Migrants at the Gare du Nord

Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris, by Julie Kleinman (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Bruce O’Neill, St. Louis University

Adventure Capital is a study of West African migrants in Paris. Ethnographically centered upon the Gare du Nord railway station, the book focuses upon the human infrastructure that facilitates and advances the migration journeys of a core group of young men. Kleinman details the tremendous effort West African migrants undertake to develop useful relationships across the railway station’s diverse assemblage of passengers, workers, and the police. At the same time, then, Adventure Capital is also an ethnography of the Gare du Nord itself, its material design and social ecology. Animating the analysis is the idiom of “adventurer,” which West African migrants used to conceptualize their migration as a practice of furthering their mobility, socially as much as physically, by building out of their social networks. What emerges across the book’s five chapters is both an ethnographically grounded retheorization of migration as well as a compelling portrait of everyday life at the Gare du Nord.

The book’s introduction develops “adventure” as a moral experience, and shows that migrants seek social reproduction and personal fulfillment back home rather than aiming to settle permanently elsewhere. For the young men at the center of this book, migration opens up an opportunity to step outside of the limitations of their birth status and accumulate the wealth necessary to return home as a marriageable man. In pursuit of upward mobility, adventurers not only move abroad, they also eschew kin and village-based relationships to instead focus upon creating new social ties across national, racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. They hope that these new relationships might open up unexpected opportunities. The hunt for new and different kinds of contacts brings adventurers to the Gare du Nord, where roughly a million people from across France and beyond converge daily. 

Kleinman offers a fascinating history of the Gare du Nord and the anxieties about social mixing that have shaped the station since its construction in the 19th century. She explains how the emergence of rail triggered concern in French society about the circulation of so-called “dangerous classes,” leading the Gare du Nord to be designed and managed to uphold social boundaries. While the station was designed to manage divisions between urban and rural and the working class and the bourgeoisie, the chapter shows that today it is squarely focused upon aggressively policing the movements of African migrants and those of African descent.

A chapter entitled “The Exchange Hub” examines the efforts of planners and architects—who are aware of the station’s capacity to marginalize the already vulnerable—to redesign the Gare du Nord with an open-space model intended to discourage spatial regulation and to encourage social mixing. The chapter details how the effort to make Gare du Nord a more democratic space is undermined by practices of policing through racial classifications, leading African migrants to be frequently stopped and harassed by the police. The book then details the ability of adventurers to navigate successfully this unwelcoming terrain. Citing “the Gare du Nord method,” adventurers combine a comprehensive knowledge of the station—its layout, population, and its rhythms—with a capacity for flexibility and hard work. The method leaves adventurers adept at reading the station’s social makeup, knowing where and how different actors move through the station, and identifying the kinds of interactions that might prove fruitful. When mastered, the method enables adventurers to circumnavigate harassment, develop new relationships, and eventually move onward in their journey.

In “Hacking Infrastructures,” Kleinman then focuses upon the art of meeting new people at the Gare du Nord and turning new relationships into opportunity. The “good” adventurer is shown to be someone who leverages the social network forged at the Gare du Nord in order to create future opportunities. “The Ends of Adventure” traces the process of converting the capital accrued at the Gare du Nord into the kinds of wealth and authority recognized in their home communities. Through sartorial upgrades and the construction of new homes, for example, adventurers use the capital accrued from abroad to achieve an elevated status and dignity at home. The conclusion, finally, reaffirms “adventurer” as an alternative term for theorizing migration as a process that is not centered upon attaining papers and settling elsewhere but rather upon moving onward on a journey and up the status hierarchy. Understood through the lens of adventure, migration ceases to be a kind of pathology and instead is shown to be a practice of social reproduction.    

Theoretically sophisticated, accessibly written, and ethnographically engaged, Adventure Capital makes an important and timely intervention into the study of migration. It also offers a rare portrait of the durable relationships and projects that take shape within mass transit stations, which are too often conceptualized as sites that are merely passed through. The book makes for essential reading for scholars of mobility and contemporary urban life.