Culture: Cities on the edge stand tall

7 January 2010
Le Monde Paris

Wish you weren't here. Greeting from "Cities on Edge". © Presseurop
Wish you weren't here. Greeting from "Cities on Edge". © Presseurop

Unloved and unrepentant: Europe's rebellious port cities have always been marked by a strong sense of their own identity. In 2006 six of them grouped together to form "Cities on the edge," a cultural network that celebrates pride in local differences.

The idea first emerged in 2005 in Liverpool, when the port city, which holds national records for crime and unemployment, was nominated to become the 2008 European Capital of Culture. Instead of trying to sweep it under the carpet, the Beatles' hometown decided to turn its bad reputation to its advantage, and form an association with its equally disreputable European cousins. Two men were behind the scheme: the leader of the 2008 project, Bob Scott, who wanted to add a European dimension to his programme, and Franco Bianchini, an Italian academic and Liverpool resident, who came up with the concept of highlighting the common destiny –  the same handicaps, the same raffish charm, and the same scandalous reputation – of Liverpool, Naples and Marseilles. To develop the network, Istanbul was approached, not just because it was foreordained to be European Capital of Culture 2010, but because it was a city on the boundaries of continents and religions, which had largely been ignored by official Europe. Bremen, a port, which has been somewhat marginalized by Hamburg, was the next to join the group, which was finally completed by Gdansk – a sufficiently gruff representative of the New Europe. But were the "cities on the edge" really unloved? More than anything, the founding slogan was an expression of a feeling of unacknowledged difference rather than one of being misunderstood.

Take the case of Marseilles. How could it possibly be a typical French city with such a rebellious history? Independent between 1592 and 1596 – Louis XIV had to descend with an army and turn the port canons on the city to retake it by force – and deprived of its name in 1794 by authorities who rebaptized it ville sans nom (city without a name), in punishment for its excess of revolutionary zeal, Marseilles has always remained apart from the rest of France, which has continually called it to order, most recently in 1936, when it was placed under external authority in the aftermath of a fire in the Nouvelles Galeries department store, which revealed the extraordinary extent of municipal corruption in the city. In his Histoire universelle de Marseille, Alessi Dell'Umbria explains how the development of the city has continually been driven by its ongoing quest for independence. And Naples? One of Europe's oldest cities, marked by the influence of a remarkable diversity of successive rulers, which is hardly ever mentioned except in the context of garbage disputes and Camorra plots to kill writer Roberto Saviano. Or Liverpool? Can anyone name a single Liverpudlian monument or statesman? Perceptions of the city are completely dominated by the Beatles and Liverpool FC – just as perceptions of Marseilles rarely extend beyond Pagnol and Olympique Marseille. The same is true of Bremen, which is always compared with its rich neighbour Hamburg. Along with them, Gdansk is engaged in a constant quest to affirm an identity that has been ignored by successive rulers – which has so often led it to reinvent itself, and rise from the ashes like Istanbul. And all of these cities endure like internal exiles, mistrusted by national populations resentful of their refusal to accept any other capital than themselves.

Politely expressing revolt

However, their reviled status paradoxically also endows the cities on the edge with a certain magnetism. Young affluent Parisians take the train south to Marseilles to meet "real" people. The hit TV series Plus belle la vie, which is set in the Mediterranean city has attracted legions of young fans. Students flock to the University of Bremen, which is one of the most sought after in Germany. Naples assumes its role as an international melting pot, and Istanbul continues to be a beacon of modernity in a largely rural Turkey. In the course of his urbanism studies, Franco Bianchini experienced the strong pull and tug of attraction and repulsion for Naples firsthand. In a period where issues of identity are increasingly important, these marginal cities introduce a fresh dimension of complexity in the debate on regional and national power. Bremen is also the smallest Land or state in the German federal republic. Gdansk was in turn German, a member of the Hanseatic League, and an autonomous city before it definitively became Polish. Istanbul began as Byzantium, which later became Constantinople... And throughout their history, the citizens of these endlessly changing cities that are constantly threatened by some new crisis have always responded with a resolutely cheerful mockery, which is the politest expression of revolt.

They may be dirty, nasty towns, which are home to brash and eccentric populations, but they have often been historical spurs for change. So it is not unreasonable to expect that grouping them in a cultural network could yield some interesting results. Since its inception in 2005, the "Cities on the Edge" programme has had more success with local populations than with institutions. At the end of 2008, interest in the project began to wane, especially in Naples, which concluded that there was little more to be gained from the initiative and decided to opt out. In Istanbul, initial enthusiasm for the network was progressively diluted by successive changes to the management team for the 2010 Capital of Culture programme. Liverpool attempted to have the network included in the 2007 European Union cultural programme. But contrary to all expectations, its application was rejected. Today, the chairman of the Marseille-Provence 2013 committee, Bernard Latarjet, insists that the battle remains ongoing. "Cities on the Edge" will play an important role when Marseilles assumes the mantle of capital of culture: "Liverpool passed on the torch to us. We have a moral obligation to keep it going." He intends to extend the network to the south, to Tangier or Valencia, and to reapply to Brussels on behalf of Cities on the Edge. "It is a truly exemplary European project. I have no idea why it was rejected by Brussels. What more could they ask for?" he exclaims. As it embarks on its mandate as European Capital of Culture, the management team in Istanbul, which has already been changed three times, only announced its detailed programme at the last minute – which has inspired some commentators to remark that they enjoy "living on the edge."

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