Culture of Steel Germany's Ruhr Valley Looks Back to Its Future

In little more than 170 years, Germany's Ruhr Valley saw the rise and fall of an entire industry. With high unemployment and idle factories, the region is now hoping culture can help it get back on track.

When Joachim Seifert talks about his life, he begins in 1864, "Anno 1864," as he says. His concise, pithy sentences are peppered with anachronisms and the regional pronunciations of a bygone era. He pronounces the German word for "day" (Tag) as Tach, and the word for mountain (Berg) as Berch, and when he mentions the weather (Wetter), he refers to it as Wetta.


Photo Gallery: From the Mines to Modernity

Foto: Getty Images

"A helmet keeps you warmer than a cap," he says. As if to prove his point, this winter he is wearing a white miner's helmet with his parka. It's the same model that protected his head for 30 years, underground and above ground, and now, just as Seifert is about to turn 75, Germany's erstwhile industrial Ruhr region has been named Europe's Capital of Culture -- and the former life of this retired miner has become an item on the program.

He has already explained to thousands of visitors how he and his fellow miners brought tons of coal out of the earth, from hundreds of meters below ground, until the Zollverein coal mine was finally closed. And when they ask why he chose such a difficult line of work, he replies that it all goes back to the year 1864. "That was when my wife's grandpa came here. He was the first member of the family to work at Zollverein."

It is a first this year, that an entire region in Germany is being honored as a Capital of Culture. The jury also awarded the title to Istanbul and the Hungarian city of Pécs. When they were making their decision, the jurors were impressed by the way the Ruhr region has struggled and come to grips with its structural transformation -- from coal to culture.

A Garden and a Pig

But even though hardly any coal is mined in the region today, coal mining still shapes the culture and development of a region that, in its current form, is only about 170 years old.

This special year began at the Zollverein mine with a snowstorm, dancing and speeches, but many years earlier, Joachim Seifert's grandfather was riding a coal train to the cargo ships in the harbor. The manager had assigned him a small apartment, which came with a garden and pig. The mine, in the northern section of the city of Essen, soon became the largest, most modern and most productive coalmine in the world. And when Joachim Seifert, a machinist, married into the family in 1958 -- at a time when Germany needed coal and steel -- he too was drawn into the coalmining way of life.

Now all of that has become part of what is referred to as culture in the Ruhr. The miners' apartments have become historic landmarks, and the Zollverein, once a hot, noisy place, is now a monument to the community and has even been named a World Cultural Heritage site.

Nowadays, Seifert leads groups of tourists along a new "landmark path" through old machine shops. The equipment that was once part of the ordinary life of a mine worker is now considered part of Germany's cultural heritage: screening drums the size of trucks, Allen wrenches as thick as a man's forearm, the pads miners wore to protect their buttocks while working in rocky sections of the mine, which they called "ass leather." Seifert remembers the breaks the miners took every four hours, when they would talk about their gardens, soccer and politics.

No More Coal Dust

The officials in charge of the commemorative year are quick to point out that culture in the Ruhr region is much more than industrial history, more than decommissioned smokestacks and blast furnaces. They list 120 theaters and the annual music and arts festival known as the Ruhrtriennale, as well as the region's five universities and hundreds of research institutes. The Folkwang Museum in Essen reopened last month after renovations, in a new exhibition building designed by London architect David Chipperfield, and Norman Foster has designed a new city center in Duisburg. The Ruhr, say its promoters, is a modern metropolitan region, Europe's third-largest, whose population of 5.3 million no longer breathes coal dust, but looks to the future instead.

But the Ruhr region, with its postwar architecture, discount stores, allotment gardens and large numbers of lakes and hospitals, is also home to 275,000 unemployed. Only four out of 200 coalmines are still in operation, and in two years the German parliament, the Bundestag, will decide whether those few mines should also be shut down. Carmaker Opel expects to lay off 1,800 workers at its plant in Bochum, and the region is plagued by high levels of child poverty.

