OBERHAUSEN, Germany — What is it like to be “Germany’s Detroit,” as the news media here have crowned Oberhausen, which for the second year running has received the dubious distinction of being the German city with the highest per-capita debt?
On the surface, at least, not that bad, despite budget cuts that shaved 600 million euros, or about $820 million, off the city’s spending.
This city of 211,000 would appear to have little in common with its bankrupt American counterpart. Sculptures grace well-maintained parks, dark-brick Art Deco buildings are still in use, and while many storefronts along the main downtown shopping strip stand empty, none are derelict. Residents can still visit a municipal theater, a state-financed modern art museum and independent art projects, like one that has transformed the formerly vacant central train station.
This is German austerity, penny-pinching combined with an ample safety net, independent initiative and the protection of laws that prevent municipalities from going bankrupt, requiring state governments to provide financial assistance in extreme cases, of which Oberhausen is certainly one.
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It is not that the city is thriving. Its glory days, between the world wars, then again in the 1950s, when the mining and steel industries provided jobs for tens of thousands of people, are long past. When the last coal mine closed in 1992, followed by the steel mill five years later, they took more than 50,000 jobs with them.
Where the steel mill once stood is a shopping mall flanked by a modern arena and an aquarium, attracting tourists from across the region. (The aquarium achieved notice for being home to Paul, an octopus who became the darling of soccer fans for predicting the outcome of the 2010 World Cup by selecting a mussel from a box marked with Spain’s flag.)
But the roughly 10,000 jobs created by the service sector — and the tax take contributed by the new businesses — amount to only a fraction of those once generated by heavy industry, leaving a gaping hole in Oberhausen’s budget.
“It’s a problem for the whole region, but especially Oberhausen,” said Apostolos Tsalastras, the city treasurer.
In a country known for its parsimony — much to the chagrin of Germany’s suffering European Union neighbors, which Berlin has urged to act similarly — the city’s debt is equivalent to 8,369 euros per capita, or about $11,450, according to a study released in December by Ernst & Young.
The five most indebted municipalities, including Oberhausen, are in the country’s Rust Belt along the Ruhr Valley, deep in the former West Germany. At the same time, many cities in the former East Germany are now financially stable, thanks to two decades of so-called solidarity taxes, in which billions of euros generated in the former West German states have been transferred to a fund that has helped rebuild the former East.
Oberhausen’s contribution amounts to about 7 million euros, or $9.6 million, each year. “That is a lot of money that we really miss,” Tsalastras said.
Last year, the eastern city of Dresden, one of only a few debt-free cities in the country, offered to grant Oberhausen a loan.
The city turned down the offer, instead passing a strict budget that translated into the closing of two public swimming pools, three libraries and several schools. Flowers are no longer planted in city parks, where retirees replaced the professional gardeners, whose jobs were eliminated as part of a 10 percent reduction in municipal employees.
But there are limits to how far Tsalastras, who is also responsible for the city’s cultural institutions, is willing to go. Oberhausen’s award-winning municipal theater costs the city about 8 million euros annually, or almost $11 million, but its future is not in question.
“Roughly half of the theatergoers are children,” Tsalastras said, with a note of pride. “By the time they graduate, nearly every child from Oberhausen has been to the theater at least once.”
“Many of them come from homes where there is little emphasis on education, and this is something that we as a city can give them,” he added.
The theater will be forced to reduce the number of productions it stages each year, starting in 2015, and some will be staged in conjunction with theater companies from neighboring communities.
Tsalastras believes that maintaining cultural institutions like the theater, the museums, a municipal music school and the International Short Film Festival — founded by wealthy industrialists nearly 60 years ago — plays an integral role in helping the city attract the creative, young urbanites who are the key to Oberhausen’s future.
He points to a group of architects and artists who have taken over the clock tower of the train station as an example. For years, the clock stood dark, its hands frozen in time.
Today, questions flash from a row of windows at the top of the tower: What is the moon good for? How long is the Nile? Was I a good kid?
Christoph Stark, 40, and other members of Kitev, the cultural cooperative that he helps run, rewired and updated the clock’s mechanisms after they were granted a long-term lease on the tower in 2007. He buzzes with energy as he springs up the stairs to show off the two towering water tanks on the uppermost floor. Nestled within them are devices that flash the messages into the windows.
“When we arrived in the city for a different project, I couldn’t believe that something as integral as the clocks on the main train station weren’t working,” Stark said. “I thought that cannot be, it’s like the entire city was standing still.”
The group, which is independently financed through donations, has transformed the lower floors into airy, open multipurpose spaces that can be used for conferences or performances, or to house artists-in-residence.
“I think it’s great that they have done this,” said Maria Jans-Wenstrup, 50, gazing up at the tower from a bus stop across from the station, where she waits every day, contemplating the messages.
“To have such art projects here is very important, especially for a city like Oberhausen that has no money,” she said. “It has to do with a sense of pride.”