In 2016, Paris authorities decided to empty the Canal Saint-Martin, which is 5 km long. It was part of a cleaning operation and they figured they’d find lots of discarded items and waste from the last 15 years. But people knew there was more to it than that, so they crowded by the banks to see what treasures would get dragged out of the murky water.
In 1825, the Canal Saint-Martin was completed twenty-three years after being commissioned by the future Emperor Napoleon. In that time period, Paris had 550,000 people and the population was growing. But this brought illnesses like dysentery and cholera. Napoleon’s solution to reduce the spread of this contagion was fresh water.
Napoleon hoped the steady supply of fresh water would maintain the streets clean and prevent disease. He imposed a tax on wine, which allowed construction of the canals to begin. The network of canals consisted of Canal del l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis, the Bassin de la Villette, and the Canal Saint-Martin by the time it was finished. But it was this last canal that made a major impact than the others.
Near the Place de Stalingrad is the locked entrance to the canal, which connects to the Canal de l’Ourcq through the Bassin de la Villete. It flows south, passing under the three tunnels, of which the historic Bastille prison is located. It’s through the Port de L’Arsenal that the canal then merges with the River Seine. In fact, it was the ports which made an impact on Paris’ economy, hence why the canals are so valuable.
There was another benefit that the canal’s construction served besides being a supply of fresh water. The construction of two ports allowed boats to come into the city, providing it with food and building supplies. This helped the trading industry to flourish and gave the city’s economy a much-needed boost. But today, the canal offers something different, like leisure and attracts tourism.
Tourists who come to Paris will use the locks and the canal’s bridges to take captivating selfies. However, the locals used the banks to create a cultural scene. In fact, progressive Parisians — known as Bobos, which is short for Bourgeois Bohemians — gather in nightclubs and nearby cages. But with large crowds of people there’s more waste.
Paris officials knew they had to empty and clean the canal periodically in order for it to continue functioning. They’d been doing this since the 20th century. So now, a huge operation occurs every ten to fifteen years to drain the canal and clean out all the truth. But it’s an interesting sight, and this latest cleanup was just as curious.
The canal was last drained back in 2001, and the number of items at the bottom was nothing to mock about. Not only did they retrieve 40 tons of trash, but also washing machines, safes, gold coins, a car, and two World War I 75 mm shells. Now, fifteen years later, folks came together to try and get a good look at what the canal was going to offer them this time.
The latest cleanup project started on January 4, 2016. The entire operation would cost over $10 million and last three months to drain 3 million cubic feet of water. But first, they had to get rid of the fish. The workers started by emptying the canal to 20 inches of water, Then, they went fishing for three days.
After the trout, bream, and carp were caught, they were safely taken to a different area of the waterway. Then, the workers drained the remaining water from the canal on January 7. And that’s when the area became a spectacle, which attracted hundreds of onlookers who were anxious to see what was at the bottom of the muddy canal.
At first, the objects, which consisted of wine bottles, shopping bags, beer, street signs, umbrellas, and traffic cones were unremarkable. But once you take a closer look, you find a wide array of interesting items such as a fire extinguisher, a vintage stereo, a doll’s push-chair, and an abandoned toilet. Sadly, they found no cars, but they did find a type of transportation that was equally as interesting and bountiful.
At the bottom of the canal were a large number of bicycles. It turns out that in 2007, Paris instituted Velib, a bike-hire system, which introduced over 14,000 bicycles into the city itself. But most of them wound up resting at the bottom of the canal, much to the shock of the locals.
Marc, a local resident told The Guardian, “It’s like some kind of weird submarine treasure. I just can’t believe the quantity of Vélibs in there. I guess they were stolen and thrown in afterward. It’s bizarre.” Ironically, other neighbors, like Marc, were just as stunned by all the trash found at the bottom of the canal.
54-year-old Bernard said that he had been around in 2001 during the last canal cleansing project and believes that the garbage dumping issue has gotten a lot worse. “That’s Paris for you, it’s filthy,” he claimed. “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it. I despair. The Bobos are using it as a dustbin.” The government is also aware of this problem too.
Celia Blauel, the Parisian deputy mayor, took advantage of the draining project’s publicity to ask the population to stop dumping on the canal. In an interview, she stated, “If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything into the water, we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years.” Given the value of the canal, there’s a good reason to fight to keep it free of waste.
From the very beginning, the Canal Saint-Martin has played a major role in the Parisian culture. It has inspired artists like Alfred Sisley, an impressionist painted, whose work is on display at the Orsay Museum. The Canal has been featured in lots of films, like “Amelie,” which was highly-acclaimed. At the 104 rue d’Aubervilliers, you’ll find that the canal offers a vast multimedia art space as well as several works of elaborate graffiti.