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A Drainage Project Reveals the Secrets of a Paris Canal

A brief and recent history of the 10th arrondissement, told in garbage.

Image REUTERS/Charles Platiau
A worker inspects trash/treasure found at the bottom of the Canal Saint-Martin. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Every ten or fifteen years, Paris goes ahead and drains the Canal Saint-Martin. The canal was completed by Napoleonic order in 1825 to bolster the growing French capital’s supply of disease-free drinking water, but it was last cleaned in 2001. Since then, there have been two major developments around in the canal, in Paris’s 10th arrondissement.

The first is the influx of “Bobos”—what Americans might call “hipsters”—young, educated, mostly well-to-do Parisians who lead decidedly bohemian lifestyles. The area has become a popular spot for new restaurants, cafes, bars, and tourists.

The second is the launch of the city’s major bike-sharing service, Vélib’, which encompasses more than 20,000 public bicycles and 1,800 bicycle stations.

The Canal Saint-Martin on a busy day. (Wikimedia Commons/Alexander Johmann)

Which explains a lot about the crud found at the bottom of the Canal Saint-Martin last week, during its latest cleaning: scores of abandoned Vélib’ bikes, and a whole bunch of grimy wine and beer bottles and cans.

“That’s Paris for you, it’s filthy,” a public sector worker who witnessed the canal’s 2001 draining told The Guardian. “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it. I despair. The Bobos are using it as a dustbin.”

A Vélib’ bike (plus muck). (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Other fun things drawn from the depths of the 2.8-mile long canal: shopping carts, motorbikes, chairs, radios, public trash cans, rolled up carpets, a fire-extinguisher, a doll stroller, umbrellas, street signs, suitcases, and at least one gun, which police were on hand to collect. “[It’s] an endless inventory,” one French journalist wrote on Twitter.

The 2001 draining found even more fascinating souvenirs, including a toilet bowl, a bathtub, gold coins, a car, and two World War I shells.

Engineers drained the canal with the help of a small dam, erected January 4, which diverted 3.2 million cubic feet of water into the River Seine.

Workers wade in the Canal Saint-Martin on January 5. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

But enough about garbage—what became of the wildlife of the Canal Saint-Martin? City workers netted nearly five tons of trout, carp, and bream from the canal, moving them to a part of the waterway undisturbed by the cleaning project.

Workers net and remove fish in a lock during the cleaning of the Canal Saint-Martin. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

"The haul has been good," Marion Escarpil, of a local anglers' association, told The Telegraph as she emptied a bucket of fish and garbage. “We have found very few fish that are sick or malformed. That's surprising when you see what's there at the bottom of the canal.”

A worker prepares to weigh a carp caught during the cleaning. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

The cleaning operation will last until April and is estimated to cost 9.5 million euros, or $10.3 million.

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