Graphic Designers and their Goddamn Chameleons

A friend in Düsseldorf spotted this sign offering a €50 reward for the return of their veiled chameleon (which is called a ‘yemen chameleon’ in German):

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It reads “It may sound unlikely, but unfortunately, our chameleon seems to have run away.

REWARD 50 EURO.

He’s probably curled up in a corner of our apartment, but we wanted to cover every base. He’s not dangerous or poisonous, just kind of a punk.”

The little arrows next to the picture say he “likes to eat flies and crickets”,  “moves slowly and is fragile”, and has a “helpless, usually skeptical expression”.

This is what happens when you live in a city full of creative types. (1) They keep foofy-ass pets, and when they lose them, (2) painstakingly craft the most eye-catching missing posters you’ve ever seen.

In fact, I’m not sure this isn’t mainly an ingenious freelancer marketing scheme. (‘Did this missing-chameleon poster catch your eye? Wouldn’t you like your ads to do the same?’).

No-Package Store Opening in the Hood

Ah, the Brunnenstraße (Well Street) in Düsseldorf, my stomping grounds. When I moved in, this storefront contained a regular video store, complete with actual VHS tapes and an X-rated section. Then it became the late, lamented Filmgalerie (g), an upscale video rental store with a massive selection of art-house, classics, anime, and horror from across the globe. And then it was a clothing design boutique named Carmona (g). And now, it’s going to become ‘Pure Note’, a ‘packaging-free’ grocery store:

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Don’t worry, the neighborhood (Bilk) is still ‘diverse’ and ‘vibrant’ in the good way: almost 1 in 4 of the people who live here is a foreigner, like me. But the kooky young kids with their fresh ideas do liven the place up. I will post a report once the store opens.

Small Pockets of Nature Everywhere

Germany is one of the most densely-populated countries in Europe, and the Rhein-Ruhr region, where I live, is the most densely-populated in Germany.

But thanks to German regional planning, there are enclaves of nature even here. And they’re not created thanks to some misguided Corbusier-like mix of giant residential housing blocks surrounded by parks. The vast majority of Düsseldorfers live in 4-5 story buildings, not high-rises.

Yet the city is still compact, with beautiful greenery in the middle and at the edges. The key here is small parks and enclaves. One example is the Urdenbach marshes. Ages ago, the Rhein changed its path near a place called Urdenbach. It stopped following large curve and began flowing more directly, in a straighter course. Since the entire area of the former curve was only a few meters above the new course of the Rhine, it flooded whenever the Rhine flooded. This created a marshy wetland area.

Long story short, over the years the wetland was partially destroyed, some used for agriculture, some paved over. The old course of the Rhein was hemmed in by dams, and gradually dried into a small stream. In 2013 the city, and local government, and local nature organizations (these things take lots of consultation) decided to increase and broaden the flow of the “Altrhein”, and make parts of this nature preserve into a genuine marsh again. Here’s the picture from the official city-planning brochure (g).

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The red is the small stream of the former Rhein, the light-blue is the part that would be be reclaimed as a wetland. The two yellow dots represent large breaches in the dam, letting the water flow in the lower area to the east. On the right, you see a residential area, the lower-middle class suburb of Hellerhof. On the left, agricultural land and rich pasture for sheep and cattle. I’ll come back to both the suburb and the fields a bit later.

The plan worked. The wetlands brought birds. In only one 5- minute span on a bench, I saw coots, cormorants, gray herons, swans, ducks, Northern geese, Nile geese, and grebes. And was surrounded by the awkward croaking of horny frogs. The brochure from which this photo was taken lays out the strategy the local authorities pursued after after breaching the dam: nothing. They just let the water find its course and build ponds of its own design. A few dead trees were scattered in the riverbed to adjust its flow. And then allowed to rot, creating natural temporary dams. Existing trees which couldn’t tolerate the higher moisture are slowly collapsing, leaving room for more moisture-tolerant trees.

The marsh area is only narrow strip hemmed in by farmers’ fields to the southwest and a thickly-settled suburb to the northeast. But still, it’s there. And it’s beautiful:

Other nearby areas have also been declared nature areas. Some of these areas cover no more ground than, say, a department store (example not chosen at random). Here’s part of one of them, near the suburb of Baumberg:

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This meadow directly abuts a farmer’s field, and is just a few hundred meters away from a suburb. But since it’s been left in its natural state, it’s enough to provide nesting and hunting grounds for hundreds of birds, frogs, mice, and other creatures. And a soothing vista for human passers-by.

Regional planners in the Rhineland don’t have vast open spaces to work with, so they make the most of what they have in a spirit of compromise, creating small but viable islands of nature right next to streets, railroad tracks, high-power lines (one of which goes right through the Urdenbach Marshes), crop fields, and housing complexes. Give animals an area in which they are completely undisturbed — even a small area — and they’ll be able to adapt to nearby human influence.

