (The Kill in English) to discuss: that’s a question I’ve been asked several times this fall at the book discussions I lead in four Montreal libraries. My answer until now has been that it is a good yarn and when I read it in the summer of 2007 while researching my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond I was struck by how much Aristide Saccard, the developer at the heart of the novel, resembled people involved in cities today.

According to Zola’s story, Saccard made a fortune in the Haussmannian re-building of Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. How like the men behind the plans to redevelop Griffintown in Montreal. I thought. The developer Devimco has wrested big zoning concessions from the city with promises of a massive shopping/office/housing project that will radically change part of Montreal’s old industrial area. For a while it looked like Devimco was getting a license to make money while doing great damage to the city’s urban fabric.

Just how apt that comparison is came home this morning when I opened Le Devoir to read historian Scott Reynolds Nelson of William and Mary comparing the current economic crisis not to 1929, but to that of 1873. Real estate speculation, shaky financial arrangements, unsecured loans and most of all greed were behind that crash. “Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the (Paris, Berlin and Vienna) today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period,” Nelson writes in an article called “The Real Great Depression” published in The Chronicle Review and taken from the Oct. 17 number of The Chronicles of Higher Education, When the bubble burst the depression which followed lasted four years in North America and seven years in Europe, he says.

Needless to say tonight when we talk about La Curée in Kirkland, I’ll have his article on hand as well as the one from Le Devoir which includes comments from local historians on the effect of the 1873 Crisis. According to Jean-Claude Robert of the Université du Québec à Montréal, the slump here led to thousands of Québécois moving to the US North East to find work in the factories there. Should be a good discussion tonight, I think.

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