Confession of an Industrial Romantic
Published 14th December 2009 - 3 comments - 1472 views -
I can’t possibly participate in this project about global warming and environment protection without making a confession to all those other green thinkers out there: I like industry. And before you expel me, no, I don’t mean that I like the destruction of nature and air pollution that go along with it. But I can’t deny that the immense, monumental and aesthetic image that huge industrial plants display has always impressed me. Considering all the photography and art that has surrounded urban industrial environments, I don’t seem to be alone with this perception. The main reason why I feel this way, however, probably lies in the fact that industry has been part of my entire life. I’m a child of the Ruhr district, or Ruhrpott as we call it, a large metropolitan area in the west of Germany that has risen and fallen with industrialization.
Originally an insignificant rural region, the Ruhr district developed to one of the largest urban agglomerations in Europe, comprising some five million inhabitants in several merged cities today. Rich natural reserves were the main reason why it became Germany’s centre for coal and steel production, attracting workers from all over the country and beyond. Although thousands of people found a living there, it certainly wasn’t the nicest place to live in. When my parents were young, the horizon was completely covered with chimneys, the streets covered with grime. The decline of the industrial sector in the West, especially since the 1980s, brought the decline of the region, facing high unemployment rates and shrinking populations up to this day. Since then, the cities of the Ruhr district have, with mixed success, pushed for “structural change” to the service sector and repeatedly emphasized a common goal: regional sustainability.
Looking at the Ruhr district today, although many industrial plants have disappeared by now, you can’t avoid being confronted with remnants of the past on a daily basis. Next to countless highways, railway tracks and canals, coal mines and steel factories, whether abandoned or still operational, dominate the urban picture. For precisely this reason, the stereotype of an ugly and dirty megacity is still present in many Germans’ perception of the area. Within the Ruhrpott itself, however, the attitude has significantly changed. After the humiliation of economic decline, people have found pride in their past again. An effort to promote the richness of the region’s history and diversity has given birth to a new concept, “industrial culture” (Industriekultur), and has met astonishing success in recent years. In this manner, the Ruhr district will be European Capital of Culture in 2010.
Why am I telling you all this? – Well, first of all, I’m a local patriot. But besides that, I think that the example of the Ruhr district shows two important things. Firstly, industry, despite all its negative sides, may actually enrich some regions in their historical and cultural heritage. Secondly, an industrial past does not have to doom regions for their future development. There are ways out, ways to more sustainability. Those plants that are still operational in the Ruhr district, including those of the famous steel producer ThyssenKrupp (if you haven’t heard of them, I’m sure, that you’ve stood on one of their escalators before), belong to the cleanest in the world. So forgive me if I get sentimental in the face of huge industrial sites in front of a sunset. It’s part of my identity. And maybe, if you come by for a visit some time, you will understand the meaning of what we call “industrial romance”.
View from Alsum Hill on ThyssenKrupp's Coke Oven Schwelgern in Duisburg-Bruckhausen
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