After the coal exit, Gelsenkirchen experienced a wave of migration. The consequences: dramatic vacancies and neglect. Today, the houses attract extended families from Romania and Bulgaria, causing major problems. Now the city is countering it.
You like coming to this city. Here you feel good.
About 65,000 foreigners live in Gelsenkirchen. Most come from Turkey and Syria. But Romania is already in third place among the countries of origin – with 5800 people – and Bulgaria is in fifth place (3700).
Read the first part of the report from Gelsenkirchen here: “The worst thing is the rampaging rats in the garbage cans”
The fact that many poor immigrants from south-eastern Europe are flocking to Gelsenkirchen is primarily due to the structural change that the once proud mining town has to go through and which is still giving it a hard time today.
Gelsenkirchen stood for coal and steel like no other place. Black gold was mined here for more than 150 years – at times in 14 mines, which bore such illustrious names as “Hibernia”, “Wilhelmine Victoria” or “Graf Bismarck”. At the end of 2008 there was a shift in the shaft, the last mine in Gelsenkirchen stopped producing.
Gelsenkirchen had risen out of nowhere with coal. Without coal, it fell back there. “Happiness up” became “Happiness used up”. A deep, painful cut for the city.
Around 100,000 jobs have been lost over the years. Many families left the city. At the end of the 1950s, the population was still almost 400,000, but today almost 260,000 people live here, and the trend is falling.
The huge wave of emigration triggered an unsightly chain reaction. Many houses were suddenly empty and dilapidated, entire streets were neglected, real no-go areas emerged.
“The apartments that have been vacant for many years are now often dilapidated and almost uninhabitable,” says city spokesman Martin Schulmann.
Windy speculators and some highly criminal businessmen make full use of this. They buy and renovate dingy houses, so-called junk real estate, and rent them out to people mainly from Romania and Bulgaria. “Thus, there is a high rate of poverty immigration, which further aggravates the situation in Gelsenkirchen,” said city spokesman Schulmann.
Entire blocks are then populated by extended families who have neither regular jobs nor the willingness to respect German laws and regulations.
People can only pay the sometimes excessive rents because the German state supports them with social benefits. It is not uncommon for the money to come from criminal activities. A number of residents of Gelsenkirchen-Rotthausen have reports of broken-in garages and shoplifting. There is also talk of drug trafficking.
Anyone who speaks to local residents can easily see that the situation is stressful and often overwhelms them. Also because they know that they have to come to terms with their new neighbors somehow.
People from Romania and Bulgaria are neither refugees nor asylum seekers. You are a citizen of the European Union (EU) and can legally live and work in Germany. According to an information brochure for citizens of the city, Gelsenkirchen has no way of “controlling or limiting” the influx of EU citizens.
However, it can influence the development through strategic measures. The city has been trying for a long time to stop the systematic devaluation of residential areas and the downward trend – known in technical jargon as the “trading-down effect”.
The recipe: With financial help from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the federal government, Gelsenkirchen buys up problem properties, renovates them or tears them down. In this way, the cheap houses that are so popular with south-eastern Europeans are disappearing from the market.
“So far, 57 problem properties have been acquired,” said city spokesman Schulmann. In the next ten years, “around 3,000 vacant, non-marketable residential units, including around 500 problem properties in the narrower sense” are to be bought up. The state made 10 million euros in start-up capital available for this purpose.
It remains to be seen whether the good-sounding plan will work out. There are still enough corners where the excesses of poverty immigration and failed integration are visible. Quite a few neighbors, whether originally from Gelsenkirchen or immigrants who are now rooted here, are unsettled and dissatisfied.
It is precisely this frustration, the latent fears, that some parties, especially the AfD, are picking up on. Gelsenkirchen-Rotthausen is a rewarding patch.
One afternoon, an elderly, finely dressed lady walks down Karl-Meyer-Strasse and, in conversations with citizens, curses the “heaps of dirt” in front of some houses. Her dialect reveals that she comes from Berlin. Her name is Karen. She does not want to give her last name. Karin is visiting the Ruhrpott.
The blond woman – stylish hat, white scarf, fingernails painted red – may look out of the ordinary in Gelsenkirchen. In terms of content, it strikes a chord with many people.
With a nod of approval, they accept flyers that the 73-year-old holds under their noses. She allegedly distributes the sheets for a friend who sits on the Gelsenkirchen city council for the AfD.
“Our country first!” and “We stand by your side” are the simple but memorable messages on the information sheet. In addition, the well-known faces of the AfD, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla. The two politicians are railing against the “wave of price increases” for food, fuel and energy. And they present an “immediate program against the price explosion”.
That goes down well with people. Especially for those who have to pay attention to every cent.
If you know which devices at home use how much electricity, you can make targeted savings. Our e-paper shows which devices use how much electricity for all common household appliances, from ovens and hobs to refrigerators and washing machines to TVs and WLAN routers. There are also a number of instant power-saving tips.
Karin emphasizes that she herself is not in the AfD. Nevertheless, they distribute the flyers out of conviction. “I’m doing it because I’m afraid for our country,” says the pensioner. The woman complains that the federal government shouldn’t just “push everything in” to those who come to us. You should “also think of us German citizens”.
