Marseille – the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth. When this gullet opens to catch the black and brown proletarian bodies thrown to it by ship’s companies according to their timetables, it exhales a stink of oil, urine, and printer’s ink. This comes from the tartar baking hard on the massive jaws: newspaper kiosks, lavatories, and oyster stalls. The harbor people are a bacillus culture, and porters and whores products of decomposition with a resemblance to human beings. But the palate itself is pink, which is the color of shame here, or poverty. Hunchbacks wear it, and beggarwomen. And the discolored women of rue Bouterie are given their only tint by the sole pieces of clothing they wear: pink shifts.


For Walter Benjamin writing in 1929, Marseille was so incongruous and intoxicating that the best way to describe it was through a series of disparate moments or collected observations: noises, churches, lights, oyster stalls, walls and characters. His experiential collage amounted to a portrait of a complex, vibrant metropolis in constant contradictory movement. In another essay, Hashish in Marseille, still attempting to make sense of the city’s dissonant parts, Benjamin found comfort in self-dissolution and leisure – arriving at a reading of Marseille through the obligatory veil of sedation.

What Benjamin captured was the essential difficultly of grasping a city with so many contradictory social and spatial networks. At once cosmopolitan and provincial, urban and ‘villaged’, nationalist and tolerant, vanguard and archaic, Marseille’s paradoxical character has persistently served as the subject of cultural and historic investigation. However, despite all of the Marseille profound complexities, it is useful to simplify France’s second-largest city to a bare bones diagram composed of a few principle elements: the Vieux Port, the Canebière, the Quartiers Nord, the Quartiers Sud and the Port Autonome, all held in place by an arresting topography.

It is often said that Marseille forms a figurative amphitheater facing the Mediterranean Seaxiv. Center stage: the Vieux Port, or Marseille’s main harbor and marina. Embedded in the fabric of the old city, it marks the origin of Greek settlement at the cove of Lacydon at about 600 BCxv. Moving from the Vieux Port to the church of Les Réformés, the Canebière, Marseille’s central high street, physically and symbolically cuts the city in half. To the north, tucked behind the shipping port, post-industrial neighborhoods are defined by squandered landscapes, modernist mega-structures, staggering levels of unemployment, immigrant settlement and generalized poverty. To the south, Marseille is expressly more affluent with individuated housing, leisurely parks and access to popular beaches.

Marseille, France’s second largest city, is spread over a vast terrain of 24,062 ha (2.5 times the size of metropolitan Paris), with a population of over 800,000 (urban Paris is populated with close to 2.2 million). While hardly as densely populated as the French capital, Marseille is bracketed by mountain ranges to the north, east and south, curbing the potential for unrestrained sprawl. Thus, it is a rare example of a French city without the requisite banlieu, or suburbanized periphery that has been the focal point of so much social tension and political upheaval over the past decades. This absence of banlieu often serves as the speculative explanation for the conspicuous lack of violence reported in Marseille during France’s recent riots. That is, because Marseille’s residents view themselves as belonging to an enclosed, yet integrated metropolis, there appears to be less perceived conflict between an empowered urban population and a relinquished periphery. The city is officially divided into 16 arrondissements, which are roughly regrouped into 4 general areas: the old center (1-6), the south (7-9), the east (10-12) and the north (13-16). Each area has distinct, qualitative characteristics. The urban landscape is further subdivided in 111 quartiers, which correspond to a network of previously autonomous villages. Thus urban identity builds consecutively in scale, but inversely in magnitude: first, residents identify with a specific quartier, then an arrondissement, followed by an area of the city, finally with the city itself. In the end, much greater emphasis is placed on metropolitan rather than on national identity; meaning, residents of Marseille are first and foremost Marseillais, and French only by consequence. This cultural idiosyncrasy epitomizes Marseille’s overall posture within the national landscape. It is a city that culturally and geographically turns its back on the remainder of the continent, taking pride in its self-prescribed autonomy, imaginary invincibility and good-humored petulance.

– Anya Sirota