Wednesday Music Blogging: Michael Kiwanuka

Stolen from Obscene Desserts.

 I like the video -- it reminds me of switching on the bulky RCA in the living room of my parents' Houston home and watching the 'life in the city' scene-setting montage before some 1970s urban spy thriller or social-justice drama. Male lead: James Caan, Ben Gazzara, or Gene Hackman; female lead: Cicely Tyson, Jill Clayburgh, or Diane Keaton.

Back then, sitting in a large air-conditioned home protected from the asphalt-melting subtropical heat outside, I always wondered at these real cities, where people gathered together outside in spaces designed for large groups and then swapped stories, sat at cafe tables drinking coffee, listened to music, or browsed secondhand shops. Did they really exist? Would I ever actually get to live in one? Would I like it?

The answers to these questions were 'yes', 'yes' and 'yes', although I didn't know it at the time.

Your Liver May Shut Down, But Our Buses Won't

Here's one of the supremely eerie ads for late-night buses that's recently been posted all over my neighborhood. The slogan says it's for Night Owls (Nachteulen):

Jaundice Babes

Apparently by "night owl" they mean cute coeds with acute jaundice caused by liver dysfunction.

If I ever see these girls in real life, I will never touch another drop of alcohol.

Hoisted from Comments: Dieter Wieland

Gaststaette with Lueftlmalerei

I'm going to outsource today's post to occasional GJ commenter Noribori, who favored us with a fascinating cultural reference in a recent comment:

A German equivalent of Kunstler might be Dieter Wieland. Born 1937, he started a series of films in 1972, called "Topographie", broadcasted from BR (Bavarian Broadcast). More than 250 of his films were broadcasted since, some of them often rebroadcasted. Like "Grün kaputt", which bemoaned the demolition of the Bavarian landscape by land consolidation (Flurbereinigung) and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Other themes were the replacement of traditional structures (hedges, fences, doors, windows, roofs, backyards) with ugly and cheap counterparts from home improvement stores, the complete subordination of a livable environment under the requirements of modern car traffic, the wrong tone and escapism of pseudo-bavarian architecture (Der Jodlerstil). He pioneered these themes before the Green Party or official preservation agencies even existed.

The style of his films was extraordinary, these were rare highlights of Bavarian television, and he became widely recognized. Most remarkable was his voice and his language. He created unforgetable expressions, declaimed in an often acrimonious, mournful, bitter tone. Many people don't know his name, but when you mention expressions like "Krüppelkoniferen", "Lederhosenarchitektur" or "Triumph des rechten Winkels" they remember having seen his unforgetable films decades ago.

His themes are widely accepted now, he was even decorated with a medal by his "enemy" Edmund Stoiber. But he still insists we are making the same mistakes again and again. When the wall went down, there would have been an opportunity to try better landscape and town planning. Instead the same suburban belts (Speckgürtel) as in West Germany were built around the eastern cities, areas (dominated by one-family houses) which are neither urban nor rural.

His highly recommendable book "Grün kaputt" is only available second-hand now. His films are neither available on DVD nor on the Internet, you may only find them distributed by friendly people who recorded them from TV. Sometimes some of his films are rebroadcasted.

Let me join anonymous in thanking Noribori for this knowledge, especially the fantastic Wielandisms like Krüppelkoniferen. Anyone know where to find some of Wieland's videos or films?

Population Shifts in the East

Clay Risen continues his series of reports from Germany (which appear in different outlets) with this guardedly optimistic take on East Germany's economy:

The east isn’t lagging so much as diversifying, with some areas nearly even with the west and others dropping far behind. Like the American Midwest, rural regions are hurting, but urban centers are bustling. In eastern Germany’s southern and western states, economic output is nearly at parity with parts of the west, thanks to massive federal spending in the 1990s and a wave of private investment, mainly in high-tech sectors, over the last decade. “You have extreme contrasts,” says Michael Burda, an American-born economist at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “Eastern Germany is in a medium-term position to overtake the West in some sectors”—including solar- and wind-power technology, health care, and nanotechnology.

According to Burda, instead of an east-west divide, Germany is reverting to its centuries-old norm: A north-south split, in which rural Baltic states like Schleswig-Holstein in the west and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the east lag behind southern economic powerhouses like Bayern and Sachsen. “It was easier for states like Sachsen and Thüringen to redevelop because they were traditionally industrial areas,” says Thomas Fabian, an economist with Germany Trade and Invest, a Berlin-based trade group. “Now we have well-developed places in the east and places in the west with problems.” In other words, the fears that eastern Germany would turn into a Teutonic version of Italy’s Mezzogiorno, condemned to weak growth and high unemployment, have been greatly exaggerated. Reunified Germany, long feared to be the “sick man of Europe” and a possible breeding ground for economic and social instability, is actually pretty normal.


