In German, Hauptbahnhof means main train station. German passenger rail is extensive and strong, and every town has a Hauptbahnhof.
This one is in the city of Krefeld, on the Rhein River in far western Germany. With roots in the velvet and silk trade, the city dates to at least 1105. Today its population is about 225,000.
This is the city in which I lived on an exchange program in 1984. I remember it as being modern and tidy. I spent most of my time in and around my host family’s home and in school, but my buddies and I rode the streetcar into the city center a lot.We stepped off right in front of this Hauptbahnhof.
I remember the city center as busy and vital, filled with shops small and large and a number of restaurants. We had no trouble finding plenty to see and do there.
My buddies and I also made a few trips by train to nearby cities, which brought us into the Hauptbahnhof. Anytime we were there it was filled with people purposefully moving toward the track that would take them away. You’d better hop to, or you’d hear the grumbles of others who had to push past you! The station wasn’t modern like the rest of the city, as it opened in 1847 and somehow avoided being significantly damaged in World War II. But like the rest of the city, it was tidy.
I have terrific memories of Krefeld and was eager to share it with my wife when we visited Germany on our recent vacation. We stepped off the train and made our way down the stairs into the station. I was disappointed to find the station coated in dark grime. The Germans have almost a fetish with cleanliness — this kind of filth is very much out of character.
We stepped out of the station into the city center and began to explore. I grew sadder and sadder as I saw the empty storefronts. The kebab joints on most corners reminded me of the “u buy we fry” fish joints in some inner-city neighborhoods where I live. There was debris on the sidewalks and dirt in the corners. This wasn’t the Krefeld I remembered.
A lot can change in any city after 40 years. My mom grew up in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1950s. She described a busy, colorful, and vital downtown full of shops and people. Period postcards and other photographs corroborate her story. Downtown South Bend was beautiful and active.
I never knew that downtown. By the time I was old enough to notice in the mid-to-late 1970s, downtown had declined heavily. Lots of buildings had been torn down and replaced with dirt lots. Many stores had failed or fled to the suburban shopping malls; the shops that remained were a shadow of their former selves. The city tried to remedy it by closing the main street through town and building what they called an outdoor pedestrian mall. But it took a great deal of parking away, which had the unintended effect of pushing people away. By the time I left for Krefeld in 1984, the place was a ghost town, except for the loitering homeless.
An exchange student in South Bend in 1950 would certainly have been just as disappointed with the South Bend of 1984 as this 1984 exchange student in Krefeld was disappointed with Krefeld in 2023.
While South Bend’s glory days are never coming back, downtown is a much better place today than it was in 1984. The main street was reopened to traffic in the 1990s, and little by little downtown became a destination for dining and entertainment. It’s rather fun to be in downtown South Bend on a Friday or Saturday evening now.
I hope that the same can happen for Krefeld’s city center.