This is Strasbourg cathedral’s 1000th year, the first stone in its foundation having been laid in September of 1015 CE, and as the city begins a year of celebrations, it seems appropriate to meditate. Its lengthy tenure has seen world shaking events come and go. The cathedral survived two world wars and even some of the ordinance exploded during them. It survived the French revolution and it survived the Protestant reformation, which in another universe might have scoured its façade of all ornament. These events, and so many more, have swept past like the river sweeps past the city center and its vestiges of long-departed industry. The longevity of the cathedral, with all it has outlasted, feels almost eternal.
In Alsatian, “Stockfeld” means something like “field recently reclaimed from the forest,” and it was the name of a rural satellite village six kilometers south of Strasbourg. At the turn of the twentieth century it was mostly agricultural, and relatively distant from urban life. It was here that the city planners decided to build 457 new housing units for the working class who were displaced by La Grande Percée, and to do so in the spirit of the Garden City Movement.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the increasingly poor living conditions in central Strasbourg were the subject of study by municipal housing associations. Inspectors discovered buildings in advanced stages of dilapidation, often with large groups of people living in small single rooms with chronic humidity problems. Many residents lived in housing with no windows or direct light of any kind. Outside, the streets were narrow and dirty, spotted with dung heaps and all kinds of garbage. At the time, journalists and surveyors were openly referring to the old city center as resembling a cesspit or an open sewer. The city leaders decided a radical action would need to be taken to address the problem.
In recent times, La Petite France has become one of the most heavily frequented tourist areas in Strasbourg, known for its unrivaled quaintness. The history of the neighborhood is, however, more colorful than any Christmas display, and many thousand times more sordid. One of the first facts a newcomer learns here is about the origins of its name. Apparently it was inspired by a hospice built in the fifteenth century to house soldiers with syphilis, known at the time as the “French disease,”
During his lifetime, a gallery was dedicated to Gustave Doré’s work in London, he was photographed by the one and only Nadar, and when he died at the age of 51, he was interred in Paris’s famous Cimetière du Père Lachaise. To posterity, one expert claims he left over one hundred thousand individual works, while even a conservative estimate puts it at over eleven thousand. That body of work has, in turn, been responsible for influencing countless illustrators—perhaps even inspiring our earliest comic books—and establishing visual tropes that still appear today in print and cinematic forms. There is no question that Doré sought to establish his legacy with a singular determination, and he succeeded in many ways, yet his greatest work may also be his most significant failure.