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How the industrial Ruhr Valley became a Cultural Capital

Long known for its coal mines and steel mills, Essen and the Ruhr have transformed themselves.

ESSEN, Germany — Before the age of globalization rudely consigned its identity to the trash heap, Germany's Ruhr Valley was Germany's industrial heartland, synonymous with coal mines, steel mills and a proud blue-collar work force. When global trade marginalized the region's production, and its labor unions more often found themselves on the dole than on the night shift, the Ruhr's problems were more than economic — they were existential.

Fortunately, the inherited wisdom of generations of coal miners has taught Ruhr natives the power of resilience. Rather than indulge in despair, the Ruhr region has forged from its industrial ruins a new, more sustainable, if unlikely, economic foundation, one that has more to do with theater and art than coal and steel.

A transformation that once earned scoffs has gradually been gaining more attention and praise, culminating in the recent decision by the European Union to designate the entire Ruhr region as one of Europe's official Cultural Capitals for the year 2010. The 53 cities and towns of the region will have 12 months to showcase their new identity to the rest of the continent.

One of the centerpieces of that effort will be the Zollverein coal mining complex in the city of Essen. After the mine was closed some three decades ago, the Zollverein could have been abandoned as a relic of the industrial age and of the Ruhr Valley's heyday. Instead, the area has adapted to new circumstances, serving as a multi-purpose space for residents of Essen and tourists from out of town. Today, visitors come not only to admire the monumental Bauhaus-style architecture of the mining complex, but to visit the design museum newly housed in the former boiler house, or to ice skate on the outdoor channels of the old coking plant.

The newest highlight of the Zollverein is the Ruhr Valley Museum. Under a master plan by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, visitors enter the museum by way of a 79-foot-long escalator — flanked by orange lights that evoke the molten metal the region once produced in abundance — that ascends to the top floor of the Zollverein's former coal-washing plant. The museum doesn't only indulge in nostalgia for the region's role in Germany's industrial revolution, but recounts its forgotten early history, as well as its troubled present, incorporating the industrial setting into a mostly nostalgia-free account of the Ruhr valley. The exhibition explains how heavy industry played a role in the region's environmental degradation, how prolonged exposure to coal dust and sulfur gas cut short workers' lives and damaged their lungs, and how the region was punished for supplying Germany's armaments during the first and second world wars.

Best of all, the museum offers not only information about the culture of the Ruhr Valley, but also provides exposure to it. The museum is staffed, to a large extent, by residents of housing projects in local neighborhoods — the very people who in decades past would have worked the mines. The security guards confirm the museum's description of the Ruhr blue-collar worker as a breed apart — open, confident, proud, pragmatic. The guards initiate conversations with visitors to add context to the exhibition, correct mistakes or append footnotes. One museum worker didn't hesitate to interrupt a tour group to discuss a safety hazard he had just noticed on the path they were walking on. Their faces might not be blackened by soot at the end of the day, and women may have finally joined their ranks, but the idiom and attitude of the Ruhr Valley worker have manifestly survived to the present day.