There are 53 cities in the region, which comprises an area of 4,435 square kilometers (1,711 square miles) between the cities of Hamm and Wesel, and almost all of them face, or are about to face, budget shortfalls. As a result, cities have been forced to introduce austerity measures, such as lowering the water temperature in public swimming pools in Bochum and Duisburg, or mowing lawns in public parks less frequently in Oberhausen. This winter, not all communities provided snow removal services. Streetlights are being shut off, school renovations have been put on hold and youth programs have been cancelled. The city of Dortmund has determined that it will have to cut €80 million ($108 million) in costs each year for the foreseeable future, while the city of Oberhausen will end the year €1.8 billion in the red.

Mayors are fighting for money and recognition, as are the state officials who manage the entire region, which is divided into three administrative districts. There is no sense of identity that encompasses all of the region's cities. Streetcars run on varying track widths throughout the region. Even the power of football is a dividing rather than a uniting factor in a region that is home to five first- and second-league football teams. It is a region where loyalty to one's football club trumps loyalty to the region, and where residents are more likely to identify themselves as Schalke fans or Dortmund fans than as Ruhr residents. Even the dialect sounds different on every corner, despite sounding more or less the same to outsiders, with some residents speaking with a stronger Westphalian accent, while others have a touch of the Lower Rhine region or even Poland in their speech. The Ruhr region is not a city, but a complex megalopolis with one thing in common: its mining past.

Model of Renewal

Many people have tried many things to support the Ruhr's rise. The region has received €120 billion for the coal industry alone since 1958. And when it became clear that the mining industry was on the wane, all governments struggled to create a model region of renewal.

Those efforts have left visible traces, including the results of the "Emscher Park International Building Exhibition." Between 1989 and 1999, abandoned industrial plants were turned into cultural centers and former railroad lines into bike paths. Canoers now paddle the Ruhr River, once considered a cesspool. The sulfurous air of yore is but a memory. A 400-kilometer "Route of Industrial Culture" passes alongside historic factory buildings that have been turned into museums, office buildings and artists' studios. The Zollverein coal mine is one of them. The region has generated 300,000 new jobs since 1989.

But now the Ruhr region needs help again, and the title "Capital of Culture" is intended as the vehicle.

There were immense hopes for the region. The experiences of Liverpool, which was designated a European Capital of Culture two years ago, suggested that the effort would be worth it. In the end, revenues in Great Britain's version of the Ruhr region were five times as high as expenditures, and Liverpool shed its image as a drab working-class city in northwestern England. A study conducted by a management-consulting firm after Liverpool's year in the spotlight concluded that art and culture were more important as economic factors than previously assumed.

This is precisely what the organizers of "Ruhr 2010" intend to create: an image of change and cohesion. The team includes experts in creating images. Managing Director Fritz Pleitgen is a former television reporter and was the director of Westdeutsche Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting) for many years, while Artistic Director Dieter Gorny founded the Viva music television network.

Ready for the Creative Economy

As part of this image-creating process, in May yellow balloons will rise into the air over 350 former mineshafts, places where workers once descended into the earth. In July, 20,000 tables will be joined together to form the "longest table in the world" along a stretch of the permanently jammed A40 Autobahn, which traverses the region. Residents who live along the highway, people who normally have little in common, will sit down for lunch in a gesture of triumph over the traffic that has become one of the region's biggest problems.

Images have emerged of theatergoers traveling with ships and buses to six places in the Ruhr region, an event set to Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey." Photos will be printed of tens of thousands of people singing a song at the same time. There will be 2,000 events, hundreds of projects and several research ventures. Organizers had long hoped that this approach would convince the rest of the world that the people of the Ruhr region are finally ready for the creative economy, the knowledge economy and all other modern versions of work.

But now those hopes have been replaced by doubts. In the midst of the economic crisis, sponsors have reneged on their commitments, leading to a decline in the budget from €80 million to €62.5 million.

Major projects have remained incomplete. The Bochum Symphony, directed by Steven Sloane, a group of outstanding musicians, will not get a new concert hall, despite having raised €7 million in donations. The regional administration put a stop to the construction project, arguing that the city of Bochum would be unable to pay the subsequent costs. Another project, a planned artists' district in Oberhausen's Industrieturm tower, has also been cancelled.

