What would downtown Cologne be without street performers? Would its squares be the same if locals could no longer bring their own beer? The city administration would like to find out, but several lawmakers are opposed.
Cologne is not one of those crossroads-of-the-world places, but it's well-situated enough. The train tracks to Berlin and Hamburg and Munich meet the tracks to Paris and Brussels and Amsterdam, and every hour long-distance lines disgorge thousands of people from all over Europe at the main station, right in the shadow of the city's iconic Cathedral. Even passengers with just a 30-minute change between trains have time to step out of the station and breathe in the open air of Cologne's cabaret. It's the city that holds Germany's biggest celebrations for Carnival and gay pride, and depending on the day, there might be a protest or there might be a guitarist, but there's usually something, and the entertainment can all be had for a donation of your choosing. Refreshments are available at the kiosk; a beer won't even set you back 2 euros ($2.20). But enjoy it while it lasts: If city administrators have their way, the music will be pushed to the perimeters of Cologne's center and a cold beer on certain blocks could get you a fine.
At their November 17 meeting, city councilors will vote on whether to ban street musicians near the Cathedral and create a patchy map of no-booze zones throughout the city. The harshest critics have called the proposals an arbitrary exercise of authority - paternalism in the guise of civil protection. Since the proposals became known in October, locals have asserted their personal autonomy by blowing massive soap bubbles in a flash mob at the Cathedral and staging a drink-in on a square surrounding a nearby church.
The Social Democrats (SPD) on Cologne's city council have called the proposal a diversion from real priorities. "It is important to reinforce the security situation and the feeling of security in the city," said Gerrit Krupp, the SPD's regulatory spokesman on the city council. "Nevertheless, from our point of view the administration's proposal is excessive. Massively limiting street art and street music does not contribute to an increased feeling of security; it would, however, massively limit Cologne's colorful street scene, which is part of the city's reputation for tolerance and openness."
On a chilly Halloween night, more than 100 people gathered on Cologne's Brüsseler Platz to fight for their right to party. During summertime, pingpong players, college students and residents of Cologne's Belgian Quarter congregate on the square to drink from bottles of beer they have brought themselves. But now the city's administration has proposed a ban on public consumption of booze within 100 meters (330 feet) of schools, kindergartens and playgrounds. That confusing boundary would prohibit self-brought beers on the square, but allow the businesses with outdoor tables on Brüsseler Platz to sell them.
"The logic behind it, I think, was to protect children from seeing people drink," said Lino Hammer, one of 18 Greens on Cologne's city council. But, he noted, children can still see the beers that adults drink while seated at outdoor tables, so such a ban would effectively "differentiate between good alcohol and bad alcohol - and it's good alcohol if you can afford it." The proposed ban would mean that "rich people are allowed to drink outside, but poor people aren't."
Upon reviewing the proposal, Hammer wrote on Facebook that such a ban would be "really uncool" and that the idea "sounds more like something from a Swabian province than a big city." And, in addition to being uncool, Hammer said over the telephone on Wednesday, the idea is very un-Cologne.
"We have this thing called the kölsche Grundgesetz, and one of the rules is 'live and let live,'" Hammer said, referring to Cologne's common-law communal constitution. "That's something that the people of Cologne are very proud of." He added: "Most of the people know how to behave, and we should focus on the ones who do not."
Like Hammer, the SPD's Krupp said Cologne had existing measures to sanction the right people for doing the wrong things and that the city administration should concentrate on those rather than expanding the list of infractions. "The ordinance enforcement should concern itself with the city's true problems and wrongs and effectively and not merely selectively," Krupp said. This could be better accomplished, he said, by ensuring that there is sufficient personnel to enforce the current laws. And, he said, the SPD would work to secure a majority of like-minded lawmakers when the proposal comes up for a vote.
Hammer also said the administration's plan would not likely come into force with its current wording. "I don't see the proposal passing the way it is proposed now," he said. The early opposition is strong and the plans need to run by Cologne's district leaders and through committee. "We can propose other ways of dealing with it and vote piece-by-piece," Hammer said. If councilors need to, he added, "we can vote word-by-word."