All of this nature-civilization compromise takes careful planning, much consultation with “stakeholders”, a strong state, and a sophisticated strategic vision. All things which Germans are quite good at creating and maintaining. It makes their sophisticated regional-planning system (pdf) a model for the world. Other countries would do well to adapt it, before it’s too late.

Church Politics and Buildings

My business affairs took me to the prosperous Düsseldorf suburb of Pempelfort the other day, so I decided to drop by the Kreuzkirche (g) one of the landmarks of this area.

At first glance, the Dorf appears to be full of ancient churches, but it ain’t so. Most of the churches which appear antique were actually built at the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries in various historical revival styles, mainly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque. Back then, confessional differences between Catholics and Protestants were still important, and affected architectural styles. The Catholics tended to go for the neo-Gothic style when they built new churches, the Protestants chose neo-Romanesque, since Romanesque was the earlier style (ca. 700-1200), and thus reflected the Protestants’ claims to be returning to an earlier, “truer” form of Christianity stripped of Papist fripperies.

Let’s be frank about this: this is all a horrible missed opportunity. The late 19th century was a time of innovation all over Germany, but Düsseldorf’s bourgeois classes were too conservative to finance Sezession or Art Nouveau  or Jugendstil-style churches, which would have been more interesting than a bunch of copies of 500 or 1,000-year-old models. Kaiser Wilhelm the II hated Jugendstil, and loved neo-Romanesque buildings, so prosperous Düsseldorf Protestants built largely in the neo-Romanesque style. The fact that KW II was a thoroughly mediocre reactionary who certainly didn’t give two shits what kind of churches Düsseldorf burghers built doesn’t seem to have dimmed their enthusiasm. What an odd institution monarchies were.

Anyhow, the Kreuzkirche is a fine example of a neo-Romanesque church. It was designed by Carl Wilhelm Schleicher, a local architect, and built between 1907 and 1910. Here’s the view from outside:

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The church was built as a Protestant parish church, with financial support from the prosperous merchants living in what was then a leafy northern suburb of Düsseldorf. They spared no expense, outfitting the towers with expensive green copper cladding, and filling the interior with marble accessories and lavish church implements. They hired local artists to decorate the interior domes with Byzantine-inspired reliefs. The church itself is in the shape of a Greek cross, with equal-length arms. Because of the unusual dimensions of the piece of donated real estate (the church is at a crossroads where 5 roads meet), it is not pointed toward the east — which, in German, is called being “easted” (geostet).

Much of the interior decoration fell victim to World War II bomb damage and various restorations. In 1974, the massive marble altar was removed from the chancel, and replaced by a simple lectern. standing in front of the chancel. The pews were removed from the ground floor and replaced with ordinary chairs. The naves both feature raised galleries to accommodate more visitors. The windows were designed in the late 1950s by Ernst Otto Köpke.

I took the old wide-angle lens for a spin, here are a few of my photos:

Kreuzkirche view of SW window
Kreuzkirche view of organ loft and SW facing window from NE gallery

I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful, but it’s handsome. The unadorned sandstone is historically accurate, and in keeping with Protestant aversion to decoration (although the crucifix is a copy of Donatello). The regularity and repetition of the forms makes a harmonious overall impression. The church has been a designated historical landmark for decades now, which seems like a proper decision.

You can visit the church every weekday from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, just to pray, meditate, or look around. A friendly church lady will greet you, and you can basically have the run of the place. Nobody else visited while I was there, which seemed a bit unfortunate. But then again, Germany’s official Protestant church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate, so there’s no surprise there.

Will the Bilk Horse’s Head Survive?

It’s local history time! Which is easy, when you live in Bilk, a neighborhood in Düsseldorf which is actually older than Düsseldorf itself: Bilk was first mentioned as ‘Villa Bilici in a document from February 14, 799.

But now to more recent history. If you walk down the street where I live, you will notice something fairly odd: a horse’s head:

Horsehead General view

As you can see, the building has a sign for “paper processing” and a few names and very old telephone numbers. But the most striking feature is the horse’s head. I attached my camera to a long pole to get some close-ups of it:

Horsehead Brunnenstr. 27 rightHorsehead Brunnenstr. 27 left

Did people look at me strangely while I was holding a 3-meter pole with a camera attached to it? Nope. This is Düsseldorf, a town which is lousy with artists and photographers, both amateur and professional. You can’t swing a dead cat here without someone taking a picture of it.

The story behind the horse’s head is told in the latest issue of the local magazine devoted to the history of the neighborhood, the Bilker Sternwarte (g, pdf).

