Outside Paris in the Marne Valley, the Bièvre still flows baldheaded through the burghal landscape.
A river acclimated to change through my Left Bank adjacency in Paris. From the southern burghal absolute that’s now the Parc Kellermann in the 13th arrondissement, the Bièvre fed mills and tanneries afore its assemblage with the Seine in the 5th arrondissement. But by the aboriginal 20th century, the Bièvre had become so odiferous and attenuated that it was active underground, its baptize absent into the sewers.
This picture, taken about 1898 by the acclaimed columnist Eugène Atget, shows the Bièvre abounding through the 13th arrondissement, below what is now the Rue Edmond Gondinet.
Though the Seine evokes dreams and romance, the Bièvre—its alone accessory to breeze through Paris—is abundantly alien to the millions of tourists who admission in the French basic every year. But abounding amorous Parisians accept harbored a abiding dream of resurrecting a river that, to them, has taken on allegorical status.
Now this dream is abutting to acceptable a reality. In contempo years, sections of the river accept been reopened in upstream suburbs, and the Paris mayor’s appointment afresh launched a achievability abstraction to attending at apprehension stretches in Paris. Like all-embracing river apology projects in Madrid and Seoul, the renaissance of the Bièvre reflects a blooming about-face in burghal planning and burghal lifestyles that sets up the burghal for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
“There’s new drive for this activity as we face the altitude crisis, accretion calefaction waves, and the blackmail to biodiversity,” explains Dan Lert, the agent ambassador administering the Paris ecological transition, altitude plan, water, and energy. “We can’t abide the way we acclimated to with burghal development … Association apprehend that we acclimate our burghal to ecology challenges.”
A photo taken about 1865 shows the Bièvre and the tanneries forth it, at the end of the Rue des Gobelins in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.
The Bièvre bubbles up from its antecedent in Guyancourt, almost 22 afar southwest of Paris. From this boulder-strewn stream, it snakes through four adapted departments, spilling into forest-fringed ponds that fed the fountains at the Palace of Versailles. From there, the river hydrated and cooled a cord of burghal cities, afore all-encompassing its aperture in the Seine, an camouflaged cesspool aqueduct abreast the Gare d’Austerlitz.
(This automated admiration powered Versailles’s fountains.)
Twelve afar of this avenue are in ample daylight; the aftermost amphitheater stretches in Paris were covered absolutely in 1912, while suburbs like Gentilly closed the river in the 1950s. A aisle of sidewalk medallions announce the river’s old advance in Paris, admitting added vestiges are below obvious: the ambit of a artery afterward the riverbed, artery names abandoning burst mills (such as Moulin des Prés), abstruse apartment trapdoors with river access, and—from the bump allowance at L’Escurial cinema—a hidden appearance of tanneries banausic aback the Bièvre’s disappearance.
As explained in the book Sur les Traces de la Bièvre Parisienne, the river’s alpha goes aback bags of years. In the Neolithic aeon (5000 B.C.), the Bièvre flowed in what is now the Seine’s riverbed in Paris, while the Seine arced below the hills of Belleville and Montmartre. Floods accustomed the Seine to accroach the Bièvre’s course—just as the Seine has baseborn the Bièvre’s abode in the all-around imagination.
The river was added adapted by humans. Aboriginal monks channeled it for agronomical irrigation, followed by medieval millers, tanners who complete pools to absorb beastly skins, and ice cutters who sourced the city’s ice accumulation from ponds at Glacière.
Competition for baptize admission in this dirty, aggressive fiefdom anon led to conflicts amid barter groups: dyers vs. laundresses, tanners vs. butchers. In 1376, Parliament had ordered butchers to dump beastly audacity in the Bièvre rather than asperse the Seine. But after government edicts could not stop the breeze of debris into the Bièvre, axis the river into a rancid cesspool abounding with disease.
Over the years I’ve calm Bièvre lore—some legends as decrepit as the currents of the river. There’s the account of Gentilia the nymph, adapted into the river by the goddess Diana to escape a Trojan soldier in hot pursuit. Afresh there’s the dragon said to accept abashed the acreage afore Bishop Marcel abandoned the barbarian to the Bièvre in the fourth century.
A adapted beastly was said to accept lived on the île aux Singes; two branches of the river cloistral “Monkey Island.” Here, the adventure goes, workers frolicked in bender while jugglers let their monkeys roam free. Or did the chat “monkey” adumbration at a debasing argot chat for “boss”?
Even the origins of the river’s name are cloudy. Some historians altercate that “Bièvre” is acquired from “beber,” the Celtic chat for beaver. However, there has never been any accurate affirmation of beavers inhabiting the breadth (woe to the 13th arrondissement for accumulation the beastly into its covering of arms). The name could aloof as able-bodied accept been acquired from the Celtic chat for mud or the Latin “bibere” (to drink). Others altercate that Bièvre comes from “bief,” the chat anecdotic the counterfeit canals that agitated baptize to comminute wheels.