The lady does not mention that politicians have put together relief packages worth billions for all citizens, with which they want to cushion the consequences of the price explosion. Apparently it doesn’t fit into their worldview.
Instead, she scolds that in Rotthausen she sometimes feels “like abroad”. That makes her “scared”. Many people she spoke to felt the same way.
In the election to the city council of Gelsenkirchen in September 2020, the AfD won 12.9 percent and entered parliament with 11 members. Only the SPD and CDU have more MPs.
However, the vast majority of Gelsenkircheners do not want to leave the field to the right forces when it comes to making the city more livable and taking people with them even in difficult times.
Sabine Wiesweg has been working for the Caritas Association Gelsenkirchen for 20 years. She is currently leading the team in Quartier Süd, very close to the main train station.
The 53-year-old knows that Gelsenkirchen is attractive to many people “who don’t have much money”. They are attracted by the low rents and are looking for “the allegedly many jobs that actually don’t exist”. Quite a few people who come here with the wrong ideas sooner or later end up with aid organizations such as Caritas.
Sabine Wiesweg reports that many foreigners and migrants ask for support, but also Germans who simply can’t cope anymore.
The themes are always the same. Trouble with the landlord or the electricity supplier, financial bottlenecks, debts, worries about the children, health problems. More and more people do not know how to pay for everything when everything is becoming more and more expensive.
“We feel the fears very strongly,” says Sabine Wiesweg. “There have already been price increases. A lot of people noticed: It’s going to be tight. And they know full well that there is more to come. That weighs heavily on her. They are desperate and restless.”
Everyone who has little income is affected, says the Caritas officer. Long-term unemployed, pensioners, single parents, students. People with low wages, who are just above the Hartz IV level and receive little or no subsidies, get into trouble. “They have to deal with the significantly increased costs all by themselves. And don’t know how.”
The situation of these groups is the same everywhere in Germany. “But in Gelsenkirchen the problem cases are more frequent than anywhere else,” says Wiesweg. Unfortunately, Caritas can only support people in need with advice and strengthen them morally. “We are in a very poor diocese here. There are no means by which to help those in need. We’re just making ends meet ourselves.”
After all, the organization can give some poor people in Gelsenkirchen a Christmas treat. In front of the Caritas branch at the main train station there is a fir tree with many wish lists from the needy hanging on it. Every passer-by can take a note, fulfill the wish and bring it back as a gift. It’s little things, but reading the wishes gives you an idea of how happy the poor in Gelsenkirchen would be.
Marion, 66 years old, would like a blanket. 68-year-old Fatma has a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Engelbert would like some Christmas decorations. He is 83 years old.
The city of Gelsenkirchen also has a wish. It’s about your old debt. The municipality is currently plagued by liabilities of 1.55 billion euros. It would take more than 50 years for the sum to be paid off in full, provided no new debt was added. A heavy mortgage.
“For many years we have been calling for old debt regulation, which has been announced several times but has not yet been implemented,” complains city spokesman Martin Schulmann.
“Unfortunately, the fact is that, with the best will in the world, there can be no question of adequate financial resources for the municipalities as long as the issue of old debts has not been resolved.” According to the city spokesman, “the state and federal government have a duty”.
Despite the unfortunate financial situation, Gelsenkirchen is investing around 58 million euros in new projects this year. The city launched the largest school building program in 40 years. “Education is a key task in order to position the city well for the future and to escape the spiral of poverty,” says city spokesman Schulmann.
He emphasizes: “Gelsenkirchen is one of the few and probably the first municipality to have connected all schools to the fast digital fiber optic network and purchased a tablet for each student.” 26,800 devices with keyboard, pen and case were handed over to the schools. They lend the tablets to the children and young people. The money for the mobile computers – around 13.5 million euros – came from funding programs.
A glimpse of hope. And an unmistakable sign that Gelsenkirchen is on the way to a better future. Starting with children and young people, who will soon determine the development of the city. So the direction is right. Even if you will need staying power to see lasting success.
The city and its people deserve not to be perceived as the eternal losers, the left behind and without a chance. Gelsenkirchen has potential, experts say.
Today you can already find modern technology centers, a science park and the “Westphalian University”, where a good 7,700 young women and men study. Many innovative companies as well as small and medium-sized enterprises shape the economy. Gelsenkirchen has made a name for itself as a service center and logistics location.
Cultural institutions, events, imposing industrial monuments, lots of green space for leisure and relaxation, and of course the local football heroes from Schalke 04 – it doesn’t look all that bad here.
The best are the people. People like Sabine Wiesweg from Caritas. She reacts “fightily” to every negative study and media report about Gelsenkirchen, says the helper.
With a now-first-right mentality, she goes ahead, takes care of subsidies and looks for solutions together with other committed people. She says: “I’m optimistic that we can still make things happen in Gelsenkirchen. I notice that we draw closer together, especially in difficult times. You want to tackle things together, sometimes you want to create something together.”
A hopeful motto that can be used to describe Gelsenkirchen’s future prospects can currently be found on information signs for parking lots in the city center.
It reads: “Everything will be fine!”