Cultural Conundrum What Does It Mean To Be a Hamburger?

As Germany prepares for next week's G-20 summit, the world has its eyes on Hamburg. The city has seen a decline in the port culture that put it on the map, but the recent success of its spectacular new concert hall has forced many residents to reflect anew on what it means to be a Hamburger.


There they hang. Wearing crisp suits and serious and honest expressions, these men were honorable merchants who excelled at the salesman's craft -- cash management, accounting, correspondence -- and their books are as clean as their consciences.

There they hang, Hamburg's finest, immortalized on canvas, the former presidents of the Chamber of Commerce. But the way Tobias Bergmann stands in front of these pictures now, lean and lanky, the portraits of his predecessors seem more like trophies. Like prizes from a hunt.

"There has been and still is a merchant's aristocracy in Hamburg, like the Windsors and Orléans. And this election pushed them out. A revolutionary has now moved into this space." Tobias Bergmann, business consultant, was born 45 years ago in the village of Langquaid in Lower Bavaria, home to a weekly pig market.

Bergmann, the newly elected president of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, likes to add a, "so to speak" to his sentences. He says this with a deep Bavarian accent. Hamburg's merchant royalty may have forgiven him for that. And for living on the wrong side of the Elbe River, in Wilhelmsburg, among the working class, where he works out in a boxing club rather than at the mandatory rowing, hockey, and polo clubs where his predecessors have typically been members.

What is unforgivable is that he dared to question the city's power structures. The authority of ship owners, industrial leaders and wholesalers. The "money bags" -- as Hamburg's long-standing, wealthy merchant families are called. And then to be elected president of the Chamber of Commerce by an overwhelming majority in February -- it was perhaps the first successful revolution the city has ever seen.

It's noteworthy that Hamburg's City Hall and Chamber of Commerce are physically intertwined and are barely distinguishable as separate entities to pedestrians, although the Chamber likes to point out that it was there first. "A compromise was made in Hamburg over 100 years ago," explains Bergmann. "The 'Establishment' allowed the (center-left) Social Democrats to run City Hall. But economic policy was handled by the Chamber."

It was a perfect balance of power, which now needs to be evened out once again. And then some.

A City Redefines Itself

The successful revolution in the Chamber means that something has changed in Hamburg. And not just because everyone is streaming into the city's new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Hamburg is about to redefine itself: What are we actually? Merchants or culture vultures or what? And let's just figure it out quickly before the protestors and the troublemaker from Washington arrive for the G-20 summit.

The business of trade is definitely not as easy as it used to be. As one of Europe's largest port cities, "Hamburg always knew," says Bergmann," that prosperity also depends on other people doing the work. The ships came, delivered coffee, and each bean made the city richer. But how much wealth does a container ship carry with it these days?" And doesn't online commerce threaten to destroy the merchants' business model?

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Bergmann was elected because entrepreneurship has changed, with more and more IT companies such as Xing (the German answer to LinkedIn), developers, startups, designers, bike messengers, media companies and event organizers. "The port will remain an asset. But how do we, as a city, use this asset to generate new wealth?" asks Bergmann, and one can now only imagine how this question would come across in the city's Overseas Club -- a traditionally exclusive merchant's club.

What if one was to benefit from Brexit and make Hamburg, the most Anglo-Saxon city on the Continent, the capital for international arbitration? With lower attorney fees than in London? "And the Elbphilharmonie fits well in the picture," Bergmann says, concluding his brainstorm. "At least it provides a magnet for culture and tourism."

The local press has dubbed Hamburg's new landmark concert hall "Elphie."

To Hamburgers, it looks like a wave. Others may be reminded of a melting iceberg. The "Pearl of Hamburg," as it is known, sitting on top of the former Kaiserkai warehouse, is not only very visible, but is actually quite impressive: two massive buildings eclipsing each other as if suspended by a giant force field, one part crystalline, the other sturdy brick. The entrance is still free and visitors are allowed up the escalator to the Plaza, the mid-level viewing platform.

