Marseille through the kaleidoscope
William Kornblum, emeritus professor at the City University of New York, is a sociologist renowned for his work in the field of urban ethnography, devoted to subjects ranging from a group of Harlem teenagers (Kornblum and Williams 1994) to, more recently, the New York subway’s 7 Train, which runs through the borough of Queens (Kornblum and Tonnelat 2017). His most recent book, Marseille, Port to Port, was written during repeated visits over the past 10 years, and in particular during a 2014–2015 study visit to IMéRA (Institut d’Études Avancées d’Aix–Marseille). This free-form essay testifies above all to the need for a direct encounter with specific places and a certain number of inhabitants of France’s second-largest city.  Situated at the intersection of multiple approaches and viewpoints, it reads almost like a travel guide, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from the clichés of mass tourism, making it an unclassifiable and fascinating work. Its subject matter combines multiple registers from a series of discoveries in the first person; it is by turns a work of sociological portraiture, historical biography, urban geography, and even human ecology. One should not be fooled by its concise format, its easy-to-read style across 12 chapters punctuated by photographs by the author, and its cover image that is perhaps a little too close to a picture postcard: this book manages to map out an astonishing path, presenting the reader with a vibrant cross-section of Marseille. While most of the chapters are written in the first person, the author alternates narrative sequences—accounts of visits or interviews with inhabitants—with selected episodes from the city’s social and political history—such as a fascinating portrait of longtime mayor Gaston Defferre —and precise geographical descriptions of specific places and neighborhoods.
Juggling between long-term considerations and ethnographic field notes, Port to Port reveals both the historical permanences that characterize Marseille and the tendencies towards renewal and vitality that make it unique. From one chapter to the next, Kornblum details the industrialization of the port and its consequences, the relief and hydrography of the Quartiers Nord (northern districts, home to many social-housing neighborhoods), the cultural life of certain housing projects, the stances taken by young activists, the ritualized attachment to certain traditions, and retired residents’ life stories. The text sometimes reproduces with a benevolent empathy a depiction of daily life that is so easily encountered in France’s oldest city. As an experienced ethnographer, however, Kornblum does not give in to the temptation of clichés or picturesque anecdotes. His multifaceted and personal approach is a marvelous example of what we might call, to cite Everett C. Hughes, a “sociological eye,” albeit one that is freed from the academic and disciplinary apparatus associated with this term (Hughes 1996).
In this way, the book presents itself as a kaleidoscope based on a succession of encounters and interactions. But the reserve of the outsider posture adopted by this New York sociologist should not fool us. Kornblum, ever attentive to the words of each of his interlocutors, shows himself to be as well informed historically as he is critically reflective in a way that a simple, subjective travelogue would not. His complex point of view is developed through more or less informal field visits (repeated stays, participation in workshops, site surveys), selected interviews with a wide variety of interlocutors, including long-time residents, rappers, community activists, and academics, as well as documentary research and extensive reading.
Although Port to Port is not, strictly speaking, a social-science investigation in the technical sense of the term, on each page we can see the signs of a sociologist’s mastery of the tricks of the trade. Indeed, one of the book’s merits is that it shares with us the gaze and viewpoint of a researcher in the original form of a succession of synthetic urban explorations that weave a path from person to person and from neighborhood to neighborhood. The strength of this immersive approach is that it remains deliberately selective, and almost pointillist at times. The result is an expressive itinerary, always situated through the geographical, social and historical complexity of Marseille, which the author does not forget to place within the context of the Mediterranean and its migration trajectories, but also within the industrial and colonial history of France. Not the least of the book’s merits is that it offers English-speaking readers an encounter with the city that breaks with stereotypes and conventional wisdom, distancing itself from the media noise—political instrumentalization, even—that has colored recent public discourse at a national level regarding Marseille. Kornblum prefers instead to compose a series of brief sequences that shed light on the city’s social and cultural vitality, including a number of personal photographs and some archival images, rather than conducting a detailed analysis supported by quantitative methodology.
One of the discreet threads running all the way through the book is the importance of the port in the city’s history, above and beyond the fine chapter devoted to laborers’ and dockers’ neighborhoods; indeed, it is Marseille’s port dimension that allows us to understand the city’s specific role in the history of France, and its decisive function in colonial history, as well as in welcoming various arrivals over the last century, and the richness of the cultural interactions that can be found there. The coastal position of the “Gateway to the Orient”, a metaphor used to describe the port city as early as the Romantic period as well as during the colonial era, has a determining role over the long term, which means that this historical consideration converges with the most current events in the city’s long history. There is therefore no contradiction in the fact that the author is just as interested in the city’s present as in its past: in a short chapter on the municipal elections of spring 2020, for example, he describes the main issues that were at stake in what proved to be a historic change of majority in the city (to the center left after 25 years of center-right control under the previous mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin).
