Day 5: Ruhr valley transformation

There are many similarities between Detroit and the part of Germany where I am staying. I am referring to what is known as the Ruhr industrial valley where modern German manufacturing was born. The Ruhr River runs east to west and links up with Rhine (south to north) just above Düsseldorf. The cities in the Ruhr industrial area are: Duisburg, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund. All of these cities have an importance in the history of German industry. However, like in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, this area of Germany has experienced a significant decline in the recent past.

Today I had the opportunity to take a tour of this area and I did not want to pass it up, so I will get back to the DRUPA exhibition tomorrow.

My first stop was the Krupp family mansion in Essen which is called Villa Hügel. Like Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in Cleveland and Carnegie’s US Steel in Pittsburgh, several generations of the Krupp family took the small business founded by Freidrich Krupp in 1811 and turned it into a major international steel corporation that dominated the city of Essen. A couple of the important industrial developments made by Krupp were the invention of seamless train wheels in 1851 and stainless steel around 1912.


For some strange reason the mansion at Villa Hügel is called Small House … but I can’t think of anything that would make this house look small. Like similar residences of the barons of US industry from this period, the house — built in 1873 — has very high ceilings, many rooms — including a ballroom — and is located on a large estate with gardens, winding walkways, green lawns, etc. Unfortunately, none of the displays in the historical museum were in English so it was difficult for me to follow along. However, for a fee of € .50 I was able to buy a brochure in English that explained the information in the exhibit.

At the height of the company’s success the Krupp steel company employed over 200,000 people in Essen. In order to foster company loyalty, Krupp built a garden city of housing for their employees nearby. The name of this area is still known as “Margarehten-Höhe,” so-named after the wife of Friedrich Alfred Krupp, Margarethe, who designed the village.


I toured this neighborhood with street after street of two and three multi-flat homes that were covered with ivy. It seems like a very nice place to live with a few shops and restaurants as well as Kindergartens. In its heyday Krupp owned 70,000 flats in Essen. However, none of the Krupp steelworkers are still living here … there’ll be more on that in a moment.

But first, as you probably already know, I need to mention that the Krupp family came into disrepute and revulsion when Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach and his son Alfried both supported Hitler and the rearmament of Germany during World War II. They even set up forced-labor production facilities with prisoners of war. The Allies bombed the massive Krupp steelworks destroying large sections of it and then Alfried was tried and convicted at Nuremberg. However, after serving only 2 and a half years Alfried Krupp was released form prison, on the order of American occupation authorities, and resumed control of the firm in 1953.

The last of Krupp family gave up their control of the company in the 1960s and transformed their shares into a foundation. The company was merged with Hoesch in the 1980s and then Thyssen in the 1990s. It is now known as global industrial conglomerate ThyssenKrupp.

As I said, like Detroit and other US cities, the cities of the Ruhr valley have undergone a transformation in the last several decades with plant closures, layoffs and generally difficult economic times. Today, most of the Krupp steelworks complex has been demolished or redeveloped and turned into shopping areas and educational facilities. Driving around this semi-barren area of Essen, the only functioning factory that I saw was a ThyssenKrupp titanium plant. This is the modern looking building on the left in the photo above. The building on the right is part of the former steelworks and is now a web offset printing company called WestEnd.

At my next stop in Duisburg, I learned how some people in Germany have tried to respond to the economic transition. Duisburg still has functioning steel production, but most of it has been closed down. One of the closed steel mills has been turned into a park with a museum. One of the blast furnaces was open to the public and I walked up to the top of it and took some pictures of the area at about 300 feet up. If you look in the foreground of the picture below, you can see how the trees have started to grow right inside the remains of the industrial complex.

Meanwhile some of this old steel manufacturing machinery has been converted into different types of recreational facilities. Believe it or not, one of the large tanks has been converted into a scuba diving training tank. There is even an Alpine mountain climbing club that uses the area where coal and iron ore train cars used to come through a training facility area. I am not kidding … look at the picture and watch the video to see for yourself!!

Back in Essen, I also toured a shut coal mining complex called Zollverein which is being converted into a cultural center. On the grounds of the coal mine, there are many different buildings that were part of the production process that have been converted into arts educational facilities. There is a program for visual arts, dance, modern design. The Zollverein complex also hosts concerts and other large cultural events. Each area of the complex is being reconstructed to host different aspects of the arts. There are two mine shafts and one coking plant that are being converted.


With much of the work already completed, the efforts at Zollverein are one of the reasons why the Ruhr has delcared itself the European Capital of Culture. A large international celebration is planned for 2010 … this sounds to me like a good reason to come back in two years.

June 4, 2008 

Author: multimediaman

Know the past | Create the future

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