Paris mourns the dead Centre

Once there were crowds. Now the Beaubourg is a scene of desolation and pushers, says John Lichfield
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LIKE THE last obstinate swallow refusing to fly south, a lone tourist sits among deserted tables gazing at what used to be the most visited spot in the most visited city in the world.

A portrait artist, the sole survivor of a now scattered street-army of jugglers, fire-eaters, fakirs and doubtful musicians, waits grimly for a client. The post-card and poster shops at the top of the piazza are empty. Even the bureau de change is having a sale - a sale of francs. Tourists are invited to change their dollars and pounds without commission at decent rates. There are no takers.

The sloping piazza itself, which was once thronged with visitors and open-air entertainers, contains a few hungry-looking pigeons and an immense white teepee, erected to explain to the stragglers why everything is so different.

Welcome to the Centre Georges Pompidou, always better known by the name of the surrounding area, Beaubourg, the "beautiful village". It rose from a hole in the ground, in a rough and unfashionable area, in the late 1970s, to become the most popular tourist attraction in Paris, more visited than the Louvre, more visited than the Eiffel Tower. Since the centre three- quarters closed for renovations late last year, the immediate area has reverted to an island of desolation, shunned by tourists and Parisians alike.

"Every night, there are groups of people at the corners, selling drugs. It's got so bad that I'm scared to be here some days," said Mathilde Roblot, who runs a souvenir and postcard shop in what was once a prime site overlooking the centre. "I don't want even to think about what's happened to our business. What distresses me most is the isolation, the loneliness. I used to meet people from all over the world. Now it's just a few who have lost their way or don't know yet that the centre has closed down."

Over the way at the Brise-Miche cafe, Philippe Cailleton complains: "Tourists were three-quarters of my clientele. I used to close at 10.30pm; nowadays it's 7.30pm, because the place is deserted by then." A petition is circulating among the small businesses of Beaubourg, demanding an abatement of local taxes and employers' insurance contributions until the centre reopens in two years.

There must be few precedents, anywhere in the world, for the closure of a tourist attraction as popular as Beaubourg. What went wrong?

The Centre Georges Pompidou became a victim partly of its own success; partly of its spirit-of 1968-inspired policy of tolerating all comers to the piazza. The centre, the first of the Richard Rogers inside-out buildings with tubes and ducts and escalators on the outside, was designed for 5,000 visitors a day. At its peak of popularity, it was attracting 25,000 a day. Most of it was closed last October, to catch up with neglected maintenance, for renovation and internal re-ordering, to create more space for the overflowing modern art museum and the hugely popular library. It will remain, in effect, shut down until the end of next year. The intention is to reopen, and relaunch, the centre as part of the Parisian Millennium celebrations on 31 December 1999.

Beaubourg became popular, especially with young people, partly because it was so different: a multi-coloured spaceship landed amongst the elegantly stylised and uniform architecture of Paris. It was also attractive because of the constant, free circus on the piazza, which in the late 1970s and 1980s became the meeting place for legions of young backpackers.

Everyone who knew Beaubourg in the great days had their favourite piazza star. For many it was the Russian fakir and strong-man, Ludo, who lay on beds of freshly smashed glass. "I still miss him," said Ms Roblot, at the postcard shop. "He would always come in for a little chat each day. Once, when things had started to get bad around here, he chased away a couple of dealers who were threatening me. I don't know where he's gone now. The last I heard he was very sick."

Another long-time Beaubourg star was a mournful-looking man who resembled the French film director Francois Truffaut and played a saw with a violin bow. In fact, he rarely played more than a couple of bars; he spent most of the time directing tourists into sexually suggestive, impromptu productions of fairy tales. He has not been seen for five years or more.

The truth is that the Beaubourg piazza had lost much of its sense of fun long before the centre closed its front doors. It became infested with raucous pseudo-musicians, pickpockets, beggars and drug dealers. So much so that a couple of German and American tourist guides marked Beaubourg as a place for the faint-hearted to avoid. The partial closure in October has destroyed what ambience was left.

Where is the new place in Paris for street performers and young tourists to congregate? Sadly, there is nowhere. The street artists have scattered to Montmartre, to the Left Bank, to the Bastille but there is nowhere in an increasingly middle-aged city with the atmosphere of the old Beaubourg.

" When I was in London recently, we went to Covent Garden," said Ms Roblot at the postcard shop. "There was great music, great costumes, funny performers, everyone was friendly. It reminded me of how things used to be here. Look at it now. It's so dismal."