A city full of holes

18th arrondissement - 97, rue des Martyrs

On March 1, 2001, residents at 97, rue des Martyrs looked out their window to find that a hole 7 metres long and 5 metres deep had formed in the street in front. To prevent a collapse, huge wooden bulwarks were propped up against the building. They remained there until late 2002, waiting for slow-grinding French bureaucracy to inject cement into the subsoil. For a year and a half, the building remained under close surveillance for signs of cracks in the supporting walls. Between the accident in 2001 and late 2002, some "tilting of the building" was noted and traffic banned from this portion of the rue des Martyrs. Yet people continued to live at number 97.

The problem was that the building, like much of Montmartre, is built on top of old gypsum quarries that were worked until the early 19th century. (By contrast, much of the Left Bank is built over limestone quarries). It is thought that heavy rain may have sufficed to destabilise the substratum, hence provoking the street collapse.

Quarries dug under Paris

Paris is a like a gruyère cheese, with at least 280km of underground tunnels and quarries. So the city is full of holes, and not just above ground. Rue des Martyrs is just one of, on average, 10 instances of street collapse each year. Louis-Sebastien Mercier reported the deaths of seven people "swallowed up" by a hole that caused their house to collapse in Ménilmontant (20th arrondissement) in 1777. And in 1879, three houses in the 14th arrondissement collapsed into the centuries-old quarry below. The most dramatic incident of recent times happened on June 1, 1961. After several days of heavy rain that swelled the water table, no less than six small streets and part of a soccer stadium collapsed into a disused chalk quarry in Clamart in the Paris suburbs. Twenty-one people were killed, 273 people were left without a roof above their heads and 23 buildings were completely destroyed. And at the end of February 2003, a school building collapsed in the 13th arrondissement as a result of work on the extension of line 14 of the Paris Metro. Fortunately, the incident appened during the school holidays.

Work has been ongoing since Louis XVI's reign to shore up the city's foundations, and concrete is periodically pumped into areas considered at risk. Yet, within officialdom, anxious eyes remain focused on quarry-riven Montmartre.

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