[E]astern Germany’s skeptics and boosters alike see a similar future, one in which a few metropolitan areas—Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt (Oder), Leipzig-Halle—reach parity with the West, while vast rural stretches continue to depopulate. That’s not the ideal envisioned by Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Bonn government in the early 1990s, but maybe that’s not such a problem. “If people wish to move to West Germany, let them,” says Uhlig. “East Germany may become a nature paradise with a few vibrant cities, and I do not see why that would be a bad outcome.”

As these excerpts show, buried in Risen's piece about East Germany's economy is a piece about shifting settlement and population patterns in the East. The young and talented are leaving, but they're generally leaving the drab, one-purpose manufacturing settlements or the smaller towns. The big cities aren't doing all that badly. You get a sense something's brewing there, and property values have started to rise.

The other places are, of course, shrinking. This leads to the question: how do you actually manage a shrinking city? Some East German towns are trying innovative new approaches (g), such as clearing away former housing and declaring it a nature preserve, or re-tooling the city to one particular kind of tourism. One of the pretty remarkable things about Western Germany is its unusually dispersed population: the density of settlement around the entire country is remarkably consistent, and there are no 'mega-cities' in the international sense. This is not necessarily the case in other European countries. The former East Germany may just be transforming into something that looks like those other places. Given that there doesn't seem to be much a way of stopping the process, it seems like the best thing to do is manage it well.

Concentrated Krautness

Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation of the USA, on what he'd like to see happen there (via):

Q: You talk a lot about livable communities. How would you describe one?

A: It’s a community where if people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one. A community where you can walk to work, your doctor’s appointment, pharmacy or grocery store. Or you could take light rail, a bus or ride a bike.

Good on you, LaHood. But achieving that in the U.S. is gonna take zillions of dollars and massive upheaval. My advice: avoid the muss and fuss and just move to Germany! I've got my doctor, 5 pharmacies, 6 grocery stores, 3 video-rental places, 4 bookstores, 2 shopping malls (meh), about 15 restaurants, 3 parks, and 3 bordellos within a kilometer of my house (that's about half a mile, for those using Godly units of measurement). Only drawback is that work is 1.9 kilometers away, which forces me to undertake a grueling 10-minute bicycle ride there and back. Every day.

Reclamation of A Trade Park

Witzelstr. 55 is the address of a mixed commercial and industrial trade area in the middle of Duesseldorf that was entirely abandoned in mid-2002.

Since then, lots of interesting things have been going on there. I'm working on a more ambitious project, but until then, here is a slideshow of images taken in October 2007, April 2008, and August of 2009. However, I recommend that instead of watching this glorious decay through a little window, you follow the link below to my Picasa photo album, and run a full-screen slideshow.


America for the Americans, Europe for the Europeans


Bryan Caplan on what American and European tourists get wrong:

Where American tourists go wrong:

1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are by far the best places to live.  Most people in Europe don't live in these areas, and can't afford to.

2. Most of the Europeans who are lucky enough to live in the premiere cities can't afford to frequently eat in the nice restaurants that delight foreign visitors.

3.  "Efficient public transportation" and bicycles may seem great to a tourist who eats in restaurants.  They're not so great if you're a local who needs to get groceries home to make dinner.  In bad weather, subways and bikes are downright awful.

Where European tourists go wrong:

1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. - especially New York City and San Francisco.  Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it's natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.

2. However, very few Americans live in such cities - even if they can easily afford to.  Why not?  Because the natural habitat of the American - including most affluent Americans - is the suburb.

It's easy to see why tourists don't go to the suburbs, because they're places to live and work, not places to see.  But almost no one in Europe lives in places as comfortable and convenient as American suburbs: The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby, and (to quote South Park) there's "ample parking day or night."  Europeans can learn a lot more about the American psyche with a visit to a random CostCo than a visit to the Guggenheim.


Europe is a better place for most people to visit.  But America is a better place for most people to live.

Consider this a riposte to Don Alphonso's dyspeptic mutterings (g). You might be expecting me to take issue with Caplan's points, but my response is mixed. (Caplan, by the way, defends himself against accusations of 'USA #1' jingoism in the post, and I believe him).

My preferences are clear: I've lived in the American suburbs and in European cities, and I prefer the latter. By a mile. But what Caplan is missing is the cultural preferences of Americans and Europeans. American suburbs might well be a better place for Americans to live, but transplant Europeans there, and many of them will be miserable, despite all that comfort and convenience. I am sometimes asked to consult with Europeans who are being relocated to places like Houston, Texas. I can usually tell within about 5 minutes whether that person's likely to adjust successfully to life in the American suburbs. Engineers and computer programmers and the like have no problems; in fact, they'll often beg to be allowed to stay. Nothing like having your own gigantic, cheap house, as many power tools as you want, and your own private pool whose chemicals you can adjust to your heart's content. Plus, Americans are task-oriented, unstuffy workers who are easy to deal with. Sure, there is less of a social safety net in the U.S., but these people don't care too much about that, since they have valuable job skills and will always get good benefits from their employers.

