(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille

Marseille has been voted European Capital of Culture for 2013. Something to be proud of perhaps, but there are so many building works, road works, sewage works and promotional works going on that, by the time 2013 comes around, Marseille won’t be Marseille any more.

Toilet humour.

Everything, from the great squares, to the ports, to the monuments, to the pavements are blocked with workmen. It feels like a city in transition, but by the time it has transited it might find it’s lost itself on the way. I see superficial beautification, an emphasis on consumer chain shops and a whole bunch of unemployed men.

What would Euthymenes make of it all?
Who is Euthymenes?
A Greek explorer from Marseille, since you ask.

This is what the European Capital of Culture seems to bring to a city. It brought it to Liverpool in 2008 and now it is bringing it to Marseille. It seems to be a licence to throw money at a designated area of degradation, to turn it into something that it wasn’t before. The award of “European Capital of Culture” seems to me to be a euphemism, a way of disguising slum-clearance as something to be proud of.

I’m exaggerating there, I’m sure, but both Marseille and Liverpool are port towns facing disquieting futures. As far as the European Capital of Culture is concerned, this future must be tourism and shopping. That is all our secondary cities are good for now. In time, that is all Europe will be good for: a provincial destination for Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Russian and Gulf tourists wanting a taste of exotic European history.

Marseille is probably better placed than Liverpool for that, given that it is a south-facing city. It will always have the sunshine and the sea air and that will always be popular, until such a time as climate change makes it redundant. On the other hand, Liverpool will always have The Beatles. Liverpool will always be the city where a time (the sixties), a technology (recorded music) and a sound (pop) coincided and froze. The Beatles were the first global pop band and, as any businessman knows, the most critical asset in market penetration and brand awareness is to be first. There will never be another Beatles, not until the end of this civilisation, and Liverpool will be cashing in their myths for a long while yet.

But the European Capital of Culture bestowed on Liverpool not just a new cash pride in their culture, it also bestowed a new city centre: Liverpool ONE. Liverpool ONE is a privately owned network of 169 shops and services straddling six streets in what was once the centre of the city. It opened in 2008, Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture. Socio-economic development is now one of the criteria for awarding that honour. It is transparently not solely about culture. Since when was economics cultural?

There is nothing I’ve seen in Marseille to match the monstrosity of the Liverpool One shopping centre, with its faux public spaces, its private branded security guards, its private branded litter bins and benches. But the Rue de la Republique has become a string of international chains, and not all of them pearls. I saw many shops you could buy from, but not too many you could live with.

I should say that I’m directing my criticisms, as the European Capital of Culture directs its blessings, at the city centre. The banlieue, the suburbs, will still put cleaners, cooks and captains on life support, to supply services for the centre. And of course there are still scousers living in post European Capital of Culture Liverpool, just as there will still be maghrebi men living in Marseille, lounging on car bonnets down the Rue des Petites Maries, waiting for house paint jobs, talking on mobile phones, taking a coffee, smoking a cigarette.

But these people aren’t the people that the European Capital of Culture wants. The European Capital of Culture wants tourists, people who will spend money in idleness, all day, every day, to support the structures that support them. The European Capital of Culture wants – no, demands people like me.

The maghrebi men, just like the scousers, provide not always welcome local colour. One walks the quay, selling petits pains from a deep hessian sack. One plays the trumpet, his wife collecting pennies with bonjours. One manipulates a marionette to paint portraits. One cycles past screaming. Local colour.

Local colour, making local noise.

What do you think?