Whatever the truth, the actuality charcoal that this baby river had a boss reputation, alarming artists and authors over the centuries. The base Renaissance artist Rabelais wrote in Gargantua of feasts of frogs and crayfish fished from the Bièvre. Henri Rousseau corrective a awkward arena of “The Banks of the Bièvre abreast Bicêtre.” In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo declared the arch abutting to the Moulin de Croulebarbe, breadth Marius dreamed of Cosette. He additionally wrote a composition about the Bièvre Valley, anecdotic the “charming landscape” carved by a “stream of mohair and silk.”
Barely three meters wide, the Bièvre became the abundant assertive of Parisian industry. Its bigger affirmation to acclaim was the Manufacture des Gobelins, which began as a beach dye works in the 15th century. According to legend, there was article appropriate in the Bièvre’s baptize that helped actualize the active red blush that accustomed the dyers’ all-around reputation. (Rabelais joked that this additive was dog urine.) Later, below aristocratic patronage, the Manufacture des Gobelins supplied affected tapestries for the French monarchs.
Since the dematerialization of the Bièvre in Paris, allure has accomplished a zenith. “It’s a tiny river, with a anemic breeze rate, but historically it’s admiring abundant interest,” explains Alain Cadiou, a baptize able and the arch of the Union Renaissance de la Bièvre, a aggregate of 35 nonprofits. Each of these organizations has a adapted focus—from announcement the river’s cultural ancestry to attention the environment. (An example: added than 2,000 bodies participate in the Marche de la Bièvre, an anniversary springtime airing that follows the river’s advance starting at midnight in Paris.)
After an all-encompassing abstraction in 2001, afresh Paris Ambassador Bertrand Delanoë absitively it was too big-ticket to adjust the age-old river. But over the decades since, nonprofits alongside government coalitions in the Bièvre watershed accept connected to campaign. The consistent reopening projects in the suburbs accept been a victory. “We charge to accord acclaim to these important groups,” says Lert. “It’s these lovers of the Bièvre who accept encouraged chat about the river’s renaissance and activated a movement.”
“The assignment to abate the Bièvre’s abuse has taken a continued time … but now the baptize affection has absolutely improved,” explains Marie Bontemps, administrator of the Bièvre Contract at the Syndicat Mixte du Bassin Versant de la Bièvre (Bièvre Watershed Syndicate).
The suburb of Fresnes apparent a esplanade in 2003—today a lush, forested breadth bisected by the Bièvre and affluent with wildlife. In 2016, l’Haÿ-les-Roses followed suit, reopening a 650-meter amplitude of the river with a walking aisle forth the anew landscaped banks. In summer 2021, the cities of Arcueil and Gentilly—the abutting southern suburbs to Paris—will appearance off a collective reopening activity in the Parc du Coteau-de-Bièvre, abating the river in its accustomed bed.
(Here’s how burghal parks are bringing attributes abutting to home.)
“The Bièvre will acknowledgment to the gates of Paris and already afresh acquisition its assemblage with the Seine,” explains Lert. “It acclimated to be absent into carrion analysis collectors afore all-encompassing the city. Therefore, in 2021, it will become a actual river afresh … And there’s additionally the [prospect] of the 2024 Summer Olympics. We’re accomplishing aggregate to assure the baptize affection of the Seine in adjustment to host pond contest in the river.”
With 2.2 actor people, Paris is the best densely busy burghal in Europe, and there are cogent abstruse challenges to reopening the river. In the 19th century, Paris underwent a seismic about-face in burghal planning as Baron Haussmann razed medieval abode to accomplish way for admirable boulevards. He enlisted Eugène Belgrand to actualize the avant-garde avenue system, still in use today.
Together they believed the alone band-aid to the botheration of the attenuated Bièvre was to abolish it. In 1858, Haussmann proclaimed, “The abhorrent beck that is the Bièvre will no best cascade its addled amnion into the Seine.” In the southern allotment of Paris, this active activity is abysmal because the basin was abounding with about 20 meters of bits as hills were collapsed and the Parisian cartography always changed.
Today’s burghal planners accept no ambition of digging a coulee in Paris to bare the river. But the Bièvre is anchored alone a few meters underground in places such as the Square René Le Gall. Occupying the above vegetable garden of the Manufacture des Gobelins, this blooming esplanade is one of three spots articular for potentially reopening the river. (The Parc Kellermann and the Accustomed History Museum addendum are additionally achievable targets.)
(What secrets lie below Lyon?)
The accepted abstraction is reevaluating these locations in ablaze of contempo burghal works projects, absorption alone on gravitational solutions and absolution the use of pumps or hydraulic systems. Lert’s achievement is to accessible at atomic one amplitude afore the end of the government appellation in 2026.
The Bièvre’s renaissance isn’t aloof a agency of cooling the city, angry all-around warming, and abiding attributes to the burghal milieu. It additionally creates a bigger active ambiance for association like me, who dream of walking on a greenway instead of concrete, administration summer aperitifs with neighbors on the riverbanks already roamed by Rabelais.
“The Bièvre flowed in Paris for bags of years,” says Cadiou. “It would be alive to acknowledgment it.”
Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance biographer and editor based in Paris. Acquisition her on Twitter.
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