The Effort to Preserve a Blue-Collar Identity

These and other problems have raised a fundamental question: How can a region develop and try its hand at change if even the basic infrastructure is unaffordable? And how, all financial problems aside, can structural change even take place in this working-class region, where hundreds of thousands of people are rooted in a traditional mining culture?

"Roots and wings," says Elmar Weiler. "These two words best describe the tension that has prevailed in the region for decades." Weiler, the vice-chancellor of the Ruhr University in Bochum and a winner of the Leibniz Prize awarded to top researchers working in Germany, knows what he is talking about. He comes from Bochum. People in mining regions form particularly strong roots, because the minerals that are locked into the earth there are so important, he says. "And people with such strong roots have trouble flying."

Weiler lists five experiences that have been instrumental in shaping the mentality in the Ruhr region: That work meant triumphing over the natural world under the most difficult of conditions -- with the hands, not with the mind; that a rapid rise was followed by a rapid decline; that a person's efforts were considered dispensable; that solidarity was critical to survival; and that survival also depended on government support.

These are the experiences of gigantism and progress, of identity, solidarity and charity. And when retired miner Seifert takes visitors on tours through the former coal mine, these experiences are all that matter.

A Strong Wind

On this Sunday, his group consists of 16 tourists, from southern Germany, from the north and from the Lower Rhine, wearing dark wool coats and cream-colored cashmere scarves. Seifert is wearing his helmet. A strong wind is blowing across Zollverein.

The grounds cover an area the size of 140 football fields, and the frame that supports the conveyor belt is 55 meters (180 feet) tall. Visitors to Zollverein are dwarfed by a backdrop of angular structures made of steel grids and red brick. This was precisely the intention of the architects, who created the site in the 1920s as a monument to the New Objectivity movement.

"Imagine you are living in the year 1847," says Seifert. "That was when a man named Haniel hit pay dirt at this mine." The first shaft was 116 meters deep, but quickly filled with groundwater. "As a result, Haniel was forced to dig a second shaft," says Seifert. "Then he added three more shafts, a coking plant and a coal-washing plant. There were close to 2,000 people here by the turn of the century. New technology arrived in the 1950s and, finally, in the 1980s: additional production volume of 800 freight cars!"

Seifert's description is an account of the powerful motifs of modernity: the red-hot firepower of the blast furnaces, the grim work in the inhospitable underground world of the coalmines. These motifs have endured with unparalleled force. In no other part of Germany did industrialization proceed as rapidly as forcefully as in the Ruhr region.

Within a few decades, the marshy landscape was transformed into a colossal production zone. While poets and painters in the nearby mid-Rhine valley were still lionizing legends and castles, a new age marked by a faith in technology was taking shape in the Ruhr region.

From Cars to Weapons

Seven billion tons of coal were mined before the industry entered a deep crisis. For many years, world events were responsible for a furious pace of production. To fight two world wars, the German weapons industry required large amounts of steel, and bituminous coal was needed to produce that steel. World War II was followed by Germany's economic miracle and the Cold War, a time when steel was an essential ingredient in everything from cars to weapons.

Workers flocked to the region by the hundreds of thousands, first from the eastern European regions of Masuria, Silesia and Poland, and later from Italy, Turkey, and Arab and Asian countries. The last large wave of immigrants consisted of ethnic German repatriates. They formed immigrant cities and worker cities surrounding the industrial plants. A broad middle class that could have served as a basis for urban high culture never developed. In a landscape dominated by mine shafts and blast furnaces, there was little demand for academic pursuits. The region's first university opened in 1965.

New methods made it possible for miners to work at an increasingly fast pace. At first, progress came as a blessing to miners, making their work easier, but eventually it deprived them of their jobs. In places where 40 people once kneeled in front of coal seams, soon there were only eight. At depths of 1,000 meters, the miners encountered temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Absenteeism was on the rise and regulations became more stringent, but it was impossible to cool the tunnels sufficiently. Coal mining also faced growing competition from natural gas and petroleum production.

The last shift ended on Dec. 23, 1986. No one at Zollverein was let go. The miners were simply transferred to jobs in the surrounding mines. Nevertheless, 80 percent of jobs in the Essen mining industry had already been eliminated by then.

