Learning from Detroit!


Detroit is considered the epitome of the post-industrial city. The withdrawal of the big industries massively changed this city. The Ruhr area also saw the beginning of structural change in the 60s. But the process of deindustrialization didn’t come to an end here – yet. The social tragedies and the decline of the Ruhr area are often hidden behind glossy terms like “Metropolis Ruhr” and “Changing Region”. We, however, want to face them directly: the poverty, the social segregation, the out-migration, the vacant sites and the boredom. We don’t want to assess the comparison of the Ruhr area to Detroit, but rather ask: What can the Ruhr area learn from Detroit?

We think that the first step towards change is admitting that the Ruhr area of the “ humble worker” is definitely a thing of the past. We don’t mourn the disappearance of the industrial labor typical for the Ruhr area. We no longer want to see the pictures of glorified and romanticized workers. We question this Ruhr area folklore designed to generate a sense of identity, not at least because when recalling coal and steel, pain and dirt are always forgotten.

We note that the political class of the Ruhr area with its belief in the return of industry is standing in the way of the search for another future in the Ruhr area. “Full employment” won’t ever be accomplished here again. And the work that remains becomes precarious, just like life itself. Especially for those who remain excluded by the value creation of the knowledge society. This old “ton ideology”, this fetish of “bigness” which can imagine change only as powered by a big machine, by mighty power stations, shopping malls, football stadiums and mass events is incapable of recognizing the needs and potentials in the cracks of the Ruhr area.

In our opinion, the Ruhr area does not exist. Duisburg, Oberhausen, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, Dortmund and all the other cities are focused on cannibalistic parish pump politics. They fight over funds and about where to put the next flagship. Their submission to the so-called “Standortlogik” – the belief that location is a decisive and limiting factor when considering options – is presented to us as practical constraints without alternative. As long as every city between Duisburg and Dortmund searches for its very own emergency exit, the Ruhr area as an urban space that acts in unison won’t find common footing.

We dispute municipalities that are acting as “entrepreneurial cities” forced to assert themselves on the free market. Cities are not businesses, but communities run on a public budget. Which resources are assigned where is a political decision. We ask ourselves why the over-indebted communities in the Ruhr Area don’t refuse to pay off their loans together. They never will be able to pay off their debts entirely anyway.

We demand that the poverty belt that stretches north of the A40 from Duisburg to Dortmund through the whole area comes into the focus of urban planning. The indifference with which the majority of society keeps watching this social destruction angers us. Those who build flagship projects next to impoverished areas so that their shine may one day reach the poor as well, are not just ignorant but cynical. When public funds flow into the Ruhr area, they should first of all be used for the improvement of social infrastructure and for community development. No one should have to search the trash for something useful in the shadows of those major projects.

We demand that in the Ruhr area, at long last, an offensive approach to shrinkage and out-migration is launched, that alternative urban-renewal plans are chreated that really deal with the problem. A progressive treatment of the shrinkage means being courageous enough to open up city space faced with disrepair to free usage, and so adding social “value”. Shrinkage can also be an opportunity when vacant spaces are used for social and cultural purposes.

We are angry about the provincial bigotry of the Ruhr area’s political class that shuts doors in the faces of social, cultural or artist initiatives. A class that doesn’t view such projects as enrichment, but as a disruption that needs to be countered with regulatory measures. We demand the recognition of a production of urban life that does not have to bow down to the constraints of commercial usability and that needs scope for development. We support every initiative that simply takes over the spaces it requires.

We know that the social destruction in Detroit, the drug economy and violence have another dimension than that which is present in the Ruhr area, that the people there are confronted with a much more existential reality of life. So what can the Ruhr area learn from Detroit? Those who search the wreckage will find countless zones of noncommercial urbanization: cultural or artist initiatives that expand in the vacant spaces, and urban agriculture projects mixed with community development; a social self-organization that claims its rights to the city in the bulky refuse of Detroit hands-on. These approaches of the “Detroit Summer” can be taken up by the Ruhr area. They alone, however, won’t be enough to give a new direction to the development of the Ruhr area, unless there is a fundamental change, also but not exclusively on the political level.

We are aware that the right to the city in the Ruhr area needs to be spelled out differently to that in growing metropolises such as Hamburg and Berlin. In our text “Realize Ruhrgebiet” we introduce our ideas for that. We won’t leave the debate about the Ruhr area’s future to the political class. We are getting involved. Now!