Disorder in the eye of the beholder, by Naa Oyo Kwate

Naa Oyo Kwate. Copyright Christophe Delory

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, résidente IMéRA 2017-2018, est professeur au département des études africaines et au département d’écologie humaine de l’université Rutgers (États-Unis). Elle est titulaire d’un doctorat en psychologie clinique de l’Université St. John’s, New York. Ses recherches portent sur les façons dont les environnements urbains construits reflètent les inégalités raciales aux États-Unis et comment le racisme affecte directement et indirectement la santé des Afro-Américains.

Article paru dans Perspectives#17, revue du RFIEA.

When I learned that I had the fortune of winning a EURIAS fellowship and would be spending a year in Marseille, one of my first orders of business was to start looking for travel guides. I stumbled upon a book for soon-to-beexpatriates planning a move to France (1). To be sure, Paris was the focal point for the book, the assumption being that anyone who hopes to relocate to France intends to move to the capital. But a quick flip of the pages suggested sufficient breadth of information about navigating day-to-day life in France to make purchasing the book worth it.

Days later, when I began reading the book, I found that towns and regions beyond Île-de-France were described, each with its distinctive merits. In Brittany, Rennes was characterized as a modern city with a technological bent, while Vannes, perched above a seashore, featured a downtown comprised of cobblestone streets where brasseries serving local cider beckoned to passersby. Bordeaux and the Dorgdogne Valley, replete with truffles, wine, and rolling green countryside, evinced a fairytale feel. Pau was a “little jewel”, noted for plentiful sports activities and a balance of urban, rural, and cosmopolitan.

Toulouse, with its international texture, and Montpellier both profited from art, and cultural amenities, and proximity to the sea. Lyon, beautiful and “livable,” was championed as a place where people from all walks of life could “build a rich and fulfilling life among the ancient Roman ruins, medieval churches, and Renaissance-era townhouses.” And Strasbourg, long overlooked for amenities other than its Christmas markets, was commended for its cosmopolitan flair, safety, and strong sense of community.

And then there was Marseille. A city apparently devoid of a single positive attribute; certainly, none of those accorded to the other cities. In reviewing Marseille, the author could only muster the following warning: “Even for experienced urbanites, France’s second-largest city, Marseille, can feel overwhelming. Its crowded, graffitifilled, labyrinthe streets seethe with a gritty energy that only intensifies with the summer heat. It’s worth a visit, but Marseille can’t really stake a claim as a ‘prime’ living location. However, 30 miles north is the much calmer, quieter oasis of Aix-enProvence.” (p. 193). Disappointed by the lack of useful information, and offended on behalf of my new, if temporary home, I returned the book.

The terse dismissal of Marseille as a tenable choice for new residents will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the persistent, one-note caricature with which the city is often saddled. This is often true within France, as well. But it was striking to me that a published travel guide concerned with migrating to France would traffic so heavily in stereotype, that it would be so vehement in its disparagement of the country’s second-largest city.

But all was not lost—if nothing else, the text was fodder for the intellectual pursuits of my fellowship year. Because my project is concerned with how people interpret the social and material features of urban space, the travel guide was an excellent point of departure for thinking about how perceptions  of charm and disorder might play out in France. Implicit in the travel guide are several concepts central to the construct of neighborhood disorder. One of these is noise. The review assumes that the calm and quiet one would apparently find in Aix is prerequisite to an appealing city; there seems to be no possibility that sound, activity, or crowded streets could be stimulating rather than toxic. To describe Aix as an oasis is also to ascribe a kind of relief from savagery that otherwise would be encountered in Marseille. I’ve been to Aix. It is indeed a quieter city than Marseille, and is not lacking in charm. But neither is it devoid of graffiti, litter, or other features of city life that can be objectionable.

Marseille’s depiction as a seedy also-ran and Aix as an oasis very much reminded me of the kind of language one sees in the United States when restaurants, cafes, and bars open in gentrifying neighborhoods. These communities, initially stigmatized as no-go zones, begin to offer new social spaces for intrepid explorers in a changing neighborhood. Cafes, bars, and other outlets are, for their affluent clientele, an oasis—a refuge in the untamed wilderness, a place where gentrifiers may idle at ease within a perimeter of undesirable and offensive residents. Sometimes, without a hint of irony, these outlets are given names like Outpost (1).

In Indianapolis, Fall Creek Place is a new housing development built in a predominantly Black neighborhood that had long contended with disinvestment. Federal funding for urban renewal arrived during the early 2000s, leading to widespread displacement of Black renters. Now, the community is predominantly White and affluent. Developer Kurt Flock took this as his starting point in creating the advertising for his new project himself. Accompanied by “before and after” photos, one a vacant lot in a depressed area, the other of cookie-cutter townhouses, the copy read:
“Real estate prophets said build here, so the people came and they built, and all was good in the kingdom. It was once an unseemly placed filled with unholy habitats and vice lords. Thusly people banded with bureaucrats and rebranding Oracles who ordained Dodge City be henceforth and forever known as Fall Creek Place. With blessing of the banks, brokers, and bureaucrats, ZMC Urban Homes began building new homes for the blessed who believed urban living could be holy, hip, righteous, and upscale. People flocked Downtown, and ZMC built mightily, and a new order of peace and prosperity spread across from Goose the Market, where kingdoms start at $636,000. Only four left. Yikes.” (2)

To describe Marseille’s streets as “seething” evokes a similarly stigmatizing portrait as “unholy habitats and vice lords.” “Seething” connotes malevolence, chaos, and the possibility of violence. The streets do not bustle, pulse, course, or jump with energy— they seethe. Would the same word be used to describe Paris’ streets, with more than 2.5 times the population? (3). The streets of London, New York?