Concept of Solidarity

Despite its difficulties, the miner's life was long seen as a secure and straightforward way of living. On his first day at work, Seifert became familiar with the proverbial concept of solidarity. As he was crawling through a low, 40-centimer tunnel, he heard a cracking noise in the rock and was overcome with claustrophobia. But he returned to work nonetheless. "You could hate someone's guts, but you knew that if something happened, the guy next to you would save you and you would save him." The miners' association provided for many of the miners' needs, including hospital care, childcare and even bus transportation during vacations. Working in a coalmine gave miners a feeling of self-worth and created structure in their lives.

Which is why university vice-chancellor Weiler interprets all the guided tours, concerts and exhibitions in the former industrial plants as a form of mourning for days gone by. "The fact that these worn-out symbols are now being glorified as cultural destinations helps people overcome their demise and preserve their own identity," he says.

In 1986, a ministerial decree prevented the demolition of Zollverein. Twenty coalmines had already been shut down in Essen, once Europe's largest mining city. And now, under a new master plan, this monumental symbol of labor was to be used as a way to continue making money.

As a result, the coalmine turned into what the entire Ruhr region is slated to become: a center of creativity. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed a luminous orange escalator as the new entrance into a visitors' center. His British counterpart Norman Foster redesigned the boiler house, and the design museum that it now houses is the world's largest center for modern design. Japanese architects designed a cube-shaped building heated by hot water from deep inside the mine, which now flows through pipes in the walls. The building will soon contain classrooms for design students. Pianist Alfred Brendel has given concerts at Zollverein, there is now an exclusive restaurant on the grounds, and the new Ruhr Museum opened its doors there in January.

Painful to Watch

So far, the number of visitors has been rising every year, and about 1,000 jobs were created at the site. Seifert's son holds one of those jobs. He has a degree in mining engineering, and he helped develop the animated films his father shows visitors in the former coal-washing plant. They depict the path coal travels through a labyrinth of tunnels, conveyor belts, separating drums and tanks. The Seifert family has undergone its own version of structural change. "My son is the fourth generation in the mine," Seifert says proudly.

Nevertheless, the Zollverein complex is not a model for the entire region. There is too much empty industrial space, far more than the museums, cafes, studios and project offices can ever hope to fill. Zollverein costs the European Union, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the City of Essen €155 million in investments. Such a sum cannot be raised for other, similar facilities.

For Weiler, it is painful to watch the region struggle to grow wings. He experiences the region's legacy on campus every day. Entrepreneurial spirit is not as prevalent among students here, he says, as it is in other parts of Germany. "They have a stronger sense of security," he says. They have grown up with the collective experience that companies offer jobs and the government helps out in times of crisis. "We have few students," says Weiler, "who say: I'll just go ahead and do my thing, and I'm sure something will come of it."

Many are the first members of their families to attend a university. They learn quickly and pragmatically, but they often have little experience with intellectual curiosity and the creative and chaotic flow of ideas. At the Ruhr University, says Weiler, students see it as a positive character trait when someone is not intellectually aloof. In a sense, he adds, their attitudes are anti-intellectual.

One Has to Live With It

Nevertheless, he sees the special culture of the Ruhr region as an asset. In a region heavily influenced by blue-collar workers and immigrants, it is easier to climb the social ladder than in traditional middle-class areas. And residents of the Ruhr region, says Weiler, have already experienced in their everyday lives what it means to be a country of immigrants. "We are a global village. In our region, people from 140 religious communities and more than 100 nations are demonstrating how to live together peacefully."

In the visitors' center at Zollverein, Seifert is concluding his tour. A photographer is scurrying around the old miner in his white helmet, taking pictures and using his flash.

"Seifert is the name," Joachim Seifert says to him after a while. "If you like, I can pose properly, and then you can take my picture."

No thanks, the young man says. He prefers taking pictures as they arise, he adds. Spontaneously.

Seifert nods. Then he turns to the escalator and takes it down to the courtyard. His apartment is just outside the grounds. This creative-artistic way of doing things is a completely different type of work, he says. Well, okay, he adds, one has to live with it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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