Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
For centuries, luring enemies to destroy decoy cities was a legitimate military defense strategy.
Before radar was widely used, before the iron dome missile defense system came into existence, before any of the scary-cool Star Wars-type military stuff was invented, decoy towns were constructed to throw off enemies. A map from the early 20th century shows a plan for fake Paris, designed to get the Germans to bomb the wrong area if they were looking to launch an air raid on (real) Paris.
"Fake cities had limited utility, of course, but the idea did have its place," Ptak says. "Even in the extraordinary history of deception, sham Paris was extraordinary."
Fake Paris was to be situated 15 miles northwest of Paris, around the town of Maisons-Laffitte. Only one of the three "zones" planned were actually constructed there, but it had real trains and Paris landmarks like the Champs-Elysees, Gare Du Nord, and Arc De Triomphe. It even had lights (designed by the same guy who lit up the Eiffel Tower) just dim enough to seem like its fake residents had drawn their curtains to avoid attracting attention.
"The plan was kept secret for obvious reasons, but it shows how seriously military planners were already taking the new threat of aerial bombardment," Professor Jean-Claude Delarue, a Paris-based historian based told The Telegraph.
Faux Paris was not the only city built to be destroyed. (The practice can be traced as far back as 18th-century Russia, writes Chris White.) After the German Luftwaffe battered Coventry in a 10-hour raid in 1940, the British created "starfish sites"—dummy towns and villages that they hoped the Germans would fire on instead of real British cities. According to the Daily Mail, 730 bombing raids were diverted to these.
In the U.S., there was the (super creepy) Survival Town in Nevada—built to test the effects of a nuclear attack as a part of Operation Teapot in the 1950s. Decoy infrastructure was also a tactic in the Vietnam War.
As for Faux Paris, the small part that actually existed was deconstructed after the war. Despite all the work put into it it, the city never got a chance to serve its purpose: Construction wasn't finished before the Germans attacked real Paris in September 1918. And by the time it was completed, the war was wrapping up.