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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Where I Live (2): Remscheid

Seven months ago I published a post here about the Duchy of Berg, the area of Western Germany in which I live. At the end of it I promised a further post about Remscheid, the city in which I have lived for nearly ten years now.

Remscheid is the smallest of the three neighbouring cities which are locally described as the Bergish municipal triangle (Bergische Städtedreieck) – the others being Wuppertal and Solingen – with a population of around 111,000. As such, it is the smallest independent incorporated city in Northrhine-Westphalia. The three cities, which were only given their basic administrative forms eighty years ago, flow almost imperceptibly into each other and there are those who would argue that they should join together to form one large unit, with a combined population of over 600.000. The advantage of such a move, claim its proponents, would be substantial savings on the administrative level as well as increased influence in regional politics and other synergetic effects. But local patriotism is much too strong and so the most the three cities can manage is cooperation in certain areas of local administration.

Remscheid itself was formed through the amalgamation of three neighbouring towns in 1929, Remscheid, Lüttringhausen and Lennep. Of the three, Lennep is historically the most significant, having a town charter since the thirteenth century and being for hundreds of years one of the four major towns of the Duchy. Lüttringhausen and Lennep have both retained their historical town centres which are well worth a visit – Lennep, in particular, is a pleasant place to spend a few hours of a summer afternoon, having a late lunch or a coffee at a table on the street in front of one of the many restaurants and bars.

Remscheid itself became significant later, through the early Industrial Revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century. Metal-working had a long tradition in the area, a result of some small local iron ore deposits, fast flowing streams and rivers for mill power and plentiful wood for charcoal. While the making of blades and cutlery became a world-renowned speciality in Solingen, on the other side of the Wupper across the deep Müngsten valley, the Remscheiders started to concentrate on tool-making. If you have a look in your domestic toolbox and find (usually older) spanners, hacksaws or chisels with the slogan, “Made in (West) Germany,” the chances are they come from Remscheid. Today however, those Remscheid firms which continue in this tradition are more likely to be specialists, making individually designed tools and tooling systems for industry worldwide.

Those who are still in business and have managed to ride the difficult currents of market changes, that is. Like similar towns in the North of England, or New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, Remscheid has not found modern globalised competition easy, particularly that with low wage countries in Asia, and has had to struggle with population shrinkage and stubbornly high levels of unemployment in the past quarter century. And in the boom time before most old-fashioned manufacturing industry abandoned Europe for more salubrious economic climes to the east, a large number of immigrants had settled in the city. 15% of Remscheid’s population today is non-German and the majority of these are from Turkey. In addition, the city is more or less broke (though it has this in common with many German cities, a result of a disgraceful funding imbalance where the federal and provincial governments regularly legislate for responsibilities to be carried out at local level but don’t do anything about arranging the necessary payment for them).

In other ways, too, Remscheid is a typical old industrial town. It has a strong working-class tradition and during the twenties had the reputation for being a “red” town. Old people I know have told me stories of street battles between the local Socialists and Communists on one side and Nazi groups on the other – battles which the leftists usually won – before Hitler came to power and repressed anything remotely left-leaning in 1932. And the period under Nazi rule brought further woe to the town.

On July 31 1943, a group of British bombers, who were supposed to be heading for Essen in the Ruhr area, dropped their bombs on Remscheid instead. The result was over a thousand dead in one night and more than half the population homeless. Densely populated working-class areas were particularly badly hit and the night remains a traumatic memory for all who experienced it. I remember nursing one old lady, who suffered from dementia, who would regularly awake from nightmares in which the bombs still exploded, the fires still raged, and her family once more died.

City Hall
The town was gutted (though at least the old town centres of Lennep and Lüttringhausen, a couple of kilometres away, were not hit) and the rebuilding after the war took until the 60s. In the rush and struggle to rebuild German cities architectural finesse wasn’t always at the top of the priority list and in Remscheid’s case, unfortunately, it tends to show – a lot of square, functional buildings, four to six floors high, built mostly of rubble and concrete. In many cases the main priority was to build fast – quality, understandably, came second. Well, that’s not quite fair; the houses are generally well built, given the materials available and the haste in which many were erected, and most of them are still in use. I lived in one, in fact, up to a few years ago and everything was fine until you wanted to hang something on one of the walls that weighed more than a kilo or two – then you experienced the joy of using a drill with an 8 mm bit and getting a 32 mm hole. And, as I said there wasn’t a lot of slack left over for aesthetic architectural considerations and by the time people started to think about these the world was entering the tasteless wasteland of sixties architectural sensibility. At least most of the public buildings – town hall and churches, for example – were replaced as they had been before the war.

It wasn’t the last time horror was to visit Remscheid from the air. On December 8, 1988 an American fighter-plane (a Fairchild-Republic A-10, better known as the Warthog) crashed into a street in Hasten (the district where I know live); the pilot and six other people were killed and fifty people injured. In the years following the crash, the proportion of people who lived in the immediate neighbourhood and subsequently developed cancer increased enormously, though the authorities denied reports that the plane was carrying munitions which contained depleted uranium.

The weekly market in Lennep
I am not infrequently asked by wondering locals – who will all cheerfully admit that their city is not Germany’s most beautiful – what on earth brought me from Ireland to Remscheid, of all places? For some reason, since coming to Germany in the mid-eighties, I never seem to have been able to get far away from the river Wupper, which winds its way through much of the Duchy of Berg before flowing into the Rhine just north of Leverkusen. Nearly ten years ago I was living in Solingen but already working in Remscheid and when the woman I was living with at the time, whose family came from Remscheid, expressed a wish to move back to her home town we came here together. We are no longer together but I’m still here and probably will be for the foreseeable future. I have family and friends here, my work is here (or in the neighbourhood at any rate) and I see no great reason to move elsewhere. It’s not an expensive place to live, there’s plenty of nice countryside not far away, the basic services and amenities are all there and the major cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf (with their airports) are both less than an hour away.

This may seem like a less than full-blooded enthusiastic endorsement of my home town, but if this is the case, it has a lot more to do with me than with Remscheid. My own personal history involves relatively frequent moves from one town to another, starting in my childhood and, as an adult, including moves between different countries and I suppose I have learned to orientate myself on people more than places. If there is one place I tend to regard more as home than any other, then that’s probably Dublin, though I only lived there for six years up to 1984. But that’s another subject.

For now, home is the district of Hasten in Remscheid – the place where I live. 

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