The New York Times published an article describing a plan to partially replicate the city of Lyon in Dubai. I wasn’t born in Lyon but I grew up there. At the cost of another off-topic post, I will take this opportunity to tell my American friends, whose itineraries in France tend to take them from Paris straight to the French Riviera, that they are missing out on a great city located half-way between these two spots.
The Lyon apartment building I lived in stands on what used to be a trading post for Gauls and Romans. Napoleon Bonaparte presided over the earth breaking ceremony for this building. A couple of windows in the apartment were later blocked with bricks because of a 19th century tax that was assessed based on the number and size of windows in your home (*). Through the remaining windows, the view from the apartment is over place Bellecour on which you can see a statue of king Louis XIV that was melted during the French revolution to make cannons and replaced during the Restauration period. There was also a guillotine in action there during the revolution. During WW2, the Gestapo took over the building (my elderly same-floor neighbor told me about being evicted by them – he came back after the war). And Antoine de Saint Exupery was born next door. That’s a lot of history for just one apartment building. Good luck replicating that in the desert.
Of course that’s not necessary and there is a lot you can be inspired by in Lyon without emulating its past (I don’t recommend cutting a few heads in public just to “capture the feel” of Lyon’s revolutionary history). The Times article lists a few challenges. The importance of pork and wine in the local cuisine is manageable. Once you accept that you’re not going to get a carbon copy, the challenge of Lyon-inspired cooking without these ingredients is one chefs could rise to (a generic prohibition on heavy sauces would be more problematic). The role of the rivers in the “feel” of the city seems more challenging to me. I lived in the peninsula formed by the meeting of the Rhone and Saone rivers. The rivers and the wide walking areas by their sides make for great (sometimes windy) walks during which you can see nice bridges and historic buildings (universities, a hospital, a courthouse and many Renaissance apartment buildings). And even if they manage to create an equivalent body of water in Dubai, the strong flow of the water coming down from the Alps is likely to be missing. There is a reason why the picture that illustrates the Times article shows a pedestrian bridge (looks like Passerelle Saint Vincent over the Saone river).
I am not sure what it really means to replicate an old city but there certainly is a lot to learned about urban life from Lyon’s long evolution. I am sure the people of Lyon don’t mind the money but even more they probably love being told that they represent a model to emulate. And it must feel good to steal the limelight from Paris just once. I don’t have millions to invest in the city like Dubai does, but I too am happy to speak highly of Lyon and encourage people to visit. Feel free to contact me if you plan such a visit and would like recommendations.
(*) the number of doors was also part of the tax calculations. The goal was to achieve some degree of proportionality in taxation since rich people presumably had more doors and windows in their homes. It wasn’t a new idea, Julius Caesar imposed similar taxes (called ostiarium and columnarium) on the numbers of doors and columns respectively. Looks like he didn’t care for McMansions either. Maybe it’s time to resuscitate the columnarium in US suburbia.