Arrival to Wilhelmsburg

Autor: Michele Sbrissa

13.03.2011, 4 p.m., ZOB-Central Bus Station of Hamburg

It was not my first time in Hamburg, I lived there for six months in 2004, but I never had the chance and a reason to spend time to go to the Elbinsel. For me, it was just the thin horizon line facing the southern side of the Elbe River, a piece of land that could be seen from the touristic riverside docks and from the panoramic points of the Hafen City – in regards to Wilhemsburg as a place, I was not even aware of its existence.

I had just arrived at the central bus station of Hamburg (ZOB), coming from the airport of Bremen, loaded down with my belongings (books, laptop, my camera, a sleeping bag, etc…) and ready for a workshop week that I was attending in Wilhelmsburg, that had been organized within the activities of the UdN of the HafenCity University. I was quite excited and full of expectations; now the first thing to do was to catch a S-Bahn from the central station to meet Ben in Wilhelmsburg, then we would go together to the UdN. I gave a quick look at the metro map, then I went into the first incoming train, and in a few seconds I was out of the station. The sensation was quite strange in fact, I felt as if I was coming back, into the “back stage” of the city. I already knew Hamburg quite well, not only the center of the city but also the northern quarters, but during that first trip to get to Wilhelmsburg I perceived these strange feelings that were not new, but rather almost familiar.

I had been invited to attend the workshop “Made in…Local Production”. It was organized by researchers and students of HafenCity University, it’s Urban Design department, together with CivicCity Zurich. Ben Pohl was part of the group of researchers and students that had organized the workshop “Made in… Local Production”. When you come to Hamburg by bus, there is a fascinating outlook of the urban structure of the city, of the area in-between the two. Even better by train, when you walk out from the huge hallways of the crowded and noisy Wilhelminian style station, you immediately face the city, you feel the life of the city of Hamburg, you can hear and even smell it: the light, the traffic, the ethnic restaurants, the shopping streets that pick you up right outside of the station and drive you until the Alster (city center). To go to Wilhelmsburg, to the Elbinsel, the S-Bahn goes to the southern side of the river Elbe, the railway makes a long curve to the right that offers wide sights of the river Elbe. It is like coming back, it is like leaving Hamburg to enter something different, with a completely different atmosphere. From the windows of the Train, looking west it is possible to see clearly the construction site of HafenCity. The high-rise profile of the Marco Polo building and especially the Elbe Philharmonic of Herzog and De Meuron, which may be the most controversial project within the contemporary history of the city and are the two most stunning elements in this skyline.

In the fifteen minutes that divide the central station of Hamburg from Veddel (the S-Bahn stop on the Elbinsel, from where it is possible to reach Wilhelmsburg by bus) I perceived not only a physical movement, from a space A to a space B, but a shifted condition, a leap in the time and in the proportions that characterize the spaces around me.

Out from the S-Bahn, passing through the Veddel station, the city of Hamburg seemed to me very far. The speed of the surrounding things was different, the materials that made the sidewalks, the facades of the buildings, were different. Once again this flux of different perspectives and perceptions was quite familiar although apparently less “friendly” and “open”, if compared with the shining, vibrant and catchy atmosphere of Hamburg center, that I had just left behind me. The space outside the station of Veddel was horizontal, the proportions between things were completely changed: people seemed bigger, maybe because the buildings were smaller. In front of me, five hundred meters to the east there was the IBA-Dock, a floating object, a colorful island in the island. The presence of the IBA-Dock was the confirmation, together with the hundreds of logos and advertising posters in the S-Bahn and in the station of Veddel, that I was in the right place and not somewhere else.

My intention at first, was to catch a bus. I was not exactly sure about where to go, I just knew more or less the direction and I was not so keen to walk for half an hour carrying all my things. In the end, curiosity prevailed, and losing the possibility to use my ticket for the Great Hamburg Area to reach my destination, I chose a sort of first on-site derive, walking slowly towards the center of Wilhelmsburg to get in touch slowly with the context that was around me. To my left there were four or five-story high residential buildings with continuous red brick façades towards the street. The patina they showed outside was more than a thin veil, covering an old wall, it was the evidence of a different use, of a different relation between people and buildings. The streets, the sidewalks, the buildings and the parks were brilliant and shining in Hamburg; here the first sensation was just that all these things around me simply were, and that seemed more than enough at that time and in that context. To my right a dense green carpet of grass was covering the southern riverbank of the Elbe, (a sort of wall 3/4 meters high, that defines the northern border of the Elbinsel), with a metal fence on the top. This spatial device was a clear relict to everybody that the relation with the river was not so friendly as in Hamburg. Here, there were no stunning docks made for tourists as on the other side of the river, but a border, both physical and socio-cultural. I was following the indications to reach the center of Wilhelmsburg and after twenty minutes I turned left and entered more deeply into the urban structure of the quarter. The landscape to my left was mirrored also on the other side of the street, and in a few moments I was completely immersed in the neighborhood. The multiethnic atmosphere was one of the first readable traces, not only because of several different restaurants, kiosks, pubs and fast foods, showing traditional dishes from all over the world, but for the people that were walking along the streets, for their apparel, their physical presence in the streets, they were “doing things”, they were not simply wandering, looking at the windows of the shops, nor were they quickly walking from point A to point B to go to an important meeting. The urban practices in which I was entering were very different if compared with the ones I left on the other side of the Elbe. At the bus stops that I was crossing, students and young were jumping inside and outside the buses, meanwhile they were listening to music or using their mobile phones to send SMS and play.

A tourist that visits Venice gets lost if he tries, even for a moment, to leave the main route towards San Marco, where the flux of tourists always drives him safely from the train station to San Marco and the other way around. If he is so brave to leave that big river, taking a few side steps, he will find himself still in Venice, but at the same time in a completely different place, he will be in the heart of Canareggio, or San Polo, and so on. The different languages that he will hear in that new scenario, that before were the ones of the tourists while they were taking pictures of gondolas and bridges, now are the ones of the Venetians, of the people living in the old and semi-abandoned quarters and streets of the city.

Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce: these are the Sestieri of Venice, the administrative districts of the city. When I arrived in Hamburg it was like being in Venice in a certain way. In Wilhelmsburg, in the urban and social context that can be perceived at the very first approach within this place, I was absolutely out from the crowded hub of the city, but I still was, maybe even more than before, in the city. I was in a real and living part of Hamburg, where things do not happen only during working hours, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I had the feeling of not being ready and prepared with the proper codes and tools to understand such a context, where all the standard formats associated with business, tourism, shopping and culture, that allow people to feel safe in every big European city, seemed absent. The vibrating sensation that this condition was offering me was exactly the same as that of a tourist who does not go to Venice only to visit San Marco. I was not in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg to visit the Elbe Philharmonic, so I was in the same condition; I think this was already a good starting point.

Even without the possibility to completely understand and appreciate the context of Wilhelmsburg, from those first moments when I arrived there, the atmosphere was familiar.

I was aware of the strong civic protest movements that have shaped, the Elbinsel and Wilhelmsburg in particular, since the Second World War - I was there also to study those facts. What was the story behind them? What were the conditions that allowed the beginning of this tradition of civic engagement that started fifty years before and that has brought so many relevant milestones in the evolution of this place along these years? Why to choose this place for an experiment such as UdN? What were the possible outcomes of that experience for Wilhelmsburg? In what ways the UdN’s experience was working on the themes of participation and agency within the context of Wilhelmsburg? Was UdN an interesting reference to learn and to experience an approach that would be relevant even for other cities, other conditions, and other contexts?