The Chamber of Commerce of Algiers and the port-city governance: Power issues and territorial struggles

The Chamber of Commerce of Algiers13 played a major role in promoting colonial economy and port infrastructure development in Algeria. This institution, created in Algiers on 7 December 1830, was controlled by local traders, and ensured the territory’s economic interests. This is highlighted in the original decree:

[The Chamber of Commerce of Algiers] will be composed of seven merchants including five French, one Moor, and one Hebrew. They will have the choice of electing their president, including a secretary [...] the traders of Algiers will recompose their Chamber without the intervention of the Government; but they are obliged to communicate its newly elected members.14

During the entire colonial period, the Chamber of Commerce of Algiers was responsible for the supply of necessary capital to modernize the port’s infrastructures relative to increasing trade demands.

As a capitalist institution, the Chamber of Commerce of Algiers financed the construction of the port by borrowing funds from national and local banks. These loans were repaid by the Chamber through annual instalments, thanks to a system of imposing tax on all goods transiting through the port.1’ In return, the state gave a concession of the port grounds to the Chamber of Commerce, in exchange for the latter to undertake public services for port users.These consisted in making use of the port area and maintaining it through the development of roads and a railway network to allow efficient transportation of goods. The Chamber of Commerce also had to ensure the financing of the construction of warehouses and docks essentialfor the maritime industry, as well as their administration, renting facilities out to maritime companies and traders.

From 1878, exploiting this concession system to modernize the port tor the benefit of trade, the Algiers Chamber of Commerce offered to give the general government of Algeria a sum of 1,700,000 francs upfront, without interest, to carry out works in the port of Algiers. It justified its offer by the insufficient public funds from the state and underlined the urgency of modernizing the port to benefit trade. A Senate report of 26 July 1879, attached to the offer of the Chamber of Commerce, confirms and develops this argument:

Needless to point out the chief importance of the port of Algiers, both from the commercial point of view and the military point of view. For too long, necessary and urgent work has been undertaken tor its improvement and maintenance. However, the lack of funds allocated to this work on an annual basis did not allow them to be carried out with the desired decision .. .Concerned about this predicament, the Algiers Chamber of Commerce made a proposal to the Government which would have the effect of allowing the rapid realization of improvements deemed indispensable, without stretching the budget with a new burden.16

To meet this offer, the Chamber of Commerce used a loan from the Banque d’Algerie at a very advantageous interest rate tor this public institution:

It would contract at a rate not exceeding 6% loan of 1,700,000 francs and would make this sum available to the State in three annual installments, enabling the work to be undertaken with all desirable activity. The State would repay the Chamber of Commerce in twelve years without interest.1'

The Chamber paid the interest due to the lender by the collection of a tonnage tax fixed by the State at 0.20 francs per barrel of tonnage on any French or foreign ship entering the port and per barrel of goods landed or boarded for ships calling.

A few years later, in 1894, the Chamber of Commerce used the same system of bank loan to build the first docks of the port of Algiers, through a financial credit of 1,100,000 francs made to the State.111 Therefore, through this concession framework, the Chamber of Commerce had the monopoly of port administration by becoming its main treasurer. This institutional monopoly hinged with an increasing land ownership of the port area, located in the centreof the city, involved new issues of governance at local level, particularly with the City Council in charge of urban management.

The city authority in port planning: A restricted intervention

City interventions in the port were subject to an exceptional regime, because, despite its location in the city centre, the port benefits from an autonomous administration. This parameter meant that new institutional dynamics at the local level resulted in negotiations between municipal actors and port stakeholders on the application of city prerogatives in the port.14 Minutes of deliberation meetings of the City Council on port facilities testify to the numerous discussions that took place with the Chamber of Commerce. The organization of the inner Agha harbour, between 1892 and 1912, was the subject of several conventions between the city and the Chamber of Commerce. Therefore, the convention of 27 April 1912 regulated all city intervention in the organization of the inner harbour, including lighting platforms, police and public safety, and sanitary facilities.20 The different clauses of these agreements were previously fixed by a mixed commission specifically set up by the Governor of Algiers, who was in charge of defining the rights and obligations between the services concerned.These rights and obligations concern essentially the sharing of incurring costs in municipal works between the port and city services; the financial aspect was thus at the centreof discussions.

