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.

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Photo Gallery: From the Mines to Modernity
"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.


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