Leaning from the Ruhr Valley
Silke Kettelhake

The district of Śląsk (Silesia) lies at the heart of the Upper Silesian industrial area, which incorporates the Beskidy Mountains at its southern edge and with the region around Częstochowa in the north-east, now extends beyond the historical boundary of Upper Silesia. This also once included the current district of Opole, as well as the south-western regions immediately over the border in what today is the Czech Republic. The thing which defined the common identity for all these areas was (and still is) coal mining - just as does in the Ruhr district of Germany. Since 1964, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia has fostered a special friendship with Upper Silesia. Dr. Susanne Peters-Schildgen of the Upper Silesian Museum in Ratingen is a co-initiator of the Ruhr Valley - Upper Silesia Study Group which, since 2003, has devoted itself to the industrial history, structural change and culture of the two regions as well as the contemporary problems they share.

Dr. Susanne Peters-Schildgen of the regional Museum of Upper Silesia in Ratingen was the founder of the Ruhr Valley - Upper Silesia Study Group which, since 2003, has devoted itself to the industrial history, structural change and culture of the two regions as well as the contemporary problems they share.

What differences exist between the social and urban histories of the Ruhr region and Upper Silesia? And what similarities are there?
Particularly in the period from before the First World War until after the Second War, the growth of cities and populations in both these regions was influenced by the coal and steel industries. Internal migration and advertising campaigns in the eastern provinces attracted hundreds of thousands of mostly young men to the Ruhr area which, in the middle of the 19th Century, was still sparsely populated and rural. In just a few decades, a network of intensive industrial agglomerations developed. Following the Second World War, the Ruhr district again became a centre for migration. Since that time the population has continuously declined, even though, today, there are people of more than 150 different nationalities living here together.

The workers of the Upper Silesian industrial area originated from the rural population during the heyday of industrialisation: Upper Silesian speaking Silesians, Germans from Lower Silesia and the neighbouring Sudeten areas, and many Polish migrants from the province of Poznan and the Russian administered “Congress Poland”. Extensive population movements have occurred in Upper Silesia as consequences of both World Wars: the area was partitioned in 1921; with its infamous racial lists, the Nazi regime forced the compulsory resettlement of many people; further resettlements and expulsions occurred under Soviet and Polish rule immediately following the War.

The Rise of the Singles

Since the end of Communism, competition has been the determining factor in the restructuring processes. Hand in hand with rising unemployment came acute insecurity for the workers’ families. Consequently, the characteristic lifestyle, with its strong community bonds, that was moulded by the mining and steel industries has disappeared.

In the Ruhr Valley, too, coal has lost its dominance. This has lead to major changes in the family structures that were typical during the phase of heavy industrialisation. Marriage rates have fallen and the number of single-parent families is growing; the birth rate is also lower with fewer children born to each family. This is the expression of a new, urban culture characterised by individualist lifestyles.

What kind of cities has this produced?
In both regions, the histories of many towns and cities can be traced back to mediaeval times. Towards the end of the 19th Century, at the height of the industrial age, those cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants took on a new urban architectural appearance and the mediaeval town centres disappeared.

A typical mixture of industrial complexes, residential settlements and railway lines developed and established itself in the absence of any proper planning. In both industrial areas, plans were developed after World War One to encourage the cooperation between the cities. For instance, the Ruhr Industrial Region Settlement Union was formed in 1920 and, at the end of the 20s, planned building projects were realised in the three-city conurbation of Bytom (Beuthen) Gliwice (Gleiwitz) and Zabrze (Hindenburg).

An Opportunity for Avant Garde

The cityscapes in the Ruhr district were influenced by the destruction of war and the reconstruction taking place during period of the “Economic Miracle”, whereas the outward appearance of the Upper Silesian industrial region has until today survived largely unchanged. In the divided Upper Silesia of the inter-war period expressionist structures were built as well as garden city areas and some early high-rise buildings. The architecture of the socialist era is characterised by monotonous, prefabricated residential blocks, mostly built on the edges of the cities.

The closing of coalmines led to decay and dereliction in the surrounding towns and urban areas, especially in those places which until then had been almost exclusively the home of mining communities. On large areas of wasteland residential estates and shopping centres are now developing, such as the “Silesia City Centre” in Katowice, which, with 240 shops, is the largest mall in the whole region. Further modern projects in the administrative capital of the district underscore its development to a centre for information technology, science, research and culture.

In the Ruhr area, as in Upper Silesia, the nature of the structural transition is clearly visible in the ruins of unfinished projects, incomplete streets, over-ambitiously planned regeneration zones and industrial wastelands all interspersed with fragmentary urban growth.

