Reto Ultra Wide and Slim, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200, 2023

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.

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14 responses to “The decay and renewal cycle of the city”

  1. DougD Avatar

    Very interesting, I went to look at the neighborhood but Krefeld hasn’t been mapped on Streetview. Too bad the area is in decline, did you ask any locals about it?

    Our friends in South Bend live in the Harters Heights area, and that’s a very sketchy area that’s turning around. They have a brand new house and an old brick street, that’s a pretty cool combination.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, I gather that a lot of Germany isn’t on Street View because of their high desire for privacy. I didn’t go back to the neighborhood I lived in; maybe the neighborhoods are as they were.

      I know that part of town. A long time ago I had a job at a state mental-health facility at Angela and Notre Dame Ave., right on the edge of that area. South Bend still has a lot of brick streets and they are the rumbliest to drive on I’ve ever experienced.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Way too much to go into about the center city urban decay that’s pretty common across the country. Huge studies have been done outlining all the reasons, and can be found all over the internet. I can tell you the last retail department store I worked at had their corporate offices in the downtown store complex, and the city was begging us and giving us huge tax breaks to remain downtown, which they did until they eventually went bankrupt eighteen years after I left there. Their downtown stores in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Peoria, and Chicago, all lost money, and were kept open only because of sweetheart tax deals with the respective cities. Even people that worked downtown would use the stores for “show-rooming”, and then actually make the purchases in the store near where they lived in the suburbs.

    During the late eighties, and into today, there is a lot of wishful thinking about converting empty nesters to urban livers. Sell that suburban mansion, and get a condo in downtown for your waning years. Well guess what? There’s zero goods and services downtown, if there are grocery stores and variety stores, they’re selling goods at a far higher rates than the ‘burbs, and there’s a lot higher crime rate. Want to go to a funky bar? Not downtown, just hotel and tourist bars. I knew a person whose dream was to live in a high rise in downtown Chicago. He finally made it and was out of there in two years. Nothing there, no funky coffee shops to hang in, no hipster boutiques, can’t go to the museum every week, the shows don’t change fast enough. He now lives in a suburban downtown adjacent area of a ring suburb, with way more walkable features. Over the last twenty years, it’s been tracked that people that move into downtowns are usually out of there fairly quickly!

    “Malling” a street? Almost universally a disaster whenever and wherever it’s done! So many stories of malling streets in America over the last 30 years, that then had to be “unmalled”, I don’t even know why this is a thing anymore? They’re even talking about it in the city I live in now, for an East side entertainment district street where they’ve had bad driving accidents and crime. No one seems to realize it’s not a solution for poor policing and imbecilic sociological sub groups. Oi! Whattaworld!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Post pandemic they’re finding that even the hip millennials and Gen Zers are preferring the suburbs.

      1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        Hip and sophisticated recent college graduates like the city. But once they get married and have children, they typically gravitate to the norms where they grew up, meaning a suburban house with lawn. Also, in much of the USA, the racial factor raises its ugly head once it is time consider schools and neighborhoods.

        1. Andy Umbo Avatar
          Andy Umbo

          Areas of the city have features that the hip and sophisticated like, especially areas near city colleges, and the classic old wealth districts that still exist, but as per the entry above, in most cities they do not exist downtown. Having been born and raised in Chicago, I can tell you if you’ve ever been downtown almost anywhere, on a Sunday, it’s a dead zone! Most restaurants and retail outlets that might be there to service weekday business people aren’t even open, or have limited Saturday hours and maybe no Sunday hours. The type of retail food stores and places like Target, were not planned at the same time developers thought they were going to cash in by converting business offices to expensive condos. Most people still have to get into a car and drive to the suburbs and shop for reasonably priced quality food.

          Race, per se, isn’t a factor, as much as education and family background and breeding. Race is an all too easy and many times incorrect identifier to describe a certain level of behavior that is more a product of education and background. If you were raised a certain way, have a certain level of education and experience, you certainly wouldn’t want your children going to free public schools with the children of criminals and illiterates who don’t think about society the way you do, and are involved in criminal activity in the school. Living in the city in most places automatically means you’ll be sending your kid to a private school and will need to cover that expense. Moving to the suburbs means in many cases, you could send your kid to a free school you’d want them to be in with the values you want them to have a daily experience seeing. Most people want to live in an area where others have similar levels of education and viewpoints of society and the world. One of the things I saw when I lived in Indianapolis was that was there was virtually zero difference in values between the poor and illiterate black inner city people where I live now and the white Appalachian poor that were much of the working class in Indiana. One of the reasons that make the white supremacist movement a joke.

          1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

            Well written. You are right. It really does come down to living with people who share similar breeding, education, and cultural norms/standards. And today in USA we have a new dividing line: red versus blue. Several real estate people told me many of their customers have moved for exactly that political division.

            1. Andy Umbo Avatar
              Andy Umbo

              K-Guy, if you ever want an interesting read (or maybe you’ve read it already), please pick up: “ White Trash, The 400 year untold history of class in America “.I read it when it first came out in 2017, and it’s been an eye-opener in terms of applying deeply researched information that props up what I’ve been seeing and experiencing for myself over the last 50 years. I’ve referred to it many times over the last 6 years. It certainly dispels the concept of the United States creation myth of being some sort of blessed country sanctified by God Almighty, and having its total creation associated with freedom of religion!

              1. Jim Grey Avatar

                That book has been in my Amazon wish list for several years. I ought to just buy it.

                1. Andy Umbo Avatar
                  Andy Umbo

                  Free Read at the Zionsville library! That’s where I got it!

  3. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    I was in South Bend back in early May, and downtown seemed pretty busy even on a Tuesday. I definitely enjoyed the visit and it was fun to recognize some things from photos here.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, there’s a “there” there now in downtown South Bend. It’s wonderful to see.

  4. J P Avatar

    This certainly goes against the stereotypes we get in the US about everything in Europe (or at least Germany) being clean and tidy. I always hate seeing things and places that have been let go.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Denmark is more like what I remember Germany to be. It’s quite something.

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