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City Portrait Essen

Lillian UrioMarch 2, 2005

Modern Essen might be a busy commercial center, but findings by archaeologists suggest that the city already existed as a settlement some 2,000 years ago.

Essen's legendary Zeche Zollverein was decorated with lights for an art exhibitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Today, Essen is the second largest city in North-Rhine Westphalia, with around 600,000 residents, and the sixth largest city in Germany. In the middle of the 19th century, it emerged as the center of the largest coal and steel area in Europe.

For many decades, coal -- the Ruhr region's black gold -- powered the German post-war economic miracle. But those days are long gone. In 1986, Essen's last mine was shut down. As one local adverting campaign put it, "Essen has wiped the coal dust from its face."

From coal to culture

RWE Eingang in Essen Hauptsitz
RWE is headquartered in DüsseldorfImage: AP

Today the city is an international economic hub, with nine of Germany's top one hundred companies calling Essen home. Several headquarters of regional institutions are also based in the city due to its central location. Institutions such as the Association of Ruhr District Local Authorities, the State Environment Agency, the German Meteorological Service, and the Ruhr diocese are all located in Essen.

The city's transformation from a mining to a service industry center can best be seen in the changes the colliery has undergone. The Zeche Zollverein, shut down in 1986, was a highly efficient production site when it first opened in 1932. Today, the Zollverein houses artists' studios, offices, and workshops. In 2001 UNESCO listed the colliery as a world cultural heritage site.

Essen: Zeche Zollverein
The Zeche Zollverein is a UNESCO landmarkImage: Stadt Essen

The Zeche Zollverein was designed by the architects Schupp and Kremmer and is regarded as one of the most stunning collieries in the world. Tourists now are able to take guided tours through this industrial monument, while the Design Center NRW exhibits award-winning design in the former boiler house.

Other collieries have also experienced a revival, for example the Zeche Carl in Altenessen, shut down in 1970, and now one of the largest socio-cultural centers in Germany. Concerts and cabaret performances, exhibitions, and panel discussions also take place in its former engine room and washhouse.

Venues and arenas

Essen: Folkwang-Hochschule für Musik, Theater, Tanz
The Folkwang School for Music, Theater and Dance is an architectural highlightImage: Stadt Essen

In its day, the Krupp industrial site was seven times larger than the city center. All that's left of the site today is the VIII Mechanical Workshop. In 1996, the former gateway into the cast steel works were transformed into a musical temple.

The Colosseum has a capacity of 1,550 spectators. The Grugahalle, the largest event venue in Essen, can accommodate up to 10,000 people and is used as a congress forum, a party location, an arena for major sports events and performances by international stars.

The Alto theater, a masterpiece by famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, is another great venue for opera and ballet performances, while the old synagogue built between 1911 and 1913 was once one of the most beautiful and largest Jewish synagogues in Germany. In 1938, during the pogrom night in November, it was set ablaze by the Nazis. Since 1980 the old synagogue has been used as a place of remembrance and as a historical and political documentation forum.