1At the latest since the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities and the respective “narrative turn” in urban planning, cultural and literary studies and urban planning have been interested in each other as disciplines. Such interdisciplinary dialogue is helpful to recognize, for example, how cultural factors contribute to the failures or successes of a plan, or why the readership of a plan matters and is useful to take into account. It may potentially lead to more successful plans, but also to a practice based on the recognition that planning is constitutive; that it is not only a response to certain community needs, but rather, that it is an important factor shaping and literally building communities and cultures. For the literary and cultural studies, this particular interdisciplinary link opens up new ways of reading urban spaces and shapes a better understanding of the practices of representation and the role of narratives and scripts in the urban experience.
2 In his study Planning as Persuasive Storytelling. The Rhetorical Construction of Chicago’s Electric Future, James A. Throgmorton attests to the important role of language, discourse and rhetoric in planning practice, making evident that planning is not neutral, but that it impacts and shapes the past, present and future of the city. Defining planning as “persuasive and constitutive storytelling within a web of relationships” (xix), he makes clear that attention to stories and narratives is crucial in the creation of sustainable and livable environments in our cities. As an Americanist interested in transatlantic relations and in such practices of persuasive storytelling, I am particularly fascinated by the similarities and differences that are provoked in perceiving, but also in planning the city by way of narrative. Having lived in de-industrializing regions all my life and having been confronted with oftentimes diverging ideas as to what is to become of formerly industrial sites as a citizen, studying the storytelling aspect of de-industrialization promises to be an interesting research project in order to understand better how cultural factors and stories impact the process of dealing with the past spatially.
3“Sustainability” has long become a buzzword in planning discourses around the world. Oftentimes, this discussion about creating a sustainable way of life is centered on questions of the environment: it relates to the ecological footprint of our cities, to providing access to alternative, renewable energies, and to ensuring quality of life for future generations inhabiting our communities. In more than one way, thinking about sustainability for the future thus also relates to dealing with the legacies of the past. With regard to how this discussion is being led across the Northern hemisphere, this is especially true for de-industrializing cities, where past land uses have led to the creation of brownfields and other excess spaces—oftentimes industrially shaped and not easily reusable for non-industrial purposes due to their degraded soil. In post-industrial cities, the word “sustainability” comes up in negotiations about the re-use of former industrial facilities that have lost their purpose, in the attempt to re-develop whole housing projects originally built for industrial workers, and in the question of whether parts of cities might be returning to their rural origins as more and more homes and factories are left to demise.
4In addition to the physical difficulties of dealing with the industrial legacies, de-industrializing communities are confronted with several additional layers of history that pose a challenge now and for the future. Even thoughin public discourse, the processes affecting these communities—the North American “Rust Belt,” the German Ruhr Valley, the French Pas-de-Calais-Region, just to name a few examples—are oftentimes subsumed under unspecific headers such as “globalization,” “transformation of the workplace” or simply “de-industrialization,” the situation on the ground is much more complex than such descriptions express. The ongoing transformations in former Rust Belts pose a narrative challenge to planners and citizens alike. At the turn to the post-industrial age, an identity shift or re-definition is of need, responding to existing stories, but simultaneously building new ones.
5The places mainly referred to in this article, the German cities of the Ruhr Valley and the U.S.-American Detroit, serve as representative for a whole set of cities across the Northern hemisphere which grew significantly through their industries, identified strongly through industrial production—hence their nicknames, the “Coal Pit” for the Ruhr and the “Motor City” for Detroit—and are now confronted with the challenge of re-invention. At the same time, these places are very specific: Different from each other and different from all others due to their specific micro-histories. The Ruhr and Detroit are especially important industrial cities and linked to each other in important ways despite the very different industries they became known for. Certainly, the Ruhr—in its physical design, in its industrial production processes—was heavily shaped by the Fordist principles established in Detroit. But the connections go further than that: Not only is Detroit part of the region that sometimes used to be nicknamed “American Ruhr,” but both the Ruhr and Detroit were, and maybe still are, the bellwether of their respective countries’ economies, the canaries in the coalmine, so to say. Industrial work was important both to keep the cities growing and going, and to provide a stable income and identity for the inhabitants: For many generations, the future was clear—now, these are cities literally “on the verge” and the path to the future is not fixed yet.
