Duisburg – a city in transformation by Lisa Zwicker

Here in Duisburg Germany to do research at the Gidal images archive in the Ludwig Salomon Steinheim Institute, I am met at every turn with the message that Duisburg is in transformation.

Even hair salons have gotten on the bandwagon.


“Structural Change: Your Hairdresser in Duisburg”

Trash cans spread the message:


“Duisburg, we await your contribution.”

Like the upper-midwest, Duisburg faces the challenges of moving beyond the production of industrial materials. Situated near the Rhein and Ruhr rivers, Duisburg grew in the nineteenth century to become one of the largest steel and coal producers in Europe. Because of its connections to waterways, Duisburg also became important for milling and processing grain. As the “Second Industrial Revolution” of chemicals and electricity gained momentum, Duisburg had a leading role. IMG_4045 The importance of Duisburg as an industrial center (see left for the chemical factory Matthes and Weber) meant that during World War II the Allies rained more bombs down on Duisburg than any other city in Germany. Duisburg revived in the 1950s and 1960s and returned to its global role of steel, iron, and coal production. At that time, Germany dearly needed those goods to rebuild. In the 21st century, as in the US, the growing parts of the German economy focus on high tech and services as opposed to creating or exporting raw materials. Now, Duisburg, like the US upper mid-west rust belt, faces the challenges that come with the loss of industry and loss of jobs. In Germany traditions of reform from above and solidarity have lead to large building projects. The inner harbor, subject of the photo above, has now become a cultural center with a walking path that meanders by a children’s museum, a Duisburg history museum, the city archive, parks, and new apartment buildings. In the image above, the waves in the red city archives echo the water of the inner harbor, and the cranes out front recall Duisburg’s industrial past. The beautiful Duisburg Landscape Park represents the largest of these projects. Built by architect Peter Latz, the park reuses what had been a polluted industrial wasteland. It incorporates elements from the previous chemical and coal production facilities, but has made this area into a park now safe for recreation for all. A set of interlocking climbing walls with different levels of difficulty replaced stone storage structures for coal. Here lavender grows in orderly rows and its scent wafts up to the walking path above IMG_4189 This park attracts tourists from across Europe. The other efforts — the museums, restaurants, and new developments — seem to have had less success so far, at least as far as the foot traffic on this albeit rainy and cold early summer week would suggest. Duisburger leaders and boosters argue that Duisburg has already lived through a number of transitions in the past:
* from a thriving medieval city until the path of the Rhine river was shifted, a change which led to a concentration on handicrafts
* a rapid transition to an industrial economy in the nineteenth century, which destroyed the livelihoods of many small artisans Will the immense investments in new cultural institutions and transforming city spaces pay off in economic development?

The city leaders’ campaign “Duisburg in transformation” does not suggest an endpoint, perhaps, a smart move considering how quickly economies move and change. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the fruits of these efforts, the beautiful museums, the new developments, and most of all the gorgeous parks.

Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker is Associate Professor of History and Director of International Programs at Indiana University, South Bend. She specializes in German history and spent time in Duisburg in 2015 as part of a research trip that focuses on turn-of-the-century Jewish women in German speaking Central Europe. In Duisburg she worked at the Gidal images archive at the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim institute.

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