Grottes Saint-Gervais, Geneva, Switzerland

Les Grottes is a district of the city of Geneva (Switzerland). It is part of the Geneva-Cité administrative sector. Historic district at the forefront of novelty, Grottes Saint-Gervais is a unique and dynamic sector. Grottes Saint-Gervais is one of the eight districts of the City of Geneva. Bordered by the Rhône to the south, it covers the right bank of the lake between Saint-Jean Charmilles and Pâquis Sécheron. It precedes the Servette Petit-Saconnex district, going up from the Lake. Old-fashioned buildings and original constructions make the charm of this district steeped in history. The alleys teeming with small shops give it an air of a village, despite the proximity to the station and the busy axis of rue de la Servette.

The heart of Les Caves is a dynamic and lively district, a place of experimentation. Formerly populated by craftsmen, artists are now the majority and the district is one of the centers of Geneva’s alternative environment. Long threatened with destruction, it is to its inhabitants that Les Caves district owes its survival and rehabilitation. Renovated in consultation with the inhabitants, it remains popular and friendly. It is the first district of Geneva to have been the subject of district contracts, a kind of commitment of trust between the City, the inhabitants and the other local actors of the district.

Saint-Gervais is a popular district steeped in history. With the city facing it, it forms the old town of Geneva, united within a single rampart until the 1850s. After the demolition of the fortifications in the middle of the 19th century, the district was transformed. The only traces of its medieval past are the temple of Saint-Gervais and the buildings between the streets of Etuves, Coutance, Rousseau and De-Grenus. The old town gradually merges with the neighboring districts created in the 19th century.

Today it is a densely populated and lively district with bistros, the Théâtre de Saint-Gervais and the Center for Contemporary Image. Les Halles de l’Île, converted into a brewery and cultural venue since 2009, is also part of the sector. Near the Rhône, the Bergues and its luxury hotels contrast with the working-class history of the town and the popular image of other sectors of the district. Cornavin station is located in the geographic center of the district. The streets of Mont-Blanc and the Alps delimit the shopping and tourist area of Mont-Blanc, which is pedestrianized towards the station.

To the north of the district, greenery dominates. The district is also the starting point for the “penetrating greenery”, formed by the succession of large parks connecting the station to Grand-Saconnex. The Parc des Cropettes, on the border with Pâquis Sécheron, is very popular with locals who meet there for a game of pétanque, a picnic or the AMR music festival. Opposite Baulacre Street, Beaulieu Park takes over, surrounded by groups of buildings. It offers the inhabitants of the area the possibility of gardening in friendly urban vegetable gardens.

The village of Saint-Gervais has been part of the city since the Middle Ages. An engraving from 1548 designates it by the name “Little Geneva”. But beyond the Porte de Cornavin, the current Grottes / Saint-Gervais district remained rural until the end of the 19th century. Fields, woods, vines and a few bourgeois properties shared the area in the 18th century.

In the 18th century, beyond the Cornavin door there are woods and fields, as well as areas of a few rich bourgeois. There were also vineyards there. Later, wood sheds were built. The district would take its name from a stream called Nant de Pissevache or Nant des Crottes depending on the sources, later named Nant des Grottes. He was channeled in 1937 because he often overflowed his bed. A trace remains visible today thanks to the ceramic pieces placed on the ground following the initiative of associations and people living in the neighborhood.

These large estates gave way, at the beginning of the 19th century, to hangars, small industries and workers’ houses. The nant de Pissevache, which often overflowed, was channeled around 1837. After 1850, construction multiplied. Motley and incredibly intertwined, these are poor houses with sometimes small gardens where a few chickens peck. This period is rich in anecdotes. On both banks of the river were two large estates, one to the south belonged to the Oltramares, Protestants of Italian origin, and to the north was the property of the Shepherds. A nursery at the bottom of these properties disappeared with the construction of the Cornavin station in 1856.

The presence of the station and the attachment to the city of Geneva in 1850 brought about an industrial boom in the district (hence the name of the current rue de l’Industrie). Two factories were built, as well as small workers’ houses on rue du Cercle. The construction of the current Grottes district began on the initiative of an entrepreneur named Jean-Pierre Berger between 1872 and 1880. The district was, according to the plans of Pierre Berger, to be intended for the class of craftsmen and civil servants, with the current rue des Grottes constituting the commercial artery. It was different: located at the back of the station, it quickly welcomed a working population and sometimes even a seasonal one. The anarchist newspaper Le Révolté had its headquarters there before moving to Paris. One of the first cooperative grocery stores was set up and workers’ housing was built on rue Louis Favre at the end of the century.

In 1909 the Cornavin station caught fire and was completely rebuilt after the decision of the League of Nations to settle in Geneva in 1919. The new station was completely completed in 1931.

As soon as the station was built in 1928, all construction or upgrading projects were stopped. The neighborhood is considered dilapidated and unsanitary. Authorities plan to shave it first and then let it rot.

From the early 1930s, the authorities prohibited any home renovation in this neighborhood, which had a bad reputation because of its poverty, and because there were many political refugees there. The city is buying up practically the entire neighborhood in order to raze it and build an American-style downtown.

From the end of the 60s, the city of Geneva plans to raze the district to build a shopping center and housing. A foundation was created to carry out these projects: the Foundation for the Development of Caves. These initiatives met with strong resistance from the inhabitants of the district, resistance which would later become a historical fact. A brochure published in 1971 announces the imminent death of the district “because tomorrow it will be delivered to the pickaxe of the demolishers”.

In 1971, a development project wanted to rebuild the Caves into a satellite city surrounded by major roads. The inhabitants oppose the project by creating the Popular Action in the Caves (APAG). Faced with popular pressure, the State abandoned its demolition project in favor of renovation. Saint-Gervais is completely shaved. As of 1933, almost nothing remained and some spoke of a “peacetime bombardment”.

