Cities within the City: Marseille’s Discrete Enclaves

17 April, 2021

La Rouvière, Marseille's city within the city, in the background, with the Stade Vélodrome landmark — home to the local football team Olympique de Marseille — in the foreground (Photo: Gilles Paire/Getty Images).

La Rou­vière, Mar­seille’s city with­in the city, in the back­ground, with the Stade Vélo­drome land­mark — home to the local foot­ball team Olympique de Mar­seille — in the fore­ground (Pho­to: Gilles Paire/Getty Images).

Mary Fitzgerald

Of the many sto­ries Mar­seille likes to tell about itself, per­haps the most endur­ing is that of its open­ness. Found­ed by Pho­caean sailors more than two mil­len­nia ago and shaped by waves of migra­tion from across and beyond the Mediter­ranean ever since, France’s sec­ond city is home to many who proud­ly draw on mul­ti-faceted iden­ti­ties. The Swiss-born poet and nov­el­ist Blaise Cen­drars was fas­ci­nat­ed by its dense lay­ers of often com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ries, both com­mu­nal and per­son­al. “Mar­seille belongs to who­ev­er comes from the open sea,” he once wrote in a dec­la­ra­tion of love for a city so often unloved in France due to its rep­u­ta­tion for cor­rup­tion and crime. It’s a beguil­ing line that is fre­quent­ly cit­ed by local writ­ers and politi­cians, most recent­ly Michèle Rubiro­la who includ­ed it in her inau­gu­ra­tion speech after she was elect­ed Mar­seille’s first female may­or last summer. 

How to square that idea of Mar­seille with the fact the city is home to one of the world’s high­est per capi­ta con­cen­tra­tions of gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties? This sta­tis­tic was not­ed in Le Grand Puz­zle, an urban study con­duct­ed by a team led by Dutch archi­tect Winy Maas as part of Man­i­fes­ta, the Euro­pean bien­ni­al which last took place in Mar­seille in 2020. Unlike oth­er major French cities, Mar­seille does not have rings of ban­lieues — the name giv­en to often impov­er­ished sub­urbs — on its hin­ter­land. In Mar­seille the ban­lieues are inside the city périphérique, as locals put it. The eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties of France’s old­est metrop­o­lis are drawn not in cir­cu­lar form but from north to south, with the hard­scrab­ble quartiers nord con­trast­ing with a more afflu­ent south­ern belt. 

Next to a map illus­trat­ing the speed at which closed res­i­dences have sprung up arch­i­pel­ago-like across the city since 2010, the authors of Le Grand Puz­zle — under the cap­tion “Urbanisms of Fear” — observed that no oth­er met­ro­pol­i­tan area in Europe con­tains so many gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties. “While the moti­va­tions for the cre­ation of gat­ed devel­op­ments may dif­fer between the north­ern and south­ern dis­tricts [of Mar­seille], in their quest for safe­ty, gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties fur­ther exac­er­bate spa­tial frag­men­ta­tion and inequal­i­ty, and lim­it social mixing.” 

Detail from Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse.

Detail from Le Cor­busier’s Cité Radieuse.

The phe­nom­e­non may have accel­er­at­ed over the past two decades but the idea of self-con­tained res­i­den­tial com­plex­es — not all of them shut off from the out­side world — has a long his­to­ry in Mar­seille, a city whose post-war and post-colo­nial tra­jec­to­ries left an indeli­ble mark on its urban land­scape. It was post-war Mar­seille, bad­ly in need of rede­vel­op­ment, where archi­tects like Le Cor­busier came to exper­i­ment. Le Cor­busier con­sid­ered his Cité Radieuse, com­plet­ed in Mar­seille’s 8th arrondisse­ment in 1952, a “ver­ti­cal gar­den city,” and it inspired sim­i­lar struc­tures else­where in Europe. Now a UNESCO World Her­itage site, Cité Radieuse includes a hotel, shops and var­i­ous cul­tur­al facil­i­ties, as well as res­i­den­tial apart­ments. It is a space that is pub­lic as well as private.