6What is oftentimes referred to simply as the “crisis” both are confronted with nowadays has been a long time in the making: Looking back, it was already clear in the 1950s that the eternal growth these places were built for was not going to last forever. Almost ironically, one of the Ruhr’s strategies of cushioning the emerging crisis of its industries—coal, iron, steel—was establishing a new focus on car-production: the assumption was that people would always need cars, especially in a region that is as sprawled as the Ruhr. The company that finally settled in Bochum in the Ruhr Valley roughly 50 years ago was General Motors from Detroit. The company is known in Germany under the name of Opel—and it has closed its Bochum production site in late 2014. This plant closing is expected to lead to the loss of up to 45.000 workplaces in the Ruhr Region and beyond, such as in other industries associated with auto production. In the Ruhr, despite the rather strong German economy, unemployment is notoriously high, and with the loss of the Opel/General Motors plant it is not the first time “globalization” takes its toll. The coal mines, the coal cokeries, the steel plants have by and large disappeared as sites of industrial production; the more recent losses of Nokia1 and Opel make evident that in a time of crisis and change, sustainability cannot come by way of work alone. Finding a new path ideally needs public dialogue. This dialogue is likely not going to begin on its own though: Art has proven to be a powerful initiator of such dialogue in the Ruhr.
7Artistic practice, much like narrative practice, is more than just a tool in urban development. It can highlight previously invisible layers and dimensions of a site, and create new links. It can also help to extend the scope of a site—both in order to be able to recognize site-specific factors and characteristics, and to see economic and other developments across a larger scale. In the context of urban development, it can open up a dialogue between the past and the present, and point out, even enable, several potential futures. Ideally, by helping create a new narrative about a site which picks up on the existent ones, new conversations about a place are facilitated.
8 In April 2014, an LED installation by the British artist Tim Etchells was lit on top of a former shaft tower that today is part of the DeutschesBergbaumuseum in Bochum, a museum devoted to the history of mining and the mining of resources around the world. This installation, in red capital letters, and visible from many different points in the city of Bochum, reads four words: “How love could be,” a statement that can also be understood as a question. The installation is quoting the third line of a 1961 Motown song by The Miracles, “Bad Girl.” Its lighting was celebrated with a “Motown BBQ,” a get-together of city and state officials and citizens of Bochum and the surrounding cities for food and Motown music. The installation creates a visible (and in that sense, audible) link between Detroit and the (post-) industrial landmarks of the Ruhr, between one “Motown” and another, so to say.
Tim Etchells, “How love could be”
9Etchells’s installation of “How love could be” is part of a larger artistic project happening in 2013-14 that became known as the “Detroit-Project” and that established a slogan in Bochum and in the Ruhr that I find ambivalent for its apparent lack of solidarity with the citizens of Detroit: “This is not Detroit.” While the slogan can be read as ironic—it is obvious that Bochum is not Detroit, but that it is indeed Bochum—it highlights that GM cannot do to the citizens of Bochum what it has done to the citizens of Detroit. At the same time, it builds a barrier between the two cities: Detroit is not what Bochum wants to be. The “Detroit-Project,” creating yet another—albeit highly problematic—link between the Ruhr and Detroit, is carried out by the Bochum theater and the organization “Urban Arts Ruhr,” a publicly funded association aiming at creating a sustainable and culturally rich urban landscape in the Ruhr. It is also financially supported by the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Arts Foundation of North-Rhine Westphalia.
10The project has the goal to establish a transnational dialogue about urban sustainability and the future of the city of Bochum—and other “Motowns,” cities on the international scale associated with the auto industry—through art. As quickly becomes evident from the program, the “Detroit-Project” itself is not so much about anything that is happening in the city of Detroit, but it rather uses “Detroit” as a buzzword to highlight the potential failure of urban transformation. This is much in tune with a lot of other contemporary media using “Detroit” as a template for urban crisis, and represents yet another instance where the city’s condition is brought up “as basis for opportunistic self-aggrandizing” (Herron, “Detroit” 668): Negative stories about Detroit “sell,” and make one’s own misery appear a little less, it seems.
