To live in the margins of the city, Prague, 30-1-2020

To Live on the Margins of the City

As part of the 2020 Night of Ideas entitled Living the City”, CEFRES organized on the 30th January a roundtable on “To Live on the Margins of the City”.

A repport by Etienne Coudrais and Timothé Freddo

Four speakers took part in the discussion, moderated by the director of CEFRES, Jérôme Heurtaux.

  • Marianne Blidon, geographer, specialist in geography of sexualities and gay migrations
  • Eszter Gyorgy, sociologist, specialist in Roma minorities in Hungary
  • Yuliya Moskvina, PhD student in sociology, working on radical urban critique
  • Felipe K. Fernandes, PhD student in anthropology, studying Vietnamese migrations in the Czech Republic

The contributions of CEFRES guests have aimed, on the one hand, to bring up the question of the influence of marginalized spaces on their occupants, and on the other hand, to see how these people appropriate and influence these spaces. A paradox has emerged from this discussion, that challenges the common preconception of what it means to be marginalized in the city. Indeed, the speakers presented different forms of spaces (such as squats, city-centers or markets) and categories of people (LGBT, migrants, Roma) excluded from the established social order. They have shown that the definition and content of marginalization were changing over time but also over space and that the relationship between marginalized people and marginalized space was not as obvious as it seems to be. Studies devoted to the history of these spaces and to the social trajectories of their occupants have shown the relevance of questioning the permeability of these margins to the rest of the city and to the population.

This paradox has been particularly presented by Marianne Blidon in her talk entitled: « A Paradoxical Margin: The Place of LGBT People in the City (case study of the Marais district in Paris) ». It is known that the LGBT community has historically grown on the fringes of the city. This way, the popular Marais district developed from the 1970s as a safe place for this community in response to the general homophobia in both municipal political and Parisian speech. The marginality of this neighborhood and its community within the Parisian urban landscape was significant. Nevertheless, the growing influence of the left in the Parisian political scene, fostered the protection of the community and opened up socially the “gay village”. Located in the center of Paris, this district, now open to the city and subject to marketing by the town hall, is in conflict with its previous image of marginality.

Yet, Marianne Blidon insisted in the limits of this de-marginalization through a more global approach. She pointed the fact that the rise of prices transformed the neighborhood into an unaffordable area for a part of the LGBT community. She also demonstrated that the popularization of the Marais district might have created new margins inside the LGBT community itself, by focusing on white gay men and not including lesbians and transgenders in particular. The emergence of a new margin within the margin is also shown by a kind of generational gap. Young gays who do not recognize themselves as part of the Marais district would meet up in other neighborhoods.

Questioning also the notion of margin, Eszter Gyorgy‘s presented her research on Roma minorities in Hungary. Roma community built itself on the fringes of the rest of Budapest, notably by concentrating in the 8th district of the city. The community is living in the so-called « Budapest Harlem », considered here as a social and ethnic ghetto. Moreover, the speaker pointed out the invisible relations of these marginalized people with the rest of the city in a process of exclusion from the Hungarian social order. On the other hand, the researcher, as in the example of the Marais district, highlighted the paradoxical trajectory of this space and community symbolically associated with the margin. This district is paradoxically located in the center of the city and by its seniority is socially and economically connected with the rest of the city. Moreover, the patrimonialization of the area, by renaming some streets in reference to famous Hungarian Roma, questions the limits of this marginality, which is less based on concrete than on symbolic exclusion.

 

The presentation by Yuliya Moskvina on squats in the Czech Republic also showed the relative ambiguity of margins in the city. Her conceptual contribution to the discussion showed that squatting is first of all a voluntary political marginalization. Contrary to the cases of French gays and Hungarian Roma, it is the representation of the space by some individuals who are opposed to the institutional social framework, which produces exclusion. These actors, through their lifestyles that are out of step with the social order but also through their social profile (activists, in particular), are at the core of the process of marginalization of these spaces.

However, at the same time, far from being cut off from the city, squatters have privileged links with a certain elite by sharing with it social, academic and social capital. Moreover, their attempt to legitimize themselves, notably by condemning the lack of State policy about these places, shows interactions between the dominant social structure and some margins. If squats reveal the willingness of actors to live on the margins of the established order, these marginal places are also an opportunity for them to exist outside their communities. So, this paradox has made it possible to show a new aspect of marginality, in its sociological complexity.

Finally, Felipe K. Fernandes spoke about the “SAPA” marketplace in the context of the Vietnamese diaspora in the Czech Republic. This space has been occupied by Vietnamese who settled in Czechoslovakia then in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. This case study makes it possible to see the isolation of an ethnic community within the city of Prague. SAPA’s peripherality is due to its geographical location, away from the center, even though the distance from the center, as other case studies have shown, is not by itself a condition for marginality in the city. This isolation is nevertheless reinforced by language and the cultural singularity of the community, very much oriented towards Vietnamese traditions. However, this communitarianism has also highlighted interesting aspects of life in the margins. Indeed, by pointing out the strong educational capital of the occupants of this space and the deep integration of this district in the local economic sphere, Felipe Fernandes showed that margin is not necessarily chaotic. The logics of appropriation of the space and the influence of the space on its occupants (demonstrated in particular by a strong attachment to the market) has therefore made it possible to show a positive image of the margin.

During the discussion with the public, the question of the role of social medias in the phenomena of urban margins raised. The four speakers have shown the decisive role of the web in the emergence and development of these spaces located on the fringes of the city. The Vietnamese diasporas stay connected to families in Vietnam, the activists use internet to communicate about their actions in the squat, young people use Internet to select the places where to meet. Social networks play also a key role in sustaining and transforming margins in cities.