Graffiti, cited as one of the indicators of Marseille’s threatening and unappealing nature, is a common articulation of neighborhood disorder. Typically defined as physical and social problems including litter, graffiti, abandoned cars, prostitution, and drug dealing, disorder has been theorized as an important signal of the breakdown of social conditions and control; it is thought to suggest to residents that their neighborhoods lack concern about public order, property, and each other (4, 5). But researchers have questioned whether disorder should be assumed to be interpreted unambiguously (6). Indeed, graffiti is not universally perceived as blight, and when it is, it does not bring with it the same consequences for a city’s reputation. For example, Barcelona’s graffiti does not detract from its reputation as a cosmopolitan and livable city, and graffiti seems not to detract from the perceived charm of other major European cities. It is difficult to imagine that a relocation guide to Spain would discount Barcelona on account of its graffiti.

Why then does Marseille not enjoy the same benefit of the doubt? Why are the city’s charms so overlooked, while its perceived faults are emphasized? Sociological research has shown that disorder is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, the degree to which litter, decay and other problems are present in the physical environment—objective disorder—does affect the extent to which residents perceive it as a problem. But individual characteristics matter too, even when people live in the same environment. For example, in the United States, women perceive more disorder than men, those who are separated or divorced perceive more than individuals who are married, and older people perceive less than younger people. And, beyond individual characteristics, area population also affects perceptions of disorder. All else being equal, higher levels of poverty in a community, and higher percentages of Black residents or Latino residents are also associated with greater perceptions of disorder (6). Applied to Marseille, it stands to reason that part of what drives the portrayal of the city as irredeemably chaotic and disordered stems from its large Mahgrébine and sub-Saharan African population.

For that reason, Marseille is an ideal site to study the ways in which people perceive urban liabilities and amenities. In addition to the analyses of U.S. interview and neighborhood data that I planned for the fellowship, I intend to conduct some exploratory comparative research with Marseillais to obtain “street-level etiologies” (7) of disorder and charm, interrogating how residents perceive and articulate subtle signs of neighborhood functions, and how they “read” neighborhood streets as attractive, stressful, and indicative of disorder. More broadly, France is an interesting counterpoint to the United States for at least three reasons. First, although racial discrimination mirroring that in an American context does exist (e.g., see (8), France does not have the same history of explicit segregation as in the U.S., wherein cities are organized around an apartheid structure (9). Second, much of the research on racial and ethnic inequality in France has focused on the most stark patterns of exclusion in public housing communities outside city centers, les banlieues (e.g., see (10). Thus, street-level etiologies from central city streets are needed: “much research remains to be done on Black French in the metropolis” (11), p. 142, emphasis added.

Third, the severity of disorder differs between the U.S. and France. It is often pronounced in U.S. cities, and communities can endure long periods of time waiting for vacant land or buildings to be put to use, living with dereliction. Derelict landscapes reveal not only lacking capital, but also a broader devaluation of the communities in which it resides. But the average American city experiences decay that exceeds “the most wretched banlieues of France;” U.S. urban disinvestment is often at a scale that would be “unthinkable in France, where the management of space is the object of strict…political-administrative oversight” (10), p. 159. If that is true, which, and how legible are cues that suggest to passersby that public spaces are troubled? Safe? Sites of creativity? Exclusive or inclusive?

Using photographs of streetscapes in Marseille and elsewhere as prompts (see images), I will interview city residents with questions such as: “À quel point vous vous sentez à l’aise dans cet environment?” and “Quel problèmes il pourrait y avoir dans ce quartier?” Inviting open-ended responses to these images will begin to excavate how Marseille residents interpret the built environment, and provide a counterpoint to the dominant narratives about the city. Perhaps, as an experienced urbanite who does not find the crowded, labyrinthe streets of this city overwhelming, I should start planning a post-fellowship project: a new travel guide to Marseille.


1. D’Andrea A. Living Abroad France. 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel; 2015.

2. Kinney J. ‘Outrageous ad is part of pernicious neighborhood rebranding game’.
NextCity November 10, 2017. Accessed at: https://goo.gl/irG7Ac

3. INSEE. 1.4 Villes et communes de France; 2017. Accessed at: https://goo.gl/9qVKis

4. Sampson RJ, Raudenbush SW. ‘Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods’. American Journal of Sociology 1999;105(3):603-651.

5. Ross CE, Mirowsky J. ‘Neighborhood disorder, subjective alienation, and distress’. Journal of Health & Social Behavior 2009;50:49-64.

6. Sampson RJ, Raudenbush SW. Seeing disorder: ‘Neighborhood stigma and the social construction of “broken windows”’. Social Psychology Quarterly 2004;67(4):319-342.

7. Cannuscio CC, Weiss EE, Frunchtman H, Schroeder J, Weiner J, Asch DA. Visual epidemiology: Photographs as tools for probing street-level etiologies. Social Science & Medicine 2009;69:553-564.

8. Mortimer C. Paris estate agent advertises flat with “no blacks” allowed. The Independent December 28, 2016. Accessed at: https://goo.gl/fLnm3M

9. Massey DS, Denton NA. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1993.

10. Wacquant L. Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge, UK: Polity; 2008.

11. Constant F. Black France and the National Identity Debate: ‘How Best to be Black and French?’ In: Keaton TD, Sharpley-Whiting TD, Stovall T, editors. Black France/ France Noire: The History and Politics of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; 2012.

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