11 Love, of course, could be different, and hopefully would be different. Love would be more respectful, would recognize the specificities that lead to difference and appreciate what could be learnt from them. Love could carefully analyze how Detroit—if its name is already evoked in the project title—is dealing with the changes and how “learning from Detroit” could be a strategy of coping with the transition at hand in Bochum: A bit of Detroit might do good things in Bochum.
12In de-industrializing communities, storytelling is important to keep the integrity and the solidarity of the citizens despite the ongoing challenges. It also contributes to the sustainability aspect in these communities, specifically also via establishing boundaries between one place and another (Eckstein 13), something that also becomes evident in the “Detroit-Project:” Cities in crisis do not necessarily like to be compared to each other. Certainly, the people of Detroit would rather see their city as a “new Berlin” than as a “new Oberhausen” or “new Gelsenkirchen,” two of the Ruhr cities known for their notorious unemployment, high poverty index, communal debt, and all the troubles arising out of such a situation.
13Barbara Eckstein and James A. Throgmorton have published a volume on Story and Sustainability. Planning, Practice, and Possibility for American Cities, arguing that the telling and understanding of stories is important “in the recognition, agreements, and responsibilities necessary to create and maintain sustainable cities” (4). In his own contribution to the volume, Throgmorton goes on to show how unseen layers of the city impact the creation of sustainable communities: Drawing heavily on the literary critic Lawrence Buell, he argues that “places are continually shaped and reshaped by forces from both inside and outside; they have histories and are constantly changing” and that “any one place contains its residents’ accumulated or composite memories of all the places that have been significant over time” (“Imagining” 45). The claim here is that the history of a place is important with regard to its future: in order to become sustainable for the future, and sustainable not only in terms of environment, but also in terms of social justice and opportunity, cities need to work with their pasts in one way or another.
14Creating a sustainable city for the future means building it onto a steady foundation. Both in the Ruhr and in Detroit this means dealing with the industrial legacy and the ongoing absence of industrial work. An analysis of how these communities are dealing with their industrial past spatially will help understand not only in how far the industrial past is still part of the contemporary conception of these cities, but also in how far the future(s) will be determined by this layer of history. Certainly, this analysis will also make evident the cultural differences in handling the transition to the post-industrial age as well as the dimension of public policy in the creation of sustainable urban environments. This is not a new challenge, of course: By the 1980s, both the Ruhr and Detroit felt increasing pressures to determine how their industrial heritage could be dealt with in the “post-industrial” age.
15 The Ruhr reacted to this challenge by suggesting an alternative use of the former sites of industrial production. The International Architecture Exhibition “Emscher Park/ Workshop for Industrial Regions” tried to bridge the gap between industrial production and the post-industrial economy. It took place in several Ruhr cities between 1989 and 1999, and focused on change without growth. Its implementation made “conservation of the industrial heritage ... a cornerstone of the area’s economic, social and spatial restructuring” (Raines 184). With this typically social-democratic agenda, it tried to make the unavoidable departure from the industry and the loss of jobs more bearable to the population in the region, and open the Ruhr for tourism. In more concrete terms, this meant that industrial sites, but also worker’s housing and the urban structures from the industrial age, in many cases were preserved in order “to retain the spatial identity, to give points of orientation, and to explain the history of the region, as well as to give the next generation the opportunity to interpret their heritage for themselves” (Ganser,2 qut. in Raines 195).
16 According to this principle, industrial sites were re-invented as sites of cultural activity, as parks, museums and event centers: the International Architecture Exhibition, so to say, “saw a million opportunities in the ruins of industry—in fact, it wished to dance on its grave” (Raines 200). Many projects in the context worked with a paradigm that is best described as metamorphosis without destruction (Barndt 272), and points to the layered histories of the region. As the Ruhr came to terms with the fact that land was no longer needed for industry or new investment, nature can take back what the factories and smokestacks once took, leading to, for example a coking plant turning into what Raines has described as “garden of abandonment” (198) that is open to visitors free of charge year round, the Landscape Park Duisburg-North. The creation of “playgrounds” in formerly inaccessible facilities has established a new relationship between the people and the (post-industrial) landscape, and offers a platform for identification and for thinking about the past, present and future of these places.