For Europeans of a less practical bent, though, the American suburbs are sterile, dull places. There are no cafes, no street life, no festivals just around the corner, no neighborhood bars, no beautifully-landscaped parks, no arthouse cinemas within walking distance -- in fact, no walking at all worthy of the name. In the vast stretches of America which are located in sub-tropical or desert climates, you will live 7 or 8 months of the year going from one sealed cubicle filled with artificial air to the next. The general cultural level of suburban Americans will strike these Europeans as desperately low. They are unlikely to meet very many people who have been well-traveled, know how to prepare a proper salad, or know the difference between a symphony and a concerto. (I remember an anecdote about Philippe de Montebello, once Director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, who said one of the things that irritated him about working there was all the museum visitors who put their cigarettes out in what was clearly a piece of modern sculpture right outside the front entrance.) Needless to say, these Europeans will regard the committee-produced gooey, salty offerings of American 'chain restaurants' as unfit for consumption by goats, much less humans. They will not perceive the suburbs as comfortable and convenient because maximizing comfort and convenience has never been a part of their world-view.

The same thing goes for Americans who live in Europe. No doubt most Americans would find much to object to in living in a Plattenbausiedlung (public-housing project) in Rostock or in a Parisian banlieue. But that's not where most of them are going to end up. As to how they see European cities -- once again, a lot depends on temperament. A highly practical American who values "comfort and convenience" above all is going to find those things in short supply in most European cities. You'll find these people bitching and moaning -- usually in English -- at various Irish bars. But then again, many Americans who relocate to Europe do so voluntarily, precisely because it's Europe. They want the safe, lively parks and neighborhoods, the 120-year-old cafes, the Gothic cathedrals, restaurants which reflect the chef's personality and no-one else's, the fine regional orchestras, art-house cinemas and the gleaming, sophisticated museums. To them, not having to own a car is a kind of liberation.

However, cultures being what they are, most Americans are going to be happier in America, since they've absorbed American priorities and attitudes, and the same goes for Europeans. In fact, the very idea of measuring quality of life primarily by 'comfort and convenience' will seem -- to many non-Americans -- hopelessly American. Once you take into account these limitations, it's difficult to make any sort of meaningful cross-cultural comparisons.

My Husband Was Torn Apart by a Frenzied Mob!!


Eija-Riitta Eklöf Berliner-Mauer's* moving tribute to her...uh, 'late' husband:

"We have been together now for many years, spiritually if not physically. Like every married couple, we have our ups and downs. We even made it through the terrible disaster of November 9, 1989, when my husband was subjected to frenzied attacks by a mob.

But we are still as much in love as the day we first met. We may not have a conventional marriage, but neither of us cares much for conventions. Ours is a story of two beings in love, our souls entwined for all eternity."

Yesterday, I heard a fascinating interview (g) with  Eklöf Berliner-Mauer on my public radio station. Strongly recommended!

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The Adorno Industrial Zone and Mysterious Canal Technology

Over the weekend I  mounted Heinrich, my trusty vsf fahrradmanufaktur (g) bicycle, fired up my legs, and rode to the Altenberger Dom (g), a Gothic cathedral located in the Bergisches Land area just east of Cologne.

My route took me through beautiful downtown Leverkusen, where I had the pleasure not only of riding on Karl Marx Street,

Public Transportation = Socialism

but also of turning from the Heinrich-Lübke Street (almost) directly into the Theodor Adorno Strasse.* The Adorno Strasse, it turns out, is home to an industrial park:

Did he show up to cut the ribbon?

I hope the Aldi has a large section of discount Frankfurt School publications, right next to the bodice-rippers.

Leverkusen, like a lot of places in Germany that are supposed to be rather grim, turns out to be cross-hatched with pleasant and well-designed green spaces that help to soften the impact of the ugly subsidized-housing high-rises:

Apartment High-Rise Above Field

Nevertheless, there were still some regrettable sights near the soccer stadium (where regrettable sights tend to congregate):

Fear Centor, Overlord of Gamma Quadrant!

But let's concentrate on the nice, leafy parts of Leverkusen, like the Green Path. It's as green as it claims, although like most nature spots near urban areas, you'll see evidence of urban infrastructure -- sewage manholes, groundwater measurement devices, discreet exhaust vents, etc. -- if you look closely enough. (All that lush greenery requires behind-the-scenes attention from the Deputy Assistant for Maintenance to the Southeast Leverkusen Regional Superintendent for Green Spaces.) It's sort of like being in a convincing life-size diorama of nature.

Usually, it's not hard to figure out what these discreet chunks of metal and concrete are for. Sometimes, they even have discreet plaques (g) explaining exactly what they're for. But this piece of ditch technology puzzled me:

Touch the wires and you'

What is it for? It looks like it does something -- perhaps something noisy -- but what? Any help would be appreciated.

Below the fold you'll find pretty pictures of the old church, if you're interested.

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