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Marseilles: What's Not to Love?

On a bleak back street near the Marseilles train station lies a former cigarette factory where Gitanes and Gauloises were once rolled, before the manufacturers realized Gitanes and Gauloises could be rolled far more cheaply elsewhere. The building is called La Friche la Belle de Mai, or "the Beauty of May Wasteland"—a half-appropriate name for a dreary concrete slab covered in dust and neglect. But while the exterior spells desolation, the inside is all about urban renaissance. The 164,000-square-foot space is entirely dedicated to dance, theater, music, film, visual arts, and literature—with room for rehearsals, performances, workshops, a radio station, and lounges for hanging out.

In a studio scrawled over with graffiti, hip-hop star DJ Rebel sits behind his turntables surrounded by wannabe disc jockeys, the youngest of whom is all of 12. This afternoon session is billed as a "Scratch DJ" workshop, but after two hours of intense debate they've yet to put on a record. They have, however, managed to solve the problem of Third World debt and political corruption on a global scale.

Upstairs in a plywood box of a studio pasted with hip-hop fliers, DJ Oil is playing live on Radio Grenouille, mixing electronic sounds with a funky blend of trip-hop, jungle, and soul. He's 28, and born, bred, and based here.

"People are waking up in Marseilles," he says between tracks. "Before, we were so sick of Parisians controlling the music scene. Now we've got more confidence, and the Marseilles music scene is making itself heard." (Case in point: Oil's band the Troublemakers has just signed a deal with Guidance Recordings in Chicago.)

Meanwhile, in the center of town at the Musée de la Mode, president Maryline Vigouroux sits in her sun-drenched office over the glittering Vieux Port and ponders the city's image makeover. "Marseillais used to be a little ashamed of coming from here," she admits. "They'd say, 'Oh, actually, I was born in Aix,' or 'Cassis.'" She breaks into a wry smile. "But today the words I'm from Marseilles have become a plus."

Ever since the revolution, when 500 rabble-rousers marched up to Paris chanting what was to become "The Marseillaise," France's second-largest city has had a reputation problem. The nation's premier port, it was once the gateway to Africa and the Orient. But after World War II and the loss of the French colonies, after the rise of air travel and the rerouting of trade lines, Marseilles watched its commercial power slide irretrievably away. The situation worsened in the 1970's when recession struck, dockers went on strike, and the cruise ships steamed out of port for good. Marseilles was left high and dry, with massive unemployment and an uncontrolled influx of immigrants, tainted by organized crime, rampant prostitution, and a severe drug problem.

The city didn't even have tourism to fall back on: despite its 35 miles of gorgeous coastline and its cosmopolitan charm, Marseilles's pulling power for travelers was negligible. The city has never acquired the jet-set gloss of the rest of the Côte d'Azur. In the eighties things got so bad that guidebooks took to flagging Marseilles with a safety warning. Furthermore, in the French consciousness, the Marseillais themselves were reduced to a caricature of pastis-drinking, boules-playing football fans with a tendency toward exaggeration and an almighty inferiority complex vis-à-vis Paris.

But after decades of doubt, the fortunes of Marseilles are suddenly changing. Over the last three years tourism has risen 14 percent. Cruise ships are sailing back. Scaffolding is cropping up all over town, with ambitious construction projects hot off the drawing board: a huge concert hall in a former grain silo; a three-story cyberbar in a Napoleon III-era building; a vast new cruise ship terminal; general titivation of the Vieux Port sidewalks. Even the French are starting to take Marseilles seriously. In a recent poll of under-25's, French youth chose Marseilles as the top city to live in, while Paris scraped by in third place tied with Bordeaux (Montpellier came in second).

Just walk through the cobbled square of Estienne-d'Orves to see how much has changed. On one side is a slick Agnès B. boutique; alongside that, in the former city arsenal, a literary wine bar, Les Arcenaulx, where office workers lunch alfresco on plates of grilled octopus and fragrant couscous. Nothing remarkable about that, you think, but bear in mind that none of this was here even a few years ago, when this now gleaming piazza was the site of a dank car park that doubled as Marseilles's headquarters for heroin dealing.

Everyone here has a theory for what prompted the city's turnaround—but of course in Marseilles everyone has a theory on any subject you could throw at them. The 1998 World Cup was undoubtedly a blessing, not only because the draw and several matches were held here, but, perhaps more significantly, because four players on the winning French team came from Marseilles. (Two years on, the city still basks in the afterglow: all over town the face of French-Algerian soccer hero Zinedine Zidane looks out from Adidas billboards emblazoned MARSEILLAIS—AND PROUD TO BE.) A further economic boost has come from the regional presence of firms like Eurocopter, the world's largest helicopter maker; smart-card manufacturer Gemplus; and Comex, a marine and nuclear engineering group.

But others credit culture, not the economy, for Marseilles's revival. "Artists are again interested in Marseilles as a place to work and live," says architect Eric Castaldi, who is himself partly responsible for the aesthetic changes here. Northwest of the Vieux Port, Castaldi has been transforming disused docks into a thriving business complex with Zen-like reflecting pools. "Marseilles has become a center of living, popular culture," Castaldi says.

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