From Crime to Culture: Gritty Marseille Redefines Itself

By in Marseille

For years, Marseille has had a bad reputation for crime and social problems. But now that the EU has designated it the 2013 "European Capital of Culture," the city is investing millions into showcasing itself as home to a unique and thriving creative scene.

Photo Gallery: Marseille Gets a Makeover Photos
Claudine Colin Communication / Akram Belaïd

Baptiste Lanaspeze stands on a hill overlooking the roads leading on and off the Autoroute du Soleil, or the "Motorway of the Sun," which links Lyon to Marseille. In a field next to the highway, a few dozen campers belonging to migrant workers are parked together. Further below in the commune of Vitrolles, there is a monstrous, cube-shaped building that used to be a massive disco, along with smoke-blackened houses that make up a "virtual village" used by the Marseille fire department for practice missions.

"What a view!" the 34-year-old performance artist says with enthusiasm. Then, he points to rust-covered, tin-roofed shacks in a former amphitheater where "America's most famous singers appeared before 10,000 soldiers." On a hill next to a station on the high-speed TGV railway line between Avignon and Provence, one can make out the remains of "Zone Delta," which was one of the largest US military bases during World War II.

Welcome to the "Grand Route 2013." The "first urban walking route" is the brainchild of Marseille's "walking artists," who conceptualize walking as a form of performance art. They have designed a 260-kilometer (160-mile) course right through open spaces, abandoned factory grounds and deserted commercial zones far removed from the usual tourist stops. The meandering path through the urban wasteland surrounding Marseille numbers among the most imaginative projects of France's second-largest metropolitan area, which has been designated the "European Capital of Culture" for 2013.

Football, Pastis and Fish Soup

"It's about rediscovering the environment," Lanaspeze says. But it's also about the rediscovery of Marseille. For the Mediterranean port city and its almost 2 million inhabitants, the designation is a major coup. For years, the overflowing metropolis hasn't been known to the outside world for its art or cinema. Instead, it has been famous for its harbor, the chalk-white cliffs of the calanques, the Canebière luxury boulevard and the bar scene surrounding the yachts and fishing boats moored in the "Vieux Port."

Despite a history stretching back to antiquity, the "City of the Phoenicians" is primarily known to the rest of France for its Mediterranean flair and football team. With Marseille, one associates the hustle and bustle of its cosmopolitan markets, the aroma of the anise-flavored liqueur pastis and the scent of bouillabaisse, the fish soup served with chilled wine and savory aioli.

Among the less sophisticated citizens of provincial France, Marseille has been disapprovingly dubbed "the largest city in North Africa" owing to its large number of immigrants from the Maghreb, as if it were somehow the starting point of a bridge spanning the Mediterranean. In the past, the tourist destination earned a bad reputation as a den of drug dealers. But even though its notorious drug trade doesn't make the headlines anymore, the city's name has recently been re-tarnished by murderous gang criminality.

Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin defends the city against these kinds of stereotypes. "Marseille is a city that invests a lot in culture on a per-resident basis," he says in the "Silo," the former flour-storage building in the harbor that has been converted into a spruced-up center for theater productions and art exhibitions. "Opera, dance troupes and 50 theater groups are been financed with funds from the city's coffers," Guadin says. He believes that the designation as a cultural mecca positively reflects the efforts he has made during his three terms in office.

Giving Factories and Museums a Facelift

Marseille's main asset is geographical. Lying on the Mediterranean means that its cultural debut will include elements from its North African neighbors. But its cultural program of artistic creations and happenings for average citizens will also integrate elements from the entire region made up of almost 100 surrounding communities, from Arles to Aix-en-Provence to Aubagne. Indeed, with more than 400 events, exhibitions and concerts, Marseille will showcase not only itself, but the entire region of Provence.

Since discovering culture as something that attracts both business and tourists, local politicians in the "City of a Thousand Faces" have used it as an opportunity and pretext for giving Marseille a comprehensive overhaul. Millions of euros have flowed into renovating neglected museums, crumbling industrial structures, run-down residential areas, waterfront areas and docks. The Fort Saint Jean, the buildings surrounding the city's famous Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica, theaters, cinemas and pedestrian zones have all received facelifts.

Of course, to the vocal chagrin of many residents, much of the funding has gone to showy architectural projects, such as the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) and the horseshoe-shaped CeReM exhibition hall, with its gravity-defying structure. But funding is also going to street-theater groups, cabaret stages and popular culture. For example, the cultural and artistic collective known as "La Friche-La Belle de Mai" will also benefit from the flood of funding. The former tobacco factory, which has become the city's hippest meeting point thanks to its creative squatters, will now be completely refurbished and expanded.

'A City Like No Other'

The jackhammers are still pounding there to make space and light for new rehearsal stages and ateliers for musicians, dancers, painters and filmmakers. Indeed, the center is home to 70 groups. Marc Bollet, who will remain president of the center throughout 2013, says that it will host more than 40 artists from the entire Mediterranean region during the city's year in the cultural limelight. "In that way, the 'Friche' -- which is diverse, light-hearted, unique, original and surprising -- will be able to show that Marseille is a city like no other," he says.

Still, Lanaspeze, the performance artist, isn't quite as gushing in his praise of the efforts. He and his friends are still marking out their "urban walking path" and are intent on reclaiming suppressed history and forgotten terrain along the age-old routes running through the city's surrounding regions.

"We conceive of our project as an open-air museum," Lanaspeze says. "The path is the work of art itself."

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