The story of Paris's controversial "Christmas tree"

The "Tree" installation before its untimely demise. Image: Getty.

On 16 October, a large, 24m tall green sculpture was erected in Paris's Place Vendôme. The sculpture's title was "Tree", but its similarity to another, less seasonal object was immediately noted by the city's residents.

By the next morning, #Vendome was trending on Twitter, and was swiftly followed by the less subtle #buttplug and #pluggate over the next couple of days. Around the world, headlines lambasted the imposter sculpture for its Yuletide pretensions: "Giant Butt Plug In Paris Is Supposed To Be A Christmas Tree But Clearly Isn't"; "Sex toy-like Christmas tree 'humiliates' Parisians". 

But the sculpture wasn't actually meant to be a Christmas tree; was only scheduled to stand in the city for just over a week; and, despite its admittedly sex-toy-esque shape, was intended to be abstract. Here's what actually happened. 

1. It's not a Christmas tree.

Paul McCarthy, the sculpture's designer, told Le Monde that he only realised after designing the piece that his sculpture resembled a Christmas tree. He also said it wasn't designed to look like a sex toy: "People can be offended if they want to think of it as a plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction" (though to be fair, the resemblence is, er, striking). 

The association with the Christian holiday may well have come from the tree's detractors, as opposed to its creator. Far right, anti-gay marriage group Printemps Francais tweeted “Place Vendôme disfigured! Paris humiliated!” when the sculpture was erected last Thursday, and later complained that the sculpture was a "waste of tax money".

While the tree was approved by city authorities as part of the International Contemporary Art Fair, it wasn't a city-funded Christmas installation (it was scheduled to be dismantled on 26 October, after all). Framing it as such, however, probably helped those campaigning against the sculpture to raise heckles across the city. 

Paris' most-loved annual Christmas trees are arugably in front of Notre Dame:

Image: Getty.

And inside the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre:

Image: ErasmusofParis at Wikimedia Commons.

As yet, there seem to be no plans to replace either with a giant inflatable this year. 

2. The fact it was controversial wasn't an accident.

McCarthy's known for his playful, tongue-in-cheek sculptures. Here's a cheerful Snow White-inspired sculpture he erected in Rotterdam: 

Image: F. Eveleens at Wikimedia Commons.   

However, he probably wasn't expecting such a strong reaction against his Paris sculpture. While he was installing "Tree", a woman punched McCarthy three times in the face, screaming that he wasn't French and that the sculpture did not belong there. Criticisms on Twitter and in the press have continued in a similar vein since.

Those who were offended can take heart, though, because...    

3. It's already gone. 

On Sunday, vandals severed the sculpture's supports in what Fleur Pellerin, France's Minister of Culture, has since called "an attack on creative freedom". It collapsed into a sad, bright-green puddle:

Image: Getty.

Anne Hidalgo, Paris' mayor, took to Twitter to defend McCarthy and his work: 

(The tweet roughly translates as: "Paris will not yield ot the threats of those who, by attacking an artist and his work, attack artistic freedom") 

McCarthy, however has decided not to re-erect the sculpture. In a statement, he said the piece had invoked a "violent reaction" instead of the intended "discussion about how objects exist as language with layers of meaning". 

4. It's sparked a debate about what's acceptable in public spaces.

Beyond Paris, McCarthy may have succeeded in provoking the calm, punch-free discussion he had hoped for. In this piece at CityLab, Kriston Capps points out that while the reaction against the sculpture in Paris was strong, "Tree would be unthinkable in any square in any city in the U.S.—period".

Meanwhile, Ellen Jones at The Independent noted that those hoping to erect controversial public statues should take heart: "If they'll build a giant butt plug in the middle of Paris's grandest arrondissement, then surely anything's possible."


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.