Beginning of the End: Pit Coal Mining and the Steel Mills

How significant for Upper Silesia was the emigration of the ethnic Germans at the end of the 1980s and after the fall of Communism?

The largest wave of emigration took place at the time of Germany’s transition. As well as the Germans, many Poles who had no proper roots in Upper Silesia also decided to leave the region. In Gliwice alone, between 1989 and 2002 the population sank by about a tenth: in 1989 the city had 222,084 inhabitants, in 1997, 212,781 and in 2002 just 204,820. This was due in great part to the industrial decline. A significant part of the workforce was made redundant. Between 1996 and 2000, the Polish state opted for a radical solution entailing a profound programme of restructuring similar to the British example. The miners were given a generous redundancy package; large sums of cash were pumped into the area at the cost of other parts of the country, to encourage its workers to give up mining. Some of the highly qualified personnel then moved to more attractive urban centres in Poland.

More recently, coal has again become an important economic factor for the region, apart form anything else because of the growing demand for it in China. Since 2004, the once highly indebted mining sector has earned a profit of more than two billion Zloties. With the Upper Silesian industrial area, Poland could become the most important supplier of coal to the European market if investments are made in modern mining methods and energy production. It may be that the qualified personnel left because of the stagnant wage levels which had been frozen for several years. And the mass redundancies amongst the miners had their effect.

Social Problems

What difficulties have confronted, or continue to confront, the Ruhr district?

Unemployment is the most critical problem; since the beginning of the steel crisis here, unemployment has always remained higher than the German national average. The typical dominance of large companies that have controlled and regulated the market for a long time has now become a burden for the economy of the region. This has prevented the development of companies that can innovate or invest in research and development. On the other hand, the service sector has experienced a boom. Environmental problems have been considerably reduced due to the closure of so many mines and steel works (today, only seven mines remain open in the whole Ruhr area). The populated area of the Ruhr Valley is highly fragmented and there is very little centralisation, belonging, as it does, to three administrative districts. In the “Ruhr Urban Region 2030”, a group of researchers developed a series of new visions for the core area of the Ruhr district. This involved the cities of Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Herne, Mülheim-on-Ruhr and Oberhausen. A pilot project for the Ruhr urban region is the communal planning of land use by the cities of Bochum, Essen und Gelsenkirchen. Thus the cities are taking regional responsibility for the Ruhr urban region which has so far formed a “blind spot” for the three administrative districts.

When did efforts start to reverse the processes of depopulation in the Ruhr district?
Today, anonymity defines the social relationships in the residential areas associated with the former industrial plants. Only in recent years have the politicians and the administration recognised the declining population as an indicator of fundamental social change.

It went unnoticed that the drastic fall in the birth rate between 1965 and 1975 was the cause of the dramatic change in the population’s age-structure we can now see happening. The director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Ruhr Area (ZEFIR) at the Ruhr University Bochum, Professor Klaus Strohmeier, estimates that in just a few years the majority of people in the region will have an immigrant background. In the poorest and socially most problematic urban areas - the large council housing estates - high fluctuation rates will lead to the complete replacement of the population within a few years. Most approaches to socially viable urban renewal are based on self-perpetuating mechanisms of participation and cooperation between the generations.

Has the Ruhr area experienced a conflict of values in the last decades, between culture and industrial influences?
The independent cultural performance of the large industrial cities - the workers’ cities - was relatively weak. Most culture was imported, often with state intervention, and it frequently failed to accommodate the real desires of the working population. Gaps were filled by initiatives which grew around the church and the workers movements. Meanwhile, a new, educated middle class - the children and grandchildren of the mining community, who have studied at the region’s twelve colleges and universities - has become an important consumer of the now varied cultural activities on offer in the Ruhr area. The official protection of industrial architecture, which began in 1970, has so far produced numerous models for the renewed use of old factories, coal mines and even whole industrial complexes in the Ruhr district.

At the end of the 1980s, the industrial legacy of the Ruhr Valley formed the basis of the Emscherpark Internationale Bauausstellung, IBA, (International Architectural Exhibition) whose goal was a comprehensive renewal of the region. The “Ruhr Triennial” also uses industrial sites as unusual arenas for theatre performances and concerts. That culture is particularly important in forming the identity of a newly emerging metropolitan region was impressively demonstrated by the city of Essen’s successful application to be European Capital of Culture in 2010.