Landscape Park Duisburg-North
17Certainly, the Architecture Exhibition’s attempts to redevelop the region had its flaws: It did not create the new jobs it promised, for example. Also, even though one goal of the project was to achieve an increased democratization of the planning process itself, this does not mean that all voices were heard on equal terms—when exploring the preserved sites (including their museum sections) today, one will have to search far and wide until one encounters the voice of a migrant—in a region shaped by different waves of migration throughout 150 years. The same is true for women: the narratives surrounding these sites mainly focus on male white industrial workers’ voices. On the bright side, the grand achievement of the IBA was that it gave the region something to identify by and with: it contributed to a regional identity which built on local/ regional specificity (albeit with a dominant focus on some groups and not others) and the Ruhr’s unique urbanity (sometimes referred to as Ruhr-banity in more recent projects). In the Ruhr of the 1980s and 1990s, several factors combined that led to this achievement: The emerging cooperation between the 53 cities in the region, the fact that state support was available, and the ability to connect to grassroots movements going on in the population at this time: In the case of Duisburg’s Landscape Park, for example, citizens from the area stopped the demolition of the industrial plant and strongly supported the installation of a new type of park. Nevertheless, while the process of preservation developed very well in many sites, preserving this high a density of (post-)industrial markers—literally, hundreds of sites—may have led the Ruhr to a romanticization of its industrial past, and smokestack nostalgia; an idealization of the past that makes it hard to move on to a different future.
18 While the Ruhr hosted the International Architecture Exhibition, Detroit chose a different route. This does not mean that people do not reflect about Detroit’s past: They spend “a good deal of time remembering and writing about its past in local newspapers and magazines; this is a great place for nostalgia,” but the city is not a place “that the majority of metropolitan residents feel good about visiting” (Herron, “Postmodernism” 66). While the automotive production landscape had a strong presence in Detroit’s neighborhoods, the preservationist imperative was not as strong as in the Ruhr. As Brent D. Ryan and Daniel Campo have shown, “since the 1980s, Detroit’s historic building stock of automotive manufacturing facilities has mostly disappeared” (95). Thus, the sites of industrial production were mostly either demolished and/or possibly replaced with “vacant lots, surface parking, office parks and fortress-like industrial complexes” (127), or just left to themselves. The remains of structures like the Packard Plant, the world’s largest abandoned factory, for example, have gained world fame. Every few weeks, an idea for its re-development will pop up on the internet, but its ultimate chances of re-use are unclear.
Packard Plant, Detroit
19Certainly, there is a variety of reasons for not taking action and preserving the industrial heritage as it was done in the Ruhr. One is that is that in Europe, quite simply put, public money was made available at the time in order to ease the effects of the transformation to the post-industrial age. Another is that Europe has a tradition of “industrial culture” and preservation that does not have as many ardent supporters in the United States. A third is the ownership structure: A comprehensive public redevelopment of multiple former plants, comparative to the Ruhr’s “route of industrial culture” would mean that these would have to be publicly owned to begin with. This is usually not the case with such facilities in Detroit. The fact that preservation did not occur in a concerted effort is certainly also related to the idea that new investors would rather like to buy up large portions of free land than a set of partly redeveloped parcels: For the longest time, Detroit’s future was to remain industrial—today, industrial ruins oftentimes attract tourists and others to the city. These outsiders who admire and celebrate the “ruins,” also in the form of photographs, often do not take into account that the daily experience of Detroit is radically different: The abandoned structures are oftentimes understood to be painful reminders of the past—and of a future that never came.
