As Germany prepares for next week’s G-20 summit, the world has its eyes on Hamburg. The city has seen a decline in the port culture that put it on the map, but the recent success of its spectacular new concert hall has forced many residents to reflect anew on what it means to be a Hamburger.
There they hang. Wearing crisp suits and serious and honest expressions, these men were honorable merchants who excelled at the salesman’s craft — cash management, accounting, correspondence — and their books are as clean as their consciences.
There they hang, Hamburg’s finest, immortalized on canvas, the former presidents of the Chamber of Commerce. But the way Tobias Bergmann stands in front of these pictures now, lean and lanky, the portraits of his predecessors seem more like trophies. Like prizes from a hunt.
“There has been and still is a merchant’s aristocracy in Hamburg, like the Windsors and Orléans. And this election pushed them out. A revolutionary has now moved into this space.” Tobias Bergmann, business consultant, was born 45 years ago in the village of Langquaid in Lower Bavaria, home to a weekly pig market.
Bergmann, the newly elected president of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, likes to add a, “so to speak” to his sentences. He says this with a deep Bavarian accent. Hamburg’s merchant royalty may have forgiven him for that. And for living on the wrong side of the Elbe River, in Wilhelmsburg, among the working class, where he works out in a boxing club rather than at the mandatory rowing, hockey, and polo clubs where his predecessors have typically been members.
What is unforgivable is that he dared to question the city’s power structures. The authority of ship owners, industrial leaders and wholesalers. The “money bags” — as Hamburg’s long-standing, wealthy merchant families are called. And then to be elected president of the Chamber of Commerce by an overwhelming majority in February — it was perhaps the first successful revolution the city has ever seen.
It’s noteworthy that Hamburg’s City Hall and Chamber of Commerce are physically intertwined and are barely distinguishable as separate entities to pedestrians, although the Chamber likes to point out that it was there first. “A compromise was made in Hamburg over 100 years ago,” explains Bergmann. “The ‘Establishment’ allowed the (center-left) Social Democrats to run City Hall. But economic policy was handled by the Chamber.”
It was a perfect balance of power, which now needs to be evened out once again. And then some.
A City Redefines Itself
The successful revolution in the Chamber means that something has changed in Hamburg. And not just because everyone is streaming into the city’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Hamburg is about to redefine itself: What are we actually? Merchants or culture vultures or what? And let’s just figure it out quickly before the protestors and the troublemaker from Washington arrive for the G-20 summit.
The business of trade is definitely not as easy as it used to be. As one of Europe’s largest port cities, “Hamburg always knew,” says Bergmann,” that prosperity also depends on other people doing the work. The ships came, delivered coffee, and each bean made the city richer. But how much wealth does a container ship carry with it these days?” And doesn’t online commerce threaten to destroy the merchants’ business model?
Bergmann was elected because entrepreneurship has changed, with more and more IT companies such as Xing (the German answer to LinkedIn), developers, startups, designers, bike messengers, media companies and event organizers. “The port will remain an asset. But how do we, as a city, use this asset to generate new wealth?” asks Bergmann, and one can now only imagine how this question would come across in the city’s Overseas Club — a traditionally exclusive merchant’s club.
What if one was to benefit from Brexit and make Hamburg, the most Anglo-Saxon city on the Continent, the capital for international arbitration? With lower attorney fees than in London? “And the Elbphilharmonie fits well in the picture,” Bergmann says, concluding his brainstorm. “At least it provides a magnet for culture and tourism.”
The local press has dubbed Hamburg’s new landmark concert hall “Elphie.”
To Hamburgers, it looks like a wave. Others may be reminded of a melting iceberg. The “Pearl of Hamburg,” as it is known, sitting on top of the former Kaiserkai warehouse, is not only very visible, but is actually quite impressive: two massive buildings eclipsing each other as if suspended by a giant force field, one part crystalline, the other sturdy brick. The entrance is still free and visitors are allowed up the escalator to the Plaza, the mid-level viewing platform.
Because the two concert halls are usually closed, visitors appear somewhat lost as they look around. Then, suddenly, the Elphi is forgotten as the view opens up, one that spans the heart of the city and provides a panorama of the harbor — with its sea walls, docks, loading cranes, forklift and loading trucks driving around, mountains of containers above the sheeting wall, a few windmills and in the background a cloud of smoke moving east at a flat angle. A barge cuts through the dirty olive-colored water, leaving a waxy trail. Gusts of wind carry the scent of diesel, machine oil and, with some imagination, the sea. This is Hamburg.
