Marseille is France’s biggest port, second largest city and the European Capital of Culture for 2013. This distinction is up there with being named Olympic host, and the rough and ready city on the Mediterranean is taking it seriously. The town known for shipping, crime, immigrant unrest and poverty is taking the opportunity to re-brand itself as an appealing seaside tourist spot.
Marseille is building on it’s southern ties to North Africa and is remaking the harbor area into a car-free and pedestrian-friendly promenade. In classic French fashion, the city has designated ten new cultural sites, many located in renovated structures. A museum was once France’s Ellis Island, where immigrants were processed, and an abandoned tobacco factory is being refashioned as a Contemporary Arts Museum focusing on the Immigration theme. New buildings are popping up too, with public finance we Americans can only dream about. The desire to change the crime-ridden image to cultural hotspot is a tricky balancing act, paying homage to the immigrant culture without whitewashing the colonial past.
Nearly 30 percent of Marseille’s population is Muslim and without a significant middle class to support the arts, Marseille has been neglected culturally over the years. This is a chance, post Arab Spring, for the city to shine.
Marseille is in Provence, and many venues in other Provencal towns, including the wealthier Arles and Aix-en-Provence, are part of the year-long celebration hoping to create harmony, civic pride and serve as a magnet for tourists and tourist euros!