Last week I visited Marseilles with the team, where, ‘street jockey’ Nicolas Memain, architect and urban designer, gave us a passionate and relaxed tour of the city.
From the old town to projects by post-war architect Pouillon, from Le Corbusier to new urban developments. With around 850,000 residents in the city and approximately 2 million in the wider area, the city is similar to Amsterdam in terms of size. Both are historical cities with old ports, urban regeneration, post-war residential areas and a multicultural population.
However, that is where the similarity ends. Apart from the fact that the sun always shines in Marseilles, it is the raw state of the city in particular that is in strong contrast to Amsterdam and for that matter, most European cities. Marseilles still has a run down city centre, where predominantly the underprivileged are to be found. Surpassed economically by the outlying areas and still lacking a new economic impetus. A decaying beauty, with its former glory still visible, but where classic buildings stand empty in the middle of the city. Efforts are being made to attract residents to the city with redevelopments like Le Parc Habité and Euroméditerranée, funded by French and European subsidies.
The state of Marseilles reminds me somewhat of Amsterdam in the early eighties when I had just started living there. A time when the city centre was neglected and De Pijp was not yet a desirable location, but virtually a run-down neighbourhood. All those things they desperately seek in Marseilles, like museums, redevelopment of the port areas, gentrification, banks, creative industry, cruise ships and especially tourists, we now have in abundance in Amsterdam. The comparison makes me gloomy.
Because, no matter how wonderful life in Amsterdam is now, that old, somewhat dilapidated city of thirty years ago also had its charm: strong, hopeful, potential around every corner. Buying an affordable old, dilapidated building in a stunning location and finding a seat on a terrace in the most beautiful parts of the city. That is all still possible in Marseilles, but no longer in Amsterdam. Yes, every cloud has a silver lining, as some would say…