The building, which is now Brunnenstr. 27, was constructed in 1888/1889 by Jakob Torney, a construction foreman and developer. The building was later acquired by one Anton Schmalscheidt in the late 1890s, who installed stalls for ten horses on the ground floor, and ran a carriage business from the house. (The house is known as the Schmalscheidt house). This is probably when the horse’s head you see above you was made. We don’t know who made it.

The main client of the carriage business was the Julius Schulte and Sons paper factory founded in 1886, which still exists (g) and lends its fragrant aroma to the neighborhood every summer. They used horses to transport their paper to a nearby train station, until the paper factory finally bought a tractor for this purpose.

Unfortunately, plans are now afoot by Holatec, a business which currently owns the building and operates from it. They want to tear it down and make it into student apartments. Local politicians filed a petition to have the building designated a historical landmark, but the petition was denied on December 5, 2017. The local landmark commission found the building did not have enough historical value. There have been demonstrations (g) by local residents who want to preserve the building. They stood outside it, making “clop-clop” noises with coconut halves.

The local Green party representative for District 3 of the city said (g): “We are very much interested in allowing people to continue to live in Brunnenstraße 27. We also expressly support the idea of student apartments here. But why does the entire building need to be torn down, instead of integrating the new construction into the existing building? For many residents of Bilk, this will mean the disappearance of a piece of their neighborhood which makes it a great place to live.”

Will the horse’s head building be saved? Stay tuned — I will keep you informed of every twist and turn in this utterly fascinating (by German local-history standards) story.

An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world — conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

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On the Street Where I Live

Somebody made a documentary about the shops on the street where I live. Aki Chaabeni, the owner of the cafe Süße Erinnerung (g) teamed up with another filmmaker to interview some of my neighbor-entrepreneurs.

Not exactly sure what the purpose of the film is — though they mention a food truck/marketing project named Petit Frere – but it's a nice piece of work, and shows you the side of Düsseldorf I see every day, which is its best side:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/192653712

petit frère doku from cafe suesse erinnerung on Vimeo.

It's people and places like this that make Düsseldorf one of the most livable cities on the planet.

Separate the Colors, Leave the Lids On

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fwdrlokalzeitduesseldorf%2Fvideos%2F903759909725756%2F&show_text=0&width=560

The local news visits the largest glass recycling facility in Europe, in Dormagen. The report clears up a few mysteries about the ubiquitous glass-recycling boxes you see in Germany.

First of all, separating glass by colors actually does matter. You typically hear Germans saying it doesn't, because the trucks which clear the containers seem to dump everything haphazardly into the trailer compartment. Wrong! What bystanders can't see is that the trucks have separate compartments for each color of glass.

Glass of the wrong color, as well as non-glass items such as ceramics or even gun parts (according to the plant manager) are removed from the stream by hand. The rest is automated.

Oh, and although every box has a warning sign tells you to remove the lid before you recycle the bottle, this turns out to be wrong. The machines can easily remove lids, which are recyclable themselves, and intact bottles with lids are "more hygienic" for the human sorters to handle.

This has been your public-service post for the month of October.

Operation Glasshole™ Concluded

Yesterday, I donned protective gloves and wading boots, and finally finished cleaning up one short stretch of the Düssel river. Here's the video: 

As you can see, another 100 or so bottles, to add to the 100 or so I had fished out before. Plus, this round brought us:

  • A steak knife
  • 7 more bicycle locks
  • a pair of sunglasses
  • one (1) women's boot
  • a 1.5- meter length of rusting steel re-bar
  • a disc-shaped battery-operated IKEA light fixture, complete with rotting batteries
  • 5 plastic bags or pieces of plastic sheeting
  • 1 more umbrella
  • 1 section of metal grille
  • several plastic cups
  • three metal rods and/or picture frame elements
  • one laminated official notice on white A4 paper from the City of Düsseldorf which was formerly attached to the bridge, warning people not to lock their bikes to it until 16 October 2016 because of bridge maintenance.
  • what appeared to be one-half of a foam soccer ball
  • a still-stoppered fake mother-of-pearl perfume bottle
  • several parts of an ironing board
  • a few unclassifiable pieces of metal and plastic which looked like auto or machine parts

I displaced at least 10 juvenile and 2 adult spiny-cheeked crayfish from inside various bottles.

At the end of the day after making several tours of inspection, I could see no more junk. There were still hundreds of bottle caps, but I have my limits. One couple passing by asked me whether I was fishing for eels. After I was done, I had a chat with the Slavic woman who runs the convenience store next to the bridge. She called me "poor guy", and apparently assumed my clean-up operation was a form of punishment. I informed her that I had just gotten fed up and decided to clean up the river. She said "Well, that's nice of you, but let me tell you, people are just going to keep throwing stuff into it. I sit here all day and watch them."

