I was by myself in the drizzling rain in front of Hamburg’s state house eating a döner kabab for dinner. The people watching was supreme. Just about as good as it gets. The World Wildlife Foundation had a fundraiser for panda’s. They had about 1,600 plastic terrier sized panda bears strewn all across the plaza. They were selling them in order to raise money for conservation. I saw couples awkwardly taking pictures of each other, but in order to get the whole state house in the picture frame, you would need to back up about 20 yards. So I’d see men or women just standing there with a half-smile, awkardly shifting their weight from one leg to the other, while the other would back up and take a shot. Then they’d switch. That happened about eight times. It was magic. There were some asian solo travelers who would creep around, scanning to make sure nobody was looking and flick off a Ben-Bruce style selfie (peace sign included, though).
The clock struck 7pm.
I had one of those google map moments in my head where I zoomed out from where I was sitting to see the cityscape of Hamburg, then Europe, then roll across the Atlantic to Maine then down onto Brunswick, then right to the Bowdoin Rugby field where the boys were kicking off at that exact moment against the University of Maine Farmington.
Saturdays with the Bowdoin Rugby Team were my fondest memories of Bowdoin. Envisioning them taking the field put shivers down my spine.
I realized how far away I was–in more ways than just geographic distance–but at the same time I felt very content to be where I was, with my kebab, and with my thoughts and an awesome gothic statehouse to engage with.
Today was a day that I felt the magic of traveling, discovering new places, popping into unknown places, and finding unexpectedly brilliant results. The magic comes from the unplanned.
I only had one full day in Hamburg, so I really wanted to learn as much as possible about what the city is doing in terms of climate adaptation and flood resiliency. I’d been told by various people in the Netherlands and by an architect back in the United States that Hamburg is on the forefront of integrating coastal defenses into urban design. I didn’t really know where to start looking, but I knew, from my experiences in the Netherlands, to walk towards the water then start looking there.
I had a faint conception of what to look for. I’d heard of elevated promenades, watertight garage doors, and a large-scale riverfront development project. Google led me towards the ‘Hafen City’ development project and signposts on the street led me to the ‘Hafen City information center.’
Hafen City is the largest development project in Europe. Hamburg is trying to revitalize the city center and replace old warehouses, factories, and dock space with a mix of offices, residential apartments, and shopping. The centerpiece of the project will include an aquarium and a big symphony orchestra concert hall.
The inner city of Hamburg has struggled since the World War II when 50% of the city was bombed and destroyed. In the 80s, 0.8% of Hamburg’s workforce lived outside of the city and commuted in. Most of the residents of the city center were on social welfare benefits. It was not a pleasant place to be.
Hamburg is located on the Elbe River, but the city has never has been integrated into the waterfront. The riverfront of the city ended with large red brick industrial warehouses that were built out of the riverbanks.
Citizens of Hamburg thought of the city limits as the warehouses, they never interacted with the river, even though the River was brought Hamburg’s economy to life in the first place. Hamburg is the second biggest port in Europe. (After Rotterdam).
The Hafen City development project extends the city beyond the thick curtain of the red brick industrial warehouses. The developers of Hafen City are charged with the project of making a new city center. How do you make a place from scratch. They seem to have very successful projects to bring art and culture to the new development. The impressive concert hall (I only saw the model) should also really help. The developers are integrating a new waterfront into the urban fabric in a way that has never been done in 150 years of Hamburg’s history.
Building in the river comes with risk, however, even though the city is miles inland from the North Sea, the Elbe River has huge tidal swings and storm surges travel up the river. The tides swing about 8m each way. The most recent floods in Hamburg were in 2007. Hafen City has built up with flood defense in mind. It is built on three different levels, and there is a public promenade up on the 1st floor, one floor above street level, so that people can move around if the water slips onto the streets. Offices have 1st flood entrances and can seal their ground floor entrances water tight to prevent damage from occurring.
What I found interesting was that the city split the cost of flood protection with the private property owners in each place. The paid for the civil engineering to build the two separate levels, while the private property owners pay for the rest of it, watertight seals and proper foundations and so on. It’s a project that can handle water. So bring it on.
I was pretty impressed with myself for learning all this in one day, one morning at that. Here’s how I did it:
As soon as I walked into the Hafen City information center, I saw a sign welcoming the Danish Society of Architects for their presentation ‘Hafen City: Sustainable Development for Europe’s Coastal Cities.’ I thought I came from Copenhagen so I’m almost Danish and I like to draw pictures of buildings, so I’m almost an architect. I saw the big group gathered around the small models of the islands. Almost five minutes after I walked in, someone in a suit gathered them all and directed them towards a room. I slipped in the back and sat down. I didn’t say a word, scribbled some notes in my moleskin notebook and blended right in. I slipped out before the last question was asked and nobody noticed.
In the afternoon I went to the Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum. I had a blast drawing cartoons of painted portraits. I’ll post them up later. Some are pretty funny. Lots of things in Hamburg are called ‘Hamburger ____.’ I’m not going to lie, I went into one of them and asked if I could get a hamburger there. The guy looked at me for a couple puzzled seconds thinking this idiotic American and told me this was not a burger joint, it was a museum of artifacts collected by Hamburg’s sailors over the past 300 years. Many europeans think Americans are all fat and stupid. I am responsible for converting one more.
Some city’s are quite dreary with all the common global brand chains. Traveling makes me reminisce and dream about what traveling might have been like 30 years ago when places seemed so much more ‘authentic.’
Ben and Jerry’s is all over the Netherlands. To me B&Js is a mark of true Vermont. It’s a symbol of the states and represents northern New England the place I identify with. The ice cream is all over the Netherlands because Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company owns a majority stake of the ice cream.
7/11s are on every other street corner in Sweden.
McDonalds has continued its quest to take over the world and Burger King is following close behind.
It’s quite a dreary sight walking out of a city’s central station and into the downtown and find nothing unique or definitive about the place you walk into. Global branding takes its toll on the character of these cities.
It takes time to dig deeper and discover what makes a place what it is. I felt pretty happy once I wandered off the beaten path and found the old red brick buildings by the waterfront. The bricks were beautifully stained over a century and a half of weathering and in contrast of the green copper roofs they were really quite brilliant. So much nicer to wander through than alleys of fast food chains.
Thats just the reality of our time: Information. Digital connectivity. Global brands. iPhones. In another 50 years someone will be traveling, or teleporting around the world on reminisce on my era of traveling. As Woody Allen points out in Midnight in Paris, it’s easy to romanticize about a bygone era. Just find the meat of what you have in front of you.
Speaking of Paris. I’ll be there next weekend to see Sarah Diamond, who I haven’t seen since Milton and maybe meet up with my dude Stanton Plummer Cambridge.
I’m hopping on a bus to Berlin tomorrow.