How economically viable are these cultural usages?
Culture has its price; that is also understood in the Ruhr Valley. And that is why it is just as important to have “lighthouse projects” that attract attention well beyond the region’s borders, as it is to meet the basic cultural needs of individual urban areas. The North-Rhine-Westphalian Ministry of Culture provided the first director of the Ruhr Triennial, Gerard Mortiér, with 41 million Euros for the first three years of the festival. At the “Zeche Zollverein” coalmine, now a UNESCO world heritage site, a college of design has been established and this is also the planned location for the new Ruhr Museum. As well as being an important centre for the field of design, the Zeche Zollverein is a highlight of industrial culture and a magnet to tourists. A lot of money, including EU funding, is provided to this project.

The reform of heavy industry: liquidated, wound up, closed

What concepts are used in Upper Silesia to tackle poverty and the lack of perspective?

The people in the Upper Silesian industrial region have been harder hit than those in the Ruhr area; the changes are more aggressive and the shrinking process much quicker. No one is taking care of the employees from the liquidated enterprises. Politics is being indecisive

The current development strategy for the district of Silesia, planned until 2020, is based above all on the establishment of modern industry, support for small and medium sized businesses, the expansion of the service sector and the restructuring of the educational system. Similar to the Ruhr Valley, restricting industry and science to specific branches such as automobile manufacturing, medicine or environmental protection technologies is intended to turn the Upper Silesian district into an exemplary economic region. Improving the quality of the natural environment is vital, as are the up-grading of urban space and the optimising of transport services. The severe problems connected with structural change will beset the region for a long time to come.

Is there awareness in Upper Silesia for history and the preservation of historical monuments?

Factory chimneys and winding towers are part of everyday life. There is often little conviction in society that industrial objects are worth listing for protection. According to a documentation produced by the regional Silesian office for the protection of historic buildings and monuments, the district only has about 70 entries in its register of culturally valuable objects. Those which are not listed include some 186 objects from various fields of industry. 96 localities in Silesia possess objects which need to be surveyed. There’s a danger that a large number of industrial complexes will not meet the existing criteria to be deemed worthy of preservation. As there are not sufficient financial means to rescue this technical heritage, a painful choice often has to be made between what should be saved and what surrendered.

Opening up to Tourism

Modelled on the “Industrial Heritage Route” in the Ruhr district, the Silesian Centre for Cultural Heritage (ŚCDK) in Katowice, in collaboration with the local administration, is setting up a technological monument route which, to begin with, will include 37 historical enterprises and industrial buildings: cultural monuments, residential settlements and also functioning industrial plants offering guided tours. In Zabrze, which advertises itself as the “City of Industrial Tourism”, at an expense of 20 million Euro, the “Queen Louise” coalmine is being developed into a museum. This will include a boat trip that will carry tourists for several kilometres along a 19th Century tunnel at the coal face. The museum’s aim is to protect the industrial heritage of the region.

What is the reaction of the EU at the levels of regional and structural policy?
Today, the erstwhile coal and steel fields of the Ruhr district not only have a good infrastructure, they have also gained experience in pursuing cooperative politics and procuring public funding. From 2006, because of reforms to European regional policies and because of the expansion of EU, the Ruhr district will have to survive with much less money. The traditional areas of the Ruhr economy have been developed and modernised: power generation, for example, with solar technology; mining technologies remain world leaders; and new productivity levels have been achieved in the iron and steel industries, where new materials have also been developed.

In Poland, the system for promoting regional development is highly centralised, although there is a recognisable tendency to move away from this model. A great challenge is the “Government Programme for Post-industrial Areas”. Between 2004 and 2010, around 63.7 million Zlotys (approximately 15.9 million Euros) will be spent on restructuring, money which is to come from the national exchequer, from environmental protection funds and from EU sources. 2.5 million Zlotys have been provided for the renovation of the old town centre of Bielsko Biała, while Chorzów, one of the most densely populated cities, is also relying on EU assistance.

Is it in fact possible to draw any comparisons between the two industrial regions?

The differences are primarily those of the contrasting historical and political preconditions. Both regions must continue to address the consequences of the structural changes. An intensive exchange of experiences in the economic and cultural fields and in various scientific disciplines will help both to avoid mistakes; and each can also consider using the other’s successfully implemented projects as models for its own district.

Thank you very much.

Silke Kettelhake is an editor at the Federal Agency for Civic Education’s fluter.de, responsible for film. She also works as a freelance journalist for die taz, Jungle World, de:bug, and the ifa magazine amongst others. She previously edited music clips and advertising spots.
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