20 In Detroit, additionally, a number of site-specific factors come into play: the fall of industrial production coincided with race rebellions and the following “white flight” to the suburbs. This makes regional approaches rather difficult, as the suburbs define themselves versus the city of Detroit. Even within the city of Detroit, the past is decidedly more openly contested; it is the root of distrust between different groups who have a history with the city: “If whites remember a city of sturdy working-class neighborhoods, ethnic festivals, and steady work in the auto plants, black Detroiters remember a very different place. For the 85 percent of the current population that is black, old Detroit was a city of bitter housing segregation, white neighborhood protection associations, and racist mayors” (Eisinger 89). As an almost singular example within the city of Detroit, the Heidelberg Project captures this ambivalence and—albeit in a disturbing manner—establishes some sort of continuity between past and present story (Sheridan). The Heidelberg Project, with its layers, and layers and yet more layers of history, “visually captures the story of a residential community coming undone” (Walters 64), creating something that is inclusive of multiple stories and that tries to capture the ongoing transformation of Detroit, all the while posing critical questions about the future of the city, the meaning of poverty in a throw-away society, and the role of art in abandoned spaces.
Heidelberg Project, Detroit
21 In the United States, where the incentive is to look toward the future instead of dwelling on the past, and specifically in Detroit, where this future has been and was going to be fabricated, the recognition that the expected version of the future did not arrive is specifically hard to handle. In his article “Detroit: Disaster Deferred, Disaster in Progress,” Jerry Herron describes how the industrial city of Detroit has been based on the creation of sameness: During the industrial age, Ford’s initiation tactics focused on the assimilation of recent immigrants to the city, and on the claim that the only history that matters is the history of today. The city itself, with its importance for the creation of standardized mass culture “becomes an assembly line of forgetting machines” (676). Herron goes on to explain that in the process of de-industrialization and abandonment, “(t)he city becomes a junkyard of no-longer-relevant forgetting machines—the department store and the old hotels, the great downtown office buildings and the train stain, the old neighborhoods and public parks. The ‘problem’, then is getting over the memory of things that once were necessary, which stand now for the way we were, not for the way we aspire to be” (676). To re-connect with this heritage would mean having to deal with a painful past.
22 As becomes evident, different strategies of dealing with the industrial past are a result not only of different investment strategies, but also of different narrative processes and stories about the meaning of the past for the present. In fact, the investment strategies may be the result of stories: Had people in the Ruhr not opted for the preservation of the Duisburg steel plant, which they considered vital for their city’s identity, efforts at preservation may have been much more difficult. This is in no way to say that one strategy is “better” than another, but rather, it helps explain why situations that may seem rather similar to the outsider can lead to very different outcomes. Projects that have proven sustainable appear to be those that can easily “attach” themselves to ongoing narratives, thus, those that are locally specific and inclusive of existing stories. This also makes a lot of sense, since such projects remain read-able in their original context.
23It seems all the more surprising, then, that more recent approaches to dealing with the industrial heritage of the Ruhr region and Detroit in the 2000s are more similar to each other than they used to be. In his article “Reimagining Detroit” (2003), Peter Eisinger has pointed out that when political or financial leaders speak of the “rebirth” of Detroit in the 2000s, they not only reject the complex racial legacies that are part and parcel of the city, but that indeed “they are reimagining a new city, guided by three different templates: Detroit as a world class city, Detroit as a tourist destination, and Detroit as the vital center of a prosperous metropolitan area” (85). In recent years, similar templates have become more and more prominent in the public discussion about what is to happen in the Ruhr.
24 This is certainly also a result of narratives about excess spaces and abandoned sites that have emerged in de-industrializing regions: Due to the rather prominent discourse of the “creative city” since the late 1990s, an immediate connection is made between “creativity” and urban development. In post-industrial cities, where new job perspectives are desperately needed, such discourse is especially prominent. In theory, the post-industrial city becomes a new type of frontier where the new settlers find ideal conditions for artistic and other creative practice: Space is available and, most importantly, affordable. Thus, a narrative connection is produced between abandoned industrial and other facilities, and artistic production as the new engine for development. These concepts go hand in hand with the proposition that post-industrial cities are similar to an “empty canvas” (or a wilderness) that can be cleared of its legacy and inscription, and on which newcomers can leave their mark, as there is supposedly no obligation to deal with either the past, or with the native population.
