Approximately 10% of Marseille’s 200,000 inhabitants were foreigners in the 1850s, a number that rose to 132,000 in 1926, or one fifth of the population at the time. At the very beginning of the 1990s, after a decade during which Marseille continually lost inhabitants, the portion of foreigners in the city was only 7%. From the 1850s to the late twentieth century, the migrants who succeeded one another in Marseille actively contributed to the urbanization of the city’s northern, southern, and eastern outskirts. At the same time, their presence in the old neighborhoods along the port shaped the identity of the city center. The very materiality of the city reflects this foreign presence, whether it is the constructions that gradually covered peripheral neighborhoods, or the many appropriations involving the streets of the city center.
From the City Center to the Faubourgs: Marseille the Italian City
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the old neighborhoods on the north side of the Vieux-Port were home to numerous foreigners, including many people from Italy. This explains why in 1866, the Consulate General of Italy in Marseille—on which the city’s 50,000 Italians depended for their administrative formalities—chose a location on Rue Impériale, today’s Rue de la République, a new street cutting through the old neighborhoods. In the space of a few years, the street where the consulate was located became a central place for Italian life. The local press regularly drew attention to the gatherings beneath the consul’s windows, especially upon the death of King Victor Emmanuel in 1878.
During the same period, Italian contributions to the urban transformations of the faubourgs (suburbs) were visible in the construction of residential buildings, using new techniques diffused by Italian homebuilders. To adorn the façades of the homes built in La Belle-de-Mai and Endoume neighborhoods, Italian building professionals employed Portland cement, a new material used for coating and moldings.
Urban Outskirts, Migrant Territory: From Huts to Residential Towers
In addition to the city’s pericentral neighborhoods, the urban outskirts were also home to large contingents of immigrants. In the city’s northern neighborhoods, Italian laborers built and lived in huts, which sprung up near factories. The industrial installations located in the city’s southern calanques (rocky inlets) transformed these difficult-to-access crevices into the territory of Italian workers. The steep vales and dry plateaus in the eastern part of the city provided the Marseille real estate market with affordable plots, many of whose purchasers were part of the successive waves of migration. For example, the Beaumont neighborhood, which appeared on the Saint-Julien plateau in the form of multiple subdivision projects, was first home to Italians around 1900, before becoming a center for Armenian immigration in the aftermath of the First World War—as demonstrated still today by toponymy, ethnic businesses, places of worship, and commemorative monuments, which made this part of the city a central location for the 50,000 Armenians that lived in Marseille, according to estimates by community associations in the early 1980s.
These migrant territories were subject to overlapping urban appropriations. In Marseille’s north, near the huts once occupied by Italian laborers, shantytowns appeared in the late 1950s that were home to populations from North Africa. It is these same neighborhoods—the “quartiers nord” (north side)—that are today seen as a hotspot for immigration from the Maghreb, which in the late 1960s numbered approximately thirty thousand people, 80% of whom were Algerian. Today, the landscape of these neighborhoods is less one of huts than of residential towers bordering the A7 freeway.
Return to Downtown: The “Comptoir maghrébin”
During the second half of the twentieth century, the foreign presence in the city center was associated with the development of two shopping centers on either side of the Canebière. In the Noailles neighborhood in the south, the food shops selling products from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia used the space left vacant by the central market’s departure in 1972, which is now located in the city’s north. Algerian and Tunisian pastry shops took the place of establishments which used to be operated by Swiss merchants in the early twentieth century. North of the Canebière, near the Cours Belsunce, there were numerous foreign merchants in the 1970s who ran shops selling fabric, hardware, electrical appliances, and jewelry. Wholesale and retail shops catered to an Algerian clientele travelling through, to migrants from across Europe buying gifts and merchandise before embarking in Marseille, and to those within a large radius covering Southeast France who came regularly to make their purchases. This “large Algerian and African comptoir” is centrally located between the train station and the port, and represents an urban hub in the Euro-Mediterranean merchant network driven by small migrant entrepreneurs. However, its decline has been visible since the late 1980s, a consequence, among other things, of the visa requirement established in 1987 for Algerian travelers coming to France, who numbered 50,000 each week in Marseille in the early 1980s. By contrast, on the other side of the Canebière, exotic food shops resisted, and took advantage of gentrification in the areas surrounding the Noailles neighborhood.