The 'Stuttgart 21' Revolt Protests Against Mega Project Grow
Stuttgart 21, a controversial project to build a new underground train station complex at a cost of billions of euros in this southwestern German city, is facing growing resistance and has sparked nightly protests. But is the idea genuinely bad or just poorly marketed?
Wolfgang Drexler is standing at the window of his office on the seventh floor of a run-down 1970s building near Stuttgart's main railway station. From here, he can see the station's north wing and the gray plaza in front of it-- and he can watch the resistance to it growing. Drexler has noticed that, every week, more and more people are taking to the streets, demonstrating against Stuttgart 21, a massive railway and urban-development project backed by politicians in this southwestern German city that is the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg.
Drexler, a 64-year-old politician with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) who wears his salt-and-pepper hair short, sees the banner on the construction site fence and the flickering memorial candles that have been placed where "the new heart of Europe" is to be constructed. He shakes his head and says: "I just don't get it anymore."
Ironically, Drexler is the man who is supposed to save everything.
For the past year, Drexler has been the spokesman for the Stuttgart 21 project. When it is completed -- which is scheduled to happen in 2019 -- the currently above-ground terminus station will have been transformed into an underground through station. The massive project has been in the works for more than a decade. It has been a period marked by controversy and debate, and all the legislative and legal hurdles that have been thrown up to block it have now been surmounted. Still, now that the excavators are finally in action, thousands of people are staging regular protests below Drexler's office window, chanting "O-ben blei-ben! O-ben blei-ben!" (Keep it aboveground!) and venting their rage every evening by whistling, shouting and booing into the night sky.
A Protest Movement Takes Shape
Drexler admits that the project's organizers had expected resistance. But the kind they expected was from the sort of people who always protest when there's something to protest about, such as men who ride recumbent bicycles and wear wool socks and adolescents donning black hoodies.
But now? Drexler looks down at the plaza in front of the station. It was the usual suspects at first, but the composition of the group of protesters gradually changed. Suddenly there were doctors, lawyers and engineers in the crowd, men in dark suits and frameless glasses -- like the ones he wears himself -- and women with expensive handbags and pearl necklaces.
These are the kinds of people to whom Stuttgart -- famous for being the home of Daimler, Porsche, Bosch and a number of other major German manufacturers -- owes its reputation, its prosperity and, most of all, its success. Drexler has every reason to be concerned: The people he now sees congregating in front of the station are not there to celebrate Stuttgart 21 as a technological and architectural miracle. Instead, they are expressing their frustration and anger by banging on pot lids with kitchen spoons. And they're not conservatives anymore but, rather, supporters of the Green Party.
What's wrong with this city? The world's first television tower was built in Stuttgart, as was the world's first streetcar tunnel. The world's largest artificial tornado was generated in Stuttgart, and the city boasts one architect for every 172 residents and the highest percentage of engineers in any German city. The ring binder was invented in Stuttgart, and so was the spark plug. And now these innovative Stuttgarters, of all people, are trying to block the construction of one of Europe's most cutting-edge train stations?
Drexler prefers not to think about it. He looks tired as he rubs his hand over his eyes. "All of this comes as a shock to me," he says, showing thin laugh lines that are a product of better times.
A Conversion to Protester
It's a balmy Friday evening in August. Eberhard Schöttle, an engineer who works as a marketing manager for a company in the nearby Stuttgart suburb of Böblingen, and his wife, Gabriele, a physical therapist, have come to the city's Schlossgarten Park to take part in a protest against Stuttgart 21. There, they have joined about 18,000 fellow Stuttgarters carrying lights to form a human chain around the train station and a portion of the park. In some spots, the protesters have formed a protective wall by standing in rows three-deep.
Schöttle describes himself as a middle-of-the-road kind of person who isn't quick to sign petitions. As evening falls over the park's trees and lawns, he lights the candles in the purple lanterns he and his wife have brought along. Then, there is a moment of silence, broken only by the sounds of fountains and birds.
Schöttle, an athletic man in his mid-50s, is wearing black jeans and reddish-brown leather shoes. The button attached to the neck of his light-green polo shirt reads "Keep it aboveground." It's the same slogan the Stuttgart 21 opponents have been chanting without interruption, their words resonating all the way up to Drexler's office.
Schöttle -- an engineer, a man of progress -- is one of the protesters Drexler finds so perplexing.
Before answering a question, Schöttle reflects for a moment. He is not a hothead, but he still has strong feelings about Stuttgart 21. "I'm very upset about the fact that they see us as being unable to judge this correctly," he says, "and about the arrogance with which they ignore us." His wife nods in agreement.
It's quite possible that Schöttle would have supported the project if things had gone differently -- if citizens had not perceived their politicians as being part of an authoritarian state, if the people had been taken seriously and if the city had permitted the citizens' initiative that many Stuttgarters wanted.
As Schöttle sees it, Stuttgart 21 is not well thought-out. "There are eight instead of (the current) 16 tracks," he says. "And you don't have to be an expert to understand that it'll create a bottleneck." He can quote to you from a number of expert reports that are critical of Stuttgart 21. He is also opposed to a planned new high-speed railway line to the city of Ulm, at a price tag of almost 3 billion ($3.8 billion), which he believes is much too steep for a freight-traffic line.
When the Schöttles describe their friends and acquaintances, they list off therapists, engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Most, they say, are opposed to Stuttgart 21. "It's a topic of discussion at every dinner," says Schöttle, waving the lantern in his hand like a wine glass. The members of the Schöttles' circle are all in touch now, he says, using text messaging and e-mail lists to send each other articles and new expert reports as well as to alert each other about upcoming TV and radio broadcasts on the issue.
The Schöttles, who prefer to spend their vacations on a sailboat along the Côte d'Azur, are now members of "Protectors of the Park." The resistance group now has more than 20,000 members trying to prevent 282 trees from being cut down to make way for the massive railway project. "Recently, when I got a text message alerting me to the fact that the construction fences and wrecking equipment were being set up at the north wing (of the current station), I left my office immediately," says Schöttle. "At this point, I would even cut short a business trip."