25 This narrative is not only an oversimplification. It can also potentially become a threat to the local population that is no longer visible in this narrative. Of course, one can ask if a debate about whether gentrification is happening in shrinking cities in desperate need of inhabitants and tax-payers even makes any sense, but at the same time the sense of displacement that becomes evident in the story of the “creative class” needs to be taken seriously (Elliott). Instead of actively establishing a continuity between past and present, these newer projects are carefully curated and accumulate “placeless, meaningless, and cultureless” (Raines 201) landscapes producing a linearity that is not part and parcel of the original narrative or of post-industrial urbanity at large, an urbanity marked by multi-layeredness and intense contradictions.
26These new developments, that cannot only be seen in the Ruhr or Detroit, but everywhere around the globe, are usually steered by outside actors and work with powerful slogans of “reinvention” and “creative cities” being built for a newly emerging “creative class.” This “creative class” can be defined as a group of knowledge workers (usually white) coming to these post-industrial cities in order to begin, finally, a process of economic uplift that the current, local population cannot achieve. With regard to the Ruhr, this development has very recently been described as a shift from “industrial culture to cultural industry.” These newcomers are supposed to bring capital—economic and cultural—to post-industrial regions and to provide new hope. Since the idea to rebuild the “old Detroit” has been rejected by the citizens themselves (Eisinger 90), it is somewhat understandable that such a narrative could gain momentum in Detroit; it is quite astonishing to see the same kind of development in the Ruhr.
27This development, that threatens the resilience and sustainability of grown communities, points to the pressure to put oneself on the “map” in the global competition for the best minds and highest funding, but also to larger trends in contemporary city building in which a highly idealized present and future of post-industrial spaces is projected in the context of booster campaigns which political leaders tend to want for outsiders— possible investors or future residents—to see (Eisinger 93). This means that at a time when affordable housing solutions are needed (e.g. due to the lack of jobs), luxury condominiums are constructed to stimulate positive development. Recently, for example, the replacement of a steel plant with a lake including luxury housing along the shore has provoked a lot of discussion in Dortmund, another Ruhr city being faced with difficulties to retain its tax-base: Who was going to be living there, in a city with 13% unemployment? According to Thomas Pedroni, “neoliberal urbanism involves a process of creative destruction that remakes the city physically and discursively. In the process, a different kind of city emerges—a city imagined by someone else, and not for the people who remain there” (206). The new construction, as McGraw evaluates for Detroit, changes the outlook of the city, but in the long run, such success stories do not overcome, but rather mask the overall decline happening in these places (291). The developments threaten to create a “tale of two cities” with a prosperous and a poor and neglected part—in the case of the lake in a city that prides itself in its strong social-democratic tradition. The environment that is newly created in these areas is sterile and not locally specific—rather, it looks like anywhere else. The new facilities form an enclave within the overall context of the post-industrial city: Stories about new opportunities emerging out of the rubble in these places stand right next to stories of despair, never ending loss and decay, creating new spatial unevenness and new borders between people living in the same city.
28Certainly, there are counter-initiatives in the Ruhr and in Detroit. Neighborhood involvement groups that are locally organized and financed, and informal artistic activity around such places as the Packard Plant and the iconic Michigan Central Station should be mentioned as well as research-based projects that try to build on and extend the long-term legacy of what the International Architecture Exhibition has done in the Ruhr: With an increasing focus on cultural pluralism and looking toward comparative urbanism to contest the powerful discourse of the “creative” imperative. At the same time, these projects are oftentimes not where the funding goes because they go beyond the established schemes, and they are not as “glamorous” as luxury housing. But they focus on people who have made these cities their homes. This is important, and this counters the threat behind the story of the “new frontier:” That the supposed frontier-space is treated as an empty arena instead of a landscape full of stories that are already there.
29While much more could be said about how the places discussed here –Germany’s Ruhr and Detroit, Michigan– deal with their industrial legacies spatially, my article has hopefully shown that the role of storytelling in creating sustainable communities for the future cannot and should not be underestimated. While certainly, in a “global” age, global developments play into local affairs, urban sustainability is first and foremost to be thought on the local level, thus, taking into account the different historical legacies and layers a place might offer. Urban planning and American Studies can work together in uncovering some of the hidden layers these sites have to offer and contribute to a more inclusive vision of a sustainable post-industrial city.