The result is a journey as free as it is contextualized. The choice of a writing style that is both precise and uncluttered, without any pretension to exhaustiveness, makes this book a real pleasure to read. Moreover, any sensation of overview or excessive speed that the brevity of certain chapters might produce is compensated for by a comprehensive “appendix” running to some 20 pages, comprising a bibliography of targeted and cogent reading suggestions, organized by theme, on all the subjects addressed or touched upon by the author—including architecture, immigration, the Cold War, and cinema.
Another of the book’s valuable contributions is its capacity to decompartmentalize, which goes far beyond an “interdisciplinary” attitude in the sense of a dialog between academic disciplines. Without explicitly stating it, the text suggests, particularly from the second chapter onwards, possible cross-fertilizations between environmental studies and human ecology—in the sense of the intellectual tradition inaugurated in interwar Chicago by authors such as Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, who founded urban sociology in the United States. As an indirect heir of this lineage, Kornblum invites us to think that it could be fruitful to consider a critical updating of it: by walking along the Aygalades creek with the historian Christine Breton, he sketches the model of a “natural history” capable of interweaving ecological, historical, and cultural considerations. One form such an association might take could be that of a political history of the landscape of the Quartiers Nord of Marseille. In the course of a series of walks between La Viste and Bougainville metro station, the sociological gaze is multiplied: the social, urban, and architectural history of the large housing projects intersects with the observation of agricultural practices, the presence of informal markets, the consequences of the development of industrial and highway infrastructures, and the vast sites occupied by the titanic Euroméditerranée project.
From one port to another: a New Yorker in Marseille
The book’s primary originality lies in the position of the author himself, an American writing for an English-speaking audience: “looking at Marseille through the eyes of a New Yorker” (p. 4) provides him with the opportunity to make suggestive comparisons with his native city. If he is not the first to suggest such a transatlantic parallel, which will have nourished the war stories of Anna Seghers and Varian Fry, the sensationalist chronicles of the French Connection or the texts of the rappers of IAM, Kornblum’s gaze is here more unexpected. The comparisons and analogies he draws between the two port cities are more about their insertion into particular physical geographies. The author describes their alteration by phases of industrialization and urbanization that paid little attention to ecological functioning, and observes the traces that are still visible. The Hudson Bay archipelago and the Atlantic coast of Long Island, which harbor a vast diversity of ecosystems, were thus severely tested by the colossal developments undertaken during the decades of authoritarian management of the New York metropolitan area by the urban planner Robert Moses (1888–1981), known for his passion for the automobile. And the amphitheater of hills that surrounds Marseille, cultivated and grazed for nearly 25 centuries, has experienced a certain amount of degradation, destruction and pollution due to industrial activities and the expansion of the port complex. Kornblum sketches, in particular in his last chapter, the lineaments of a fascinating parallel history between these two representative destinies of 20th‑century Western urbanism. This mirroring finds stimulating justification in the observation of the phenomena of deindustrialization suffered by the two metropolises, from one side of the Atlantic to the other: the decline, departure, or pure and simple disappearance of productive activities, by freeing up considerable amounts of land, have given way to spontaneous processes of overgrowth and recolonization by vegetation. Deserted and ruined warehouses, abandoned dumps and industrial-waste disposal sites, disused railroad tracks and piers… As a counterpoint to the considerable social and economic damage these phenomena show, they also represent gaps and openings for what is called “ecological restoration,” of which Kornblum describes some of the issues in the case of New York, when he takes guests visiting from Marseille on a visit to Far Rockaway and along the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn. There, wetlands and portions of the coastline acquired protected status as early as the 1970s, some 40 years before the creation of Calanques National Park (in and adjacent to Marseille), with the resulting natural spaces providing access to views of the ocean and the entire New York Bay.
Most recently, Lucie Taïeb has devoted a stimulating little book to the gradual conversion of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island into a vast urban park (Taïeb 2021). These operations are also, and above all, helping to contain or counteract some of the less desirable effects of accelerating climate change, including global warming or rising sea levels. Should they continue to inspire the city’s councillors?
- Hughes, E. C. 1996. Le Regard sociologique. Essais choisis [The Sociological Eye, 1971], translation and presentation par Jean-Michel Chapoulie, Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS.
- Kornblum, W. and Williams, T. 1994. The Uptown Kids. Struggle and Hope in the Projects, New York: Putnam.
- Kornblum, W. and Tonnelat, S. 2017. International Express. New Yorkers on the 7 Train, New York: Columbia University Press.
- Taïeb, L. 2022 . Freshkills. Recycler la terre, Paris: Pocket.