Because the two concert halls are usually closed, visitors appear somewhat lost as they look around. Then, suddenly, the Elphi is forgotten as the view opens up, one that spans the heart of the city and provides a panorama of the harbor -- with its sea walls, docks, loading cranes, forklift and loading trucks driving around, mountains of containers above the sheeting wall, a few windmills and in the background a cloud of smoke moving east at a flat angle. A barge cuts through the dirty olive-colored water, leaving a waxy trail. Gusts of wind carry the scent of diesel, machine oil and, with some imagination, the sea. This is Hamburg.

Carsten Brosda, an eloquent man with an office in an old Kontorhaus, the traditional merchants' offices and warehouses that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has served as the city's senator for cultural affairs since February. The Elbphilharmonie, he says, is by no means just a landmark -- those, after all, can be built anywhere if you have enough money.

No, he says, "This building is inextricably linked to the place. When I type 'Hamburg' into Google Maps, the red pin lands pretty precisely on the Elbphilharmonie." It is at the intersection of the old city center and the new HafenCity district -- land reclaimed from the port that has been transformed into an upscale development in recent years -- the industrial, economic core of the city. "So, I've got an acupuncture point in the city," says the senator. "If I press on it, a lot of interesting things happen."

In any case, he hopes that Hamburg's self-image will change as a result of its rising reputation: "So far, Hamburg has been associated with many things, but 'city of culture' is not the first or even second thing that comes to mind."

Unlike Munich or Berlin, Hamburg has never been the seat of a monarchy. There has never been a king or Kaiser who has expressed his power and glory through art collections, theaters or opera houses here. "Hamburg is also the largest city in Europe that has never been a capital and therefore the focus of a nation in which the national cultural heritage is represented," says Brosda. "This is a different, rather republican cultural tradition driven by its inhabitants. This city is represented by itself and by its own bourgeois power."

A Secret Longing for a Big Splash

Just below the Elbphilharmonie, Mick M. has moored his Papalagi, an 11-meter long (36 foot) steel sailing boat, which is visibly aged. M., whose name is actually Segebarth, is the son of a sailor and was born in Hamburg.

Here, at sea level, the harbor experience is different. Mick M. rummages around for a small glass jar, unscrews the lid and sticks a finger into the gray, metallic shining mass in it: "Particulate matter, the air is full of it. I wiped it off the deck. The big container ships and cruise ships that run on heavy oil and let their engines idle in the port blow this stuff out. "

Outdoors, it's drizzling; inside, the boat is rocking. Mick says he has so much of the Elbe in his blood that he gets seasick on land. Off the boat, he prefers to work as a pantomime and street artist. Culturally, he says, Hamburg has always been a city known for its fascinating crowds and quarters -- but not buildings. The Karolinenviertel, the Schanzenviertel and the Kiez -- all are popular Hamburg neighborhoods. There's not just one important place, but many.

From his overflowing cabin, filled with fishing rods, a hot plate, sea maps and clothes, Mick looks directly at the people making the pilgrimage over the Kehrwiederspitze bridge to the site of the Elbphilharmonie in HafenCity. "It's almost eerie, these masses of people," he says. On the other hand, Hamburg is a port with a city, not a city with a port and so this makes sense.

Hamburg is enchanted by its new Elbphilharmonie and now considers itself a true city of culture. But Rainer Moritz, the director of the Literaturhaus literary café and salon, has his doubts. "Hamburg was doubly humiliated -- first the scandalous explosion of the construction costs for the Elphi (which came in 10 times over budget) and then the failed 2024 Olympics bid. But that's all water under the bridge. Now they can celebrate," says Moritz. "Despite all its restraint, this city secretly longs to make a big splash on the world stage."

Whether the waves of excitement over the Elphilharmonie spread and affect other cultural aspects of the city remains to be seen: "The Elbphilharmonie has become the city's main attraction. But it's also not as though Hamburg has become a city of long-suppressed music connoisseurs overnight. The Hamburger Abendblatt, a local newspaper reports on every local concert and offers a primer in concert etiquette: "When is it acceptable to clap in the Elbphilharmonie?"


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skraft16 06/27/2017
1. Since this is Der Spiegel's English-language website, and that the U.S. is the largest English-speaking nation
I might be wisest to avoid titling a story "What does it mean to be a Hamburger" :) This is perhaps the greatest food-related German/English linguistic faux pas since John F. Kennedy proudly proclaimed "Ich bin ein Berliner".
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