A “bastard” city


Marseilles is a right bugger of a city. They are all bastards. There are no Frenchmen, no Moroccans, Comorians, Spanish, Italians or Armenians. They are all Marseilleis.  Marseilles is a typically Mediterranean city, open to those who come and go, in constant motion, never still. If you don’t know where to settle, you can drop your anchor here, you will feel instantly at home, but you might also get quickly swallowed up by your own cultural or ethnic community.

From the chic neighbourhoods to the souq, the urban skyline changes in a sudden. There is no coherence to the city. There is no centre, different styles overlap, there is no order and it’s dirty. Each different neighbourhood reflects the struggles of its own community, thus there is no integration here. Arabs, Armenians, Comorians arrive en masse and let themselves be welcomed by the city with an embrace that is as warm as it is deceptive.

The degraded suburbs, the banlieue, are in the city centre, in the heart of the city. They are not ghettoes but they are still, sociologically, confined spaces whose boundaries lie in the minds of the locals rather than being geographical. Marseilles is fundamentally a city made up of its communities, where you live according to social circle, without mixing. Here you don’t mingle you just superimpose.

Fractures run deep in the communities, in the neighbourhoods and between people. Marseilles is not sun and tourism, bouillabaisse and Olympique de Marseille. It’s also a city that is not designed to bring people together. Forcing strangers to live side by side for no particular reason doesn’t help the weaving of the social fabric. The formal boundary between the rich and the poor fluctuates and is somewhat unclear. Social breakdown happens when the city isolates communities that struggle to fulfil their expectations in a silo. These communities define themselves from a negative standpoint, through their daily struggle, an opposition that in recent years has fortunately become more active.

The citizens have started fighting the that engulfs the city, the lack of citizenship and the unruliness. They also fight the conformism that unifies all behaviour which is typical of French, European and even Western society in general. The Marseilleis have always been against all the drives to homologation. Today they are challenging a new wave of conformism that is driven by property speculation. In recent years the push to rationalise the urban structure hasn’t been flanked by social reform. Building new houses is not enough if you don’t build bridges between the people who live in them. The experiment hasn’t worked. The outlook will not get better. There are vested political interests to keep the city in its fragmented state. There’s expectation for 2013 when Marseilles will be European Capital of Culture but little will change since the change is being led in a top down fashion without the involvement of the citizens. Marseilles will keep on being highly fragmented until the city is transformed on a social level, through fighting the cash in hand phenomenon, through the reintroduction of interaction between communities and through the support of the rich social fabric of this city which is still inaccessible to those who don’t belong to the community network. Until then Marseille will remain fractured, fragmented, bastard.

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