Germany's Ruhr region is reinventing itself as a European culture capital, but some say it's making itself into something it isn't. Proponents insist the Ruhr's industrial heritage and cultural credentials don't clash.
Ruhr2010 organizers say the region's industrial heritage contributes positively to its cultural identity
The industry which has shaped the history and culture of Germany's Ruhr area for over 200 years is in decline. Unemployment is high, and many factories, warehouses and hangers lie empty.
If the region is to survive, it must reinvent itself, said Fritz Pleitgen. A former director general of the western German broadcaster WDR, which serves the state of Northrhine-Westfalia where the Ruhr area is located, and former president of the European Broadcasting Union, Pleitgen is the man behind the region's 2010 Culture Capital program.
"We are working hard to get rid of the old image of the Ruhr area," he said. "People outside the Ruhr area believe that this is still a run-down industrial region with wrecked, grey cities and a poisoned landscape. That is not true anymore. We have our problems, but we are very rich with cultural events, we are very rich with innovative industry and we now have good results with science."
With slogans like "the Ruhr breathes culture not coal" and "change through culture," Pleitgen's program aims to radically transform Ruhr identity. He said he is determined to create a "poly-centric metropolis" which will have cultural rather than industrial activity at its center.
Reinventing the Ruhr
Pleitgen says the Ruhr isn't remaking itself, it's showing what it already has
Critics of Pleitgen's vision claim that the idea of a Ruhr metropolis is illusory and that the attempt to reinvent Ruhr identity represents an artificial imposition on the region and its inhabitants.
But Pleitgen, himself a self-styled "child of the Ruhr," said Ruhr2010 was not so much a makeover as a showcasing of what was already there.
"Here we have the highest density of culture in Europe," he said. "We have 100 theaters, we have 120 concert halls, over 200 museums, over 250 festivals and more than 1,000 industrial monuments which we now use as industrial sites."
With over 5 million inhabitants and a surface area of over 4,500 square kilometers, Germany's Ruhr region is the largest urban agglomeration in Europe.
The Ruhr2010 director is also quick to point out that, far from forgetting its industrial roots, the Ruhr's Culture Capital program is celebrating them. That is why the opening festivities earlier this month were held at Zeche Zollverein, a former mining complex which has become a UNESCO World Heritage site: "We chose Zeche Zollverein because it stands for both our past and our future."
Proud of their past
By 1800, there were almost 300 coal mines in operation in the Ruhr region, which in turn fueled the area's mushrooming iron and steel industry. During World War II, the industry-rich region was a key target for Allied bombings.
After the war was over, the industry was rebuilt with the help of a large influx of migrant workers, many of them from Turkey. Because of its status as cultural melting pot, the Ruhr area is known to Germans as the Ruhrpott ("Ruhr-pot" in English). Outsiders sometimes use this term pejoratively, but locals are fiercely proud of the region's industrial identity.
Ulrich Borsdorf is the curator of the new Ruhr Museum in Essen. Starting with the present and moving chronologically back in time, the museum allows local residents to, as Borsdorf put it, "dig themselves into history."
One exhibit which seems to have struck a particular chord with local visitors is a wedding ring which once belonged to the wife of a miner. "The wedding ring became so worn and thin that in some places it nearly broke," said Borsdorf.
For the museum director, the wedding ring is a touching illustration of the way in which the lives of the locals have been shaped by heavy labor.
Ruhr dwellers tend to pride themselves on their reputation for hard graft. This, together with the multicultural atmosphere brought to the region by its large immigrant workforce has, according to Borsdorf, created a special kind of behavior.
Neffin calls on the Ruhr region to "wake up"
"This behavior is something akin to tolerance," he said. "They are open-minded and accept anyone, no matter where they're from."
Lots of local support
The overwhelming majority of Ruhr residents have rallied to the Ruhr2010 banner - like Andre Haggeney, a musician with the local Indy-rock band Neffin. Haggeney draws his inspiration from the industrial landscape around him.
"I think it's quite inspiring to look at those old factory signs and buildings," Haggeney said. "It's not what you'd call beautiful at first sight, but I think it has a hidden beauty."
Despite his strong sense of regional identity and his aesthetic appreciation for the landmarks of the region's industrial past, Haggeney is anything but nostalgic. The title of one of Haggeney's most popular songs translates into English as "I wake up this town." It is, he explained, a call to the Ruhr region to wake up and seize the future.
"I think that it's quite a nice symbol for Ruhr2010 because in a way this whole event is about trying to wake up the Ruhr region," the musician said.
Whether the Culture Capital's wake-up call succeeds in forging a new metropolitan identity in the Ruhr remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the region is mobilizing itself. With 300 projects and 2,500 events planned over the coming year, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Ruhr to prove that it can indeed "breathe culture, not coal."
Author: Kate Laycock
Editor: Kate Bowen