The lighting of the platforms was subject to numerous negotiations between the two institu- tions.The City Council restricted its interventions to the lighting of spaces not conceded to the Chamber of Commerce and belonging to its land. This was particularly the case of the access ramps leading to the medians; it was considered that “on these roads, the commune would have the same rights and obligations as on the other streets and large roads crossing the city of Algiers. The lighting would therefore be at its expense”.21 The same was not true for the lighting of the inner plots of land accommodating the wharves, on the ground that these lights exclusively benefitted the Chamber of Commerce: “This lighting is necessary solely tor the commercial needs of the exploitation of solid land. It would therefore be ensured only by the Chamber of Commerce, or by individuals; the city would not intervene”.22

The extent of intervention was therefore inversely proportional to the degree of commercial exploitation of the port spaces by the Chamber of Commerce. Consequently, for the lighting of the driveways of the solid lands which integrated the network of public roads of the urban agglomeration, the city circumscribed their involvement by the condition of a financial contribution from the Chamber of Commerce — because

this lighting would necessarily favor the commercial exploitation of land of which the Chamber of Commerce must ensure special costs. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce would enjoy almost all of the income from said land. It therefore seems fair that the latter should bear a share which the [mixed] commission has set at one-third of the total expenditure.23

The organization of public safety on the wharves was subject to the same criteria of negotiations. A special service of police and surveillance of the inner harbour was formally established by the city and the Chamber of Commerce on 29 July 1911. It was, however, stipulated at the end of this agreement that:

the city undertakes to permanently assign police personnel to the surveillance of the port, including 73 officers, 15 agents, 3 French guards and 12 watchmen. The Chamber of Commerce pledges itself to pay as contributory part in the expenses resulting from this organization a fee of 15,705 fr.24

This contractualization of city interventions in the port could explain the marginal place occupied by this territory in the major urban planning plans initiated in Algiers at the turn of the 1920s. In these plans, planners seem to see the port more like a spatial and administrative border, not to be crossed except as a composition element.

The port in urban planning projects: The marginal area

In the 1930s, the way the city was planned began to be transformed. On one hand there was an expansion of the urbanization process towards the surrounding region; on the other hand the State launched numerous urban plans. For that reason “1930—1933 are crucial years for urban planning and architecture in Algiers as the centenary of the colonization favored prestigious operations and large investments” (Deluz, 1988).The legislation2’ enabled to draw up new reformation laws to plan the city. Important urban planners such as Rene Danger in 1929, Maurice Rotival in 1930, Le Corbusier in 1931 and Henri Prost in 1936, designed plans in order to modernize Algiers (Hakimi, 2011). Strongly influenced by the Modern Movement, these urban planners designed the city as a network of functional areas and communication roads. However, little of these urban planning projects integrated the port area, and little consideration was taken on the effect of modernization on the port—city relationship.

An analysis of the main urban planning projects prepared during this period shows that the port area was mainly thought as an industrial infrastructure which needed to be connected with the urban area through a road system. In 1930, Maurice Rotival designed the construction of a wide hanging highway encroached on the port area and planned to link the port to the new urban neighbourhoods through a network of elevators and underground ramps (see Figure 5.7). Rotival’s ideas were reused by Le Corbusier in 1931 and by Prost in 1936, who developed the same principles in their urban planning projects. Therefore, in all these plans, except tor the maritime station planned by Rotival and Prost,2'’ the port remained at the margin.

Paradoxically, port activities however affected some urban processes especially in surroundings neighbourhoods, where all the industrial and trade quarters were situated. In this regard, Rotival recommended that urban activities had to be organized in the following areas: “The houses on the hillsides, industries and warehouses along the harbor, luxury shops on the seafront and business entreprise in the quarter ot La Marine” (Rotival, 1931). Le Corbusier also designed a business neighbourhood next to the port, and Prost designed the industrial area next to the outer harbour of Mustapha. Even if these projects were never completely materialized, they influenced the urbanization of Algiers even after the colonial period. As a postcolonial metropolitan city, from July 1962, Algiers faced an unprecedented urban increment and had to gradually reduce the port area in order to adapt to new urban necessities, an initiative based on a planning ideology similar to that developed by modern planners during the late colonial period.27

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