The Emscher river in western Germany's Ruhr region was one of the country's most polluted for decades, so bad that parents spooked children with warnings they could die if they fell into the poisonous stew of sewage and chemical waste.
Today, a much-cleaner Emscher is the backdrop to more than 20 new art installations -- the latest European effort to transform blighted industrial areas into cultural destinations for tourists and to breathe new life into the region.
All over the region, around 1,000 former industrial structures have been turned into cultural venues, among them Dortmunder U, a former brewery that has become a gallery, and Zeche Nordstern, a former coal mine that was turned into office space and a museum for model railroads.
There are more than 100 theaters and dozens of concerts and musical festivals taking place every year in the Ruhr region, one of Europe's most densely populated areas, making it also one of the culturally most happening places.
As testament to the success of the program, the entire Ruhr region, with its 5.3 million inhabitants and 53 cities, was chosen by the European Union this year as a European Capital of Culture 2010 -- the first time the distinction went to an area rather than a single city.
More than just creative installations, many Ruhr 2010 cultural ventures combine cutting-edge art with long-term reconstruction efforts that seek to revitalize an area that has been on the decline since the 1970s.
"In addition to the financial support we get as European Capital of Culture, the European Union is spending 4.4 billion euros on cleaning up the Emscher during the next 15 years -- that makes it the biggest renaturation project of the world," Emscher art curator Florian Matzner said, explaining the long-term goals for the revival of the Ruhr.
Once the motor of Germany's industrialization and prosperity, the Ruhr became notorious for high unemployment, heavy pollution and hopelessness when the mines closed and young people started to move away looking for a brighter future elsewhere.
However, in recent years, cities and even local grass-root initiatives have started turning abandoned industry buildings into monuments or new homes for museums, theaters and office space for creative businesses.
Other regions in Europe have undergone similar transformations, like Liverpool in northern Britain, which boomed in the '50s and '60s, mining coal, manufacturing cement and milling flour, but went to seed from the '70s as traditional manufacturing industries declined. It became an unemployment black spot and home to numerous riots and miners' strikes.
Today Liverpool has lavished billions of pounds in regeneration projects, most of its docks and ports have been converted into bars and shops, and it sells itself as a major city of culture based on its associations with the Beatles and its museums.
In Spain, the northern city port of Bilbao -- the driving motor behind Spain's most industrialized area -- began a $1 billion plus refurbishment in the 1990s to halt the serious decline suffered by the city's shipyards and steelworks of the previous decade.
Its crowning glory was the titanium-sheathed $140 million Guggenheim museum in the city center where warehouses had stood before. The museum draws some 1 million visitors a year and has turned Bilbao into one of Spain's leading tourist destinations, something unimaginable a decade earlier.
In France, the Louvre Museum turned for its latest expansion to an abandoned coal mining site in the depressed northern town of Lens that was pummeled by the two world wars.
The museum, set to open in 2012, is part of a strategy to spread art beyond the traditional bastions of culture in Paris to new audiences in the provinces.
For decades, workers risked their lives in Lens' coal mines, and then the mines closed -- the last one in 1986 -- plunging the area into hardship. Lens' unemployment rate is still well above the national level.
In the Ruhr region, one of the most famous landmarks is Zeche Zollverein in Essen, a United Nations World Heritage Memorial known for the 180-feet-tall towers that stand outside its disused coal mines. The former coal mine and coking plant now house several museums, contemporary dance and performance shows and, in 2012, will open a university campus for hundreds of design students.
"Zeche Zollverein shows that culture is not only a luxury good for rich people, but also creates new jobs for all levels of societies," said Fritz Pleitgen, who is in charge of Ruhr 2010, the company that organizes the European Capital of Culture events.
Almost 7,000 people used to work in the mine until it closed in 1986. They all lost their jobs, but the mine's transformation into a cultural venture has created almost 4,000 new jobs at Zollverein and attracted creative companies like filmmakers, fashion designers and advertisers on the 250-acre compound, he said.
Another highlight is a wooden, bridgelike structure by the Dutch artists' group Observatorium, which stands about 200 yards away from the Emscher on a barren field covered with leftover black coal dust, nettles and birch trees.
Visitors who fully want to embrace the art can even rent a room on the bridge for $92 a night including dinner and breakfast.
It remains to be seen if the cultural renaissance of postindustrial European regions also brings new opportunities to those who suffered the most from the end of industrialization -- blue-collar workers and immigrants -- or whether they will be left out of the revival, especially in today's times of financial crisis.
Elli Vogel-Gdanitz, who runs a newspaper stand in downtown Essen, enjoys the current artsy feel of her hometown. As part of a Capital of Culture project she is not only selling the usual chocolate bars, liquor and potato chips, but also small design items by local artists like pillow cases made out of old coal mining towels or silver pins in the shape of the Ruhr river.
Vogel-Gdanitz, 54, said that she has visitors coming from all over Germany and abroad to check out her "design kiosk" and that profit was up.
"All of the old industry is gone, so now they're trying to invest in tourism and culture, which is a great idea," Vogel-Gdanitz said. "But the big question is what will happen next year, when we no longer enjoy the spotlight of the European Capital of Culture."
Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui in London, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Spain, and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.