The neighborhood’s squat tradition dates back to the occupation of the Papillon café by MLF feminists in 1976. The Lestime association, from the lesbian movement of the MLF in Geneva, was established there in 2002.

The economic crisis, following the oil crisis, caused the abandonment of several successive projects, especially since in 1977, the neighborhood movement Action Populaire aux Grottes (APAG) called on squatters to oppose the plan for the complete demolition of the buildings. For several years, occupations and evacuations follow one another. A popular initiative is refused by the people of Geneva by a small margin. The district is then half squatted, including several squatted bars, workshops or nurseries. Finally, the municipal and cantonal authorities decided on a light renovation of most of the buildings.

The squatted buildings are now almost all evacuated. While most have been remodeled and renovated, buildings in worse condition have been demolished and completely rebuilt. The rents of the buildings of the city being proportional to the income, the district has only half gentrified.

At the same time as that of the ban on renovations, the district was subdivided into blocks, hence the name “block 13” which is still used to define the largest of these blocks of houses, located directly behind the Cornavin station. (bordered by rue des Gares and rue Montbrillant). In this part of the neighborhood, the squatters succeeded in obtaining four buildings and a self-managed neighborhood center (the Buvette des Cropettes) and permission to renovate them themselves.

History shows that the Grottes Saint-Gervais district owes its survival to the support of its inhabitants. Even today, it is a pioneer in participatory urban projects and is the subject of several Neighborhood Contracts. Its inhabitants are thus actively associated with the city to improve their living environment.

The Grottes Saint-Gervais district is teeming with curiosities. From the imaginary worlds of comics to historical references, here is a selection.

The universe of the Smurfs in the form of dwellings
The Caves sector is home to a strange complex of dwellings with curved walls and surprising colors. Built between 1982 and 1984 by architects Frei, Hunziker and Berthoud, these buildings recall the work of the Spanish artist Gaudi or that of the Viennese Hundertwasser: asymmetrical volumes, curved walls, embossed balconies, spiral halls, facades in unexpected colors. The resemblance between these dwellings and the mushrooms in which the little blue characters of Peyo’s comics live has earned them the name “Smurfs”.

Professor Tournesol’s bedroom
“Tintinophiles” can admire room n°122 of the Hotel Cornavin, in which Professor Tournesol stayed in the comic strip “The Tournesol Affair” by Hergé. Although the author spent several nights at this establishment when the album was released in 1956, this room did not originally exist. It was only added in 1998, during the renovation of the hotel, at the insistence of customers who are keen on this comic book.

Rousseau’s false birthplace
In 1793, a large ceremony with the laying of a commemorative plaque took place at what is now 27 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the time, it is believed that the famous philosopher of the Enlightenment was born here, in the district of Saint-Gervais. We now know that the writer was born on June 28, 1712 in the Old Town, at Grand-Rue 40, but that he then apprenticed as a watchmaker in the Saint-Gervais district. It was not until 1904 that the error was officially recognized. The plaque is then replaced by the following inscription: “In 1793, the Geneva authorities gave the rue Chevelu the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau”.

The secret passages of Saint-Gervais
A network of secret passages connects courtyards and buildings in Saint-Gervais, where the workshops of watchmakers used to be.
Between Rue de Coutance 18 and Place De-Grenus 9: there is an interior courtyard and a 15th century tower;
Between Place De-Grenus 6 to Rue Rousseau 9;
Between Rue Rousseau 14 and Rue Lissignol: the passage has a 19th century interior courtyard;
Between Rue Lissignol 10 rue Lissignol, a quiet place with modest accommodation, and the shopping street of Chantepoulet, at number 9.
If these crossings are now prohibited to the public, let’s hope that they can one day be visited, during Heritage Days, for example.

Related anecdotes
Both watchmaker, mountain dweller and politician, Grottes Saint-Gervais is a multi-faceted district.

The heart of Geneva watchmaking
Until around 1859, the population of the Caves and Saint-Gervais was essentially made up of watchmaking craftsmen. The “cabinotiers” workshops flourish in the district and contribute to the international reputation of the city. These workers work for the watchmaking industry in a cabinet. They can be specialized in jewelry, engraving, watchmaking…

But the Grottes Saint-Gervais district is also home to other types of crafts and industry. In particular, soap and candles are made there. The rue de l’Industrie bears witness to this hard-working past.

Chalets in the heart of the city
In the second half of the 19th century, “Swiss chalet” fashion was all the rage in the neighborhood. Until 1914, the facades in cut wood and the doors decorated with small hearts multiply in the district. The Green House on the Place des Grottes is today the last witness to this period. It houses the Association of Friends of the Caves.

A politically engaged neighborhood
Throughout their history, the inhabitants of the Caves and Saint-Gervais have readily opposed the aristocracy of the city. After the meeting of the First International in Geneva in 1867, they created production and consumption cooperatives. One of the first cooperative grocery stores is born. The communist-anarchist newspaper “Le Révolté” was founded in 1879 in the district. It was published at 24, rue des Grottes until it moved to Paris in 1885.

This rebellious past is revived a hundred years later, in 1975. Threatened with demolition, the district is mobilized. We occupy the many abandoned apartments. Community life is organized: crèche, combined workshops, music center, popular canteen, markets… Inhabitants, occupants and sympathizers fight to save the Caves. In 1978, the destruction projects were abandoned in favor of renovations.

Cornavin station initially private
Cornavin station was inaugurated in March 1858. The festivities last three days: flags, processions, music, fireworks, carousels, speeches… Initially private, the station was destroyed by fire in 1909, restored and bought in 1912 by the CFF. Rebuilt between 1927 and 1933, it takes on the aspect we know it now.