Carsten Brosda, an eloquent man with an office in an old Kontorhaus, the traditional merchants’ offices and warehouses that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has served as the city’s senator for cultural affairs since February. The Elbphilharmonie, he says, is by no means just a landmark — those, after all, can be built anywhere if you have enough money.
No, he says, “This building is inextricably linked to the place. When I type ‘Hamburg’ into Google Maps, the red pin lands pretty precisely on the Elbphilharmonie.” It is at the intersection of the old city center and the new HafenCity district — land reclaimed from the port that has been transformed into an upscale development in recent years — the industrial, economic core of the city. “So, I’ve got an acupuncture point in the city,” says the senator. “If I press on it, a lot of interesting things happen.”
In any case, he hopes that Hamburg’s self-image will change as a result of its rising reputation: “So far, Hamburg has been associated with many things, but ‘city of culture’ is not the first or even second thing that comes to mind.”
Unlike Munich or Berlin, Hamburg has never been the seat of a monarchy. There has never been a king or Kaiser who has expressed his power and glory through art collections, theaters or opera houses here. “Hamburg is also the largest city in Europe that has never been a capital and therefore the focus of a nation in which the national cultural heritage is represented,” says Brosda. “This is a different, rather republican cultural tradition driven by its inhabitants. This city is represented by itself and by its own bourgeois power.”
A Secret Longing for a Big Splash
Just below the Elbphilharmonie, Mick M. has moored his Papalagi, an 11-meter long (36 foot) steel sailing boat, which is visibly aged. M., whose name is actually Segebarth, is the son of a sailor and was born in Hamburg.
Here, at sea level, the harbor experience is different. Mick M. rummages around for a small glass jar, unscrews the lid and sticks a finger into the gray, metallic shining mass in it: “Particulate matter, the air is full of it. I wiped it off the deck. The big container ships and cruise ships that run on heavy oil and let their engines idle in the port blow this stuff out. ”
Outdoors, it’s drizzling; inside, the boat is rocking. Mick says he has so much of the Elbe in his blood that he gets seasick on land. Off the boat, he prefers to work as a pantomime and street artist. Culturally, he says, Hamburg has always been a city known for its fascinating crowds and quarters — but not buildings. The Karolinenviertel, the Schanzenviertel and the Kiez — all are popular Hamburg neighborhoods. There’s not just one important place, but many.
From his overflowing cabin, filled with fishing rods, a hot plate, sea maps and clothes, Mick looks directly at the people making the pilgrimage over the Kehrwiederspitze bridge to the site of the Elbphilharmonie in HafenCity. “It’s almost eerie, these masses of people,” he says. On the other hand, Hamburg is a port with a city, not a city with a port and so this makes sense.
Hamburg is enchanted by its new Elbphilharmonie and now considers itself a true city of culture. But Rainer Moritz, the director of the Literaturhaus literary café and salon, has his doubts. “Hamburg was doubly humiliated — first the scandalous explosion of the construction costs for the Elphi (which came in 10 times over budget) and then the failed 2024 Olympics bid. But that’s all water under the bridge. Now they can celebrate,” says Moritz. “Despite all its restraint, this city secretly longs to make a big splash on the world stage.”
Whether the waves of excitement over the Elphilharmonie spread and affect other cultural aspects of the city remains to be seen: “The Elbphilharmonie has become the city’s main attraction. But it’s also not as though Hamburg has become a city of long-suppressed music connoisseurs overnight. The Hamburger Abendblatt, a local newspaper reports on every local concert and offers a primer in concert etiquette: “When is it acceptable to clap in the Elbphilharmonie?”
A Port Town’s Fading Culture of Shipping
The other bank of the Elbe, the southern shore, offers the best view of the Elbphilharmonie. It’s just too bad that it is obstructed by the container cranes of the Eurogate terminal, the A7 highway bridge, a tank train and the Yang Ming Width, a ship flying the Hong Kong flag with a loading capacity of 14,000 containers.
Fourteen thousand containers — and only 23 crewmembers. With the exception of one Ukrainian, they’re all from the Philippines. Some of the crewmembers sit in the yard of the city’s seaman’s mission, called the Duckdalben, around a cartload of local Holsten beer and play with their mobile phones. The ships are getting even bigger, the crews are getting even smaller and the breaks in between, shorter. The port is always faster, always fuller.
Anke Wibel is the deacon of the seaman’s mission. She’s been here for 22 years and is married to a sailor herself. Once a mainstay on the sailors’ tour through Hamburