The Lost River of Paris

The Bièvre flows beneath the 13th and 5th arrondissements, but has been buried under concrete for the past century. It may soon see the light of day again
This view of the Bièvre River was taken in 1865 by Charles Marville, the then-official photographer of the city of Paris, and can now be seen at MoMA in New York. © Alamy

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine…” Most French people are familiar with Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem about the Seine, sublimely set to music by Léo Ferré. Few, however, know that another river flows through Paris, completely hidden beneath the city streets. The Bièvre, which used to empty into the Seine just upstream of the Austerlitz Bridge, was buried beneath concrete a century ago. But it may soon be uncovered, breathing new life into the Parisian landscape.

The Bièvre River rises in the town of Guyancourt, in the Yvelines département southwest of Paris, and used to flow visible to all for 21 miles through the towns of Jouy-en-Josas, Massy, Antony, Fresnes, Cachan and Arcueil. For the last three miles, it ran through Paris itself, entering the city at Poterne des Peupliers, under Boulevard Masséna near Porte d’Italie. From there, it split into several branches, flowing through a good part of the 13th arrondissement, around the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood towards the Gobelins tapestry factory. After crossing under Boulevard Arago, it entered the 5th arrondissement and flowed past the Museum of Natural History before emptying into the Seine near the Jardin des Plantes. Although rarely more than ten feet wide, the Bièvre sometimes caused considerable damage when it flooded.

Over the centuries, however, the river – whose name is said to derive from the Latin beber, meaning “beaver” – came to resemble an open-air sewer or cesspool rather than a natural stream. Factories and workshops thronged its banks. First there were mills, initially used for grinding grain and then for beating wool and leather. The city’s notoriously polluting tanners and dyers were eventually banned from the center of Paris and had to relocate to the banks of the Bièvre in today’s 13th arrondissement. The Gobelins factory – a dyeworks that went on to specialize in the production of tapestries – was founded in the 15th century, solidifying that part of the river as an artisanal and industrial hub where tawers, laundry workers, shoemakers, weavers, brewers, and millers worked side by side.

With all these tradespeople dumping their wastewater and other debris into the river, the Bièvre eventually became badly polluted, creating a health hazard for the people living along its banks. For two centuries, the river was blamed – rightly or wrongly – for a number of disease outbreaks. The mid-19th century saw the advent of the Second Empire under Napoleon III, who tasked the architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann with a massive public works program to renovate the city of Paris. Seeking to make the city cleaner, Baron Haussmann ultimately came up with a solution, and a project to cover the river began at the end of the century and continued until 1935, finishing off near today’s Kellermann Park. Practically all the mill races were eliminated and filled. The towns upstream of Paris did the same: Over the 20th century, the Bièvre disappeared from the landscape between Antony and Gentilly, just outside the capital. Some of the water was diverted to a huge treatment plant in the region, and some to Paris’ sewers.

A New Green Walkway

The disappearance of the Bièvre from the 13th arrondissement signaled the demise of the trades that had been polluting the river for so many years. But their imprint remains. Aside from the prestigious Gobelins factory, which survives to this day, the area’s rich artisanal past has been preserved in the local street names, which pay tribute to the trades once practiced there. About twenty years ago, the Paris municipal authorities came up with a plan to uncover all or part of the Bièvre and turn it into an eco-corridor. The project has yet to be launched as resources are lacking, even though the quality of the water no longer poses any health issues. Things are starting to change, though, and work was launched in 2016 to uncover a section of the river in the suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses, just south of Paris. Similar projects will likely be carried out in Arcueil and Gentilly in 2021.

As for Paris itself, the Bièvre may benefit from a wave of political support for environmental issues. Anne Hidalgo, who was re-elected mayor in June 2020, has included a plan to revive the river in her program. But anyone hoping that the project will restore idyllic rural landscapes is bound to be disappointed. Much of the old riverbed has been covered by tall buildings and busy streets. Only a few sections can be uncovered, and each will look more like a canal than a stream flowing through a forest or prairie. The banks of the Bièvre were lined with stone before the river was covered, which is why the people involved in the project intend to add green spaces as well. An itinerary will mark the river’s path through Paris. A feasibility study is due to be launched in 2021, and Parisians may finally be able to enjoy a new green walkway to complement La Coulée Verte (Green Walkway), a raised promenade in the east of the capital that inspired the High Line in New York City. Let’s call it La Coulée Bleue!

Article published in the January 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.