I said that almost all the stuff was covered in silt, which made it seem as if it had been there a long time. She said that, on second thought, that she hadn't seen much littering lately: "There was a group of people who were doing most of it who moved away." She made a certain gesture indicating what sort of people they were, but I couldn't really decipher it. It sort of looked like a mixture of air-bottle glug-glug (drunks) mixed with some kind of arm-waving. Possibly a Nazi salute. But I can't be sure.

This gives me some hope that most of the garbage came from short bursts of antisocial behavior years ago; possibly a gaggle of winos colonizing the riverbank for a few days, throwing their empties (mostly 200 ml flasks of Stepanoff vodka) into the stream. And then, of course, the garbage was passively tolerated by thousands of local residents who crossed the bridge over the years, wrinkling their noses in disapproval but doing nothing about it.

One mystery that's provoked plenty of discussion on my Facebook page is the bicycle locks. A few of them had obviously been cut, but most of them seemed to be intact. Which raises the question of why anyone would throw what appears to be an intact bicycle lock into the stream? My only guess is that some people steal bikes by picking the locks. Then they reattach the lock and throw it in the river, presumably to get rid of evidence. It seems like a fairly ludicrous precaution, given that local police don't even try to solve individual bike thefts. But who knows?

Any guesses about this mystery?

Operation Glasshole™ Phase II Preparation Intermediate Status Report

Both here and on Facebook, where I post much more interesting stuff much more frequently, the question has been raised: what happened to the bottles I removed?

The answer is I dumped them all in a nearby recycling box.

Germans, notorious as among the stingiest penny-pinching races on earth (sorry guys, you know I love you but it's true), are now collectively spit-taking in a combination of intense disapproval, anguish, and Angstlust: "Dear God!! You mean you just threw away bottles worth €1.78?!??! Typical wasteful American."

Allow me to explain. The bottles were, as I earlier remarked, all covered in some sort of black slime, inside and out. Probably some combination of tannin from rotting tree leaves and fine particulates from automobile exhaust. It would have taken 2 or 3 minutes of hand-washing to clean each one.

Further, the labels had all long since rotted off the bottles. Nowadays, it is the label on the bottle that contains the all-important bar code which machines use to calculate the deposit. Without a label, you're done for.

Now I hear many Germans saying: "So what? Technically, stores are still required to give you the deposit back if you present them with a bottle, even if it doesn't have a label. After all, it's the glass that's important for recycling, not the label. I once saw a rail thin, boil-covered man with mushrooms growing in his beard actually manage to convince a supermarket manager to give him an 8-cent deposit on an unlabeled beer bottle after a 5-minute argument. See, it can be done!"

I've seen that man, too. But I don't want to be that man. So no, I am not earning anything on the bottles.

On another note, it turns out that wading boots are quite cheap. I thought they might be kind of expensive, but that's only because I live near a Sack & Pack luxury camping-supplies store, which has wading boots hand-crafted by transgendered Tibetan orphans selling for €170 per boot. Online, you can get cheap rubber boots for 7 Euros, so that's what I bought.

Once Phase II is complete, I will furnish a thorough report.

Operation Glasshole™ Phase I Status Report

A little over a month ago, I noted that the small creek which runs through my neighborhood, the Düssel (after which Düsseldorf is named) was full of bottles, since glassholes have been throwing bottles into it over the years.

So today I took a pole and a net and started work. Here is the before and after pictures of the part of the river I worked on:

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As you can see, a slight improvement, but much work remains. Once I got down to the level of the river, I could see there were many more bottles than visible from the top. It took me half-an-hour to remove about 25 of them, but at least 100 remained. All the bottles were covered in some sort of black grime, and filled with black liquid the color of motor oil. A few of them were being used as homes by freshwater crayfish, whom I summarily evicted. Sorry dudes, go find a rock or a tree stump.

Only when you cleared off the grime could you see what these litter-lovin' Untermenschen were drinking. Most of the bottles were ordinary brown beer bottles whose labels had long been washed away. Doubtless these bottles contained Oettinger, the local cheap & nasty choice for the undiscriminating booze-bag. Some were Carlsberg, a surprisingly civilized choice. Many, predictably, were Frankenheim Blue, a sugary mix of beer and soda which is also used as a Class 3 industrial solvent and barely deserves the designation fluid.

After a while, though, I realized that fishing these bottles out of the river one-by-one was a waste of effort. I was working retail, when I should have been wholesale. So to get the remaining 100 bottles, I am going to buy or rent a pair of wading boots, and go in there with one of them litter grabber thingies. I'm sure that physically entering the river, even to clean it up, probably violates 2 laws and 4 regulations. But frankly my dear, I just don't give a damn. If they fine me, I'll crowdfund my defense. Judging from the approving looks I got, I think I'll get plenty of contributions.