It’s a rather dif­fer­ent sto­ry at La Rou­vière, a sprawl­ing com­pound of around 2,200 hous­ing units,  mak­ing it one of the largest con­do­mini­ums in Europe. Its white tow­ers dom­i­nate the hill­sides of Mar­seille’s south­ern flank, just before the city gives way to the wild beau­ty of the Calan­ques, a series of rugged inlets declared a nation­al park in 2012. The con­struc­tion of La Rou­vière — once known as “Super Mar­seille” — in the ear­ly 1960s coin­cid­ed with the end of the Alger­ian war of inde­pen­dence. Across the Mediter­ranean fled the so-called “pieds-noirs” — descen­dants of the French colo­nial­ists — many of whom set­tled in Mar­seille and oth­er parts of south­ern France. Some bought apart­ments in La Rou­vière off plan before they left Alge­ria. Those of pieds-noirs back­ground, most of them with roots in Algiers and Oran, have dom­i­nat­ed the com­plex ever since. “A colony of for­mer colo­nial­ists,” quips one local.

Media head­lines some­times refer to La Rou­vière — home to almost 9,000 res­i­dents — as a “city with­in a city” or a “fortress,” not­ing that there is a guard for every entrance, the gates are closed at night, and sur­veil­lance cam­eras were installed a num­ber of years ago. Inside, almost every­thing a res­i­dent might need is avail­able with­out ever hav­ing to leave. In among the 30 hectares of green spaces and 4 kilo­me­ters of roads you can find a shop­ping mall, a nurs­ery, two schools, a post office, banks, and a ten­nis club. A shut­tle bus runs between the buildings. 

The far-right has polled well in the local con­stituen­cy over the years, a fact often not­ed in media cov­er­age of the unique dynam­ics with­in La Rou­vière, as is talk of self-seg­re­ga­tion and unwrit­ten rules regard­ing rent­ing or sell­ing to those who are Black or of Arab ori­gin. In 2016, the then-pres­i­dent of the res­i­dents’ asso­ci­a­tion told Le Monde: “The pres­ence of the [returned pieds-noirs] meant that [La Rou­vière] remained calm because the immi­grants knew they were not wel­come. It still is and that it is a very good thing.”

Cité Radieuse and La Rou­vière are both dis­tinct prod­ucts of par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal eras in Mar­seille. The more recent growth of gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties — where liv­ing spaces are cor­doned off by grids, fences and auto­mat­ic gates — is a com­plex phe­nom­e­non in this city of almost one mil­lion peo­ple. It can­not be reduced sim­ply to the notion of “bunker­ized ghet­tos” for the wealthy, says Elis­a­beth Dori­er, who leads an Aix-Mar­seille Uni­ver­si­ty research team map­ping the trend since 2007. 

Accord­ing to a study they pro­duced in 2014, almost 30 per­cent of hous­ing in the city — in the form of more than 1,500 col­lec­tive res­i­den­tial estates with an aver­age sur­face area of one hectare — was then locat­ed in gat­ed enclaves. Of those, three-quar­ters have been closed off since 2000. In just over half the cas­es exam­ined, the res­i­dences had been gat­ed a pos­te­ri­ori, some­times a year lat­er. Around 43 per­cent were orig­i­nal­ly con­struct­ed as enclosed residences. 

Mar­seille’s poor pub­lic trans­port sys­tem means the city is one of the most car-depen­dent urban areas in France, a key fac­tor in the rise of gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties. Dori­er and her team note that the result­ing need for pri­vate park­ing spaces, which are con­sid­ered more secure, is often cit­ed to jus­ti­fy enclosures. 

“Far from the clichés of the wel­com­ing Mediter­ranean melt­ing pot, large areas [of Mar­seille], of all social lev­els, tend to become trans­formed into mosaics of sep­a­rate enclaves man­aged by numer­ous and poor­ly coor­di­nat­ed stake­hold­ers (co-own­ers, ser­vice com­pa­nies, home­own­er asso­ci­a­tions, etc.),” wrote Dori­er and her col­league Julien Dario in 2018. They argued that such dynam­ics can be con­sid­ered the out­set of a French “Pri­vatopia” — a term coined by Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Evan McKen­zie — with detri­men­tal effects on the func­tion­ing of the city. 

“Through the pro­lif­er­a­tion of urban enclo­sures, Mar­seille can be con­sid­ered as a “test­ing” ground to study the geog­ra­phy of the com­bined effects of ter­ri­to­r­i­al inequal­i­ties, dereg­u­la­tion and the con­fu­sion between real estate pro­duc­tion and urban devel­op­ment,” they concluded.

Marseille's Vieux Port and Grande Roue seen from the Saint Victor quarter (Photo courtesy Getty Images).

Mar­seille’s Vieux Port and Grande Roue seen from the Saint Vic­tor quar­ter (Pho­to cour­tesy Get­ty Images).

My first expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in Mar­seille was in a friend’s apart­ment in a gat­ed res­i­dence in Saint Barn­abé, one of sev­er­al Provençal vil­lages long swal­lowed by the city’s expan­sion. Built in the 1960s, the com­plex was locat­ed in what real estate ads described as “un beau parc sécurisé.” Res­i­dents used a secu­ri­ty code to open heavy auto­mat­ic gates. Since I moved down­town to the Saint Vic­tor quarti­er next to the Vieux Port, I have lived in a 19th-cen­tu­ry build­ing whose front door opens right onto the street. The area is rich in his­to­ry —Louis XIV built his arse­nals near­by, one of Mar­seille’s most noto­ri­ous anar­chists hid out next door dur­ing the 1920s, and Amer­i­can TV chef Julia Child rent­ed an apart­ment just around the cor­ner a few decades lat­er — but many Mar­seil­lais would not con­sid­er my res­i­dence suf­fi­cient­ly sécurisé. I have lived in sev­er­al very dif­fer­ent cities across the world —among them Belfast, Mia­mi, Lon­don, Wash­ing­ton, DC, Amman and Libya’s cap­i­tal, Tripoli — but I find the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with secu­ri­ty in Mar­seille par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing. Nowhere else have I seen real estate agen­cies high­light how secure their prop­er­ties are above most oth­er considerations. 

Michèle Rubiro­la has since been replaced as may­or by her deputy, Benoît Payan, a 43-year-old Social­ist who helped cre­ate Print­emps Mar­seille, the green-left alliance that pro­pelled Rubiro­la to the city hall. They inher­it the dif­fi­cult lega­cy of Jean-Claude Gaudin, the right-wing may­or who stayed in place for a quar­ter cen­tu­ry until his retire­ment last year. Of the many chal­lenges Payan faces, the ques­tion of how peo­ple live here is a pri­or­i­ty. In 2018, the deaths of eight peo­ple killed when two build­ings col­lapsed in the heart of Mar­seille high­light­ed the prob­lem of sub-stan­dard hous­ing. Payan and his col­leagues want to explore new, more sus­tain­able ways of liv­ing togeth­er in this, France’s sec­ond largest city and one of its most diverse. Oth­ers speak of Mar­seille’s poten­tial as a gate­way to the rest of the Mediter­ranean and fur­ther south to Africa. 

I choose to live here because, for me, Mar­seille is a tru­ly Mediter­ranean city in a way oth­er Euro­pean cities lapped by that sto­ried sea are not. Mar­seille is where Europe meets the Maghreb. It’s a mass of con­tra­dic­tions, some intrigu­ing, oth­ers infu­ri­at­ing. Can there be a greater con­tem­po­rary Mar­seille para­dox than the fact an increas­ing num­ber of its inhab­i­tants appear to want to retreat behind walls, fences and elec­tron­ic gates? What future for a city sup­pos­ed­ly open to the world but where many are clos­ing them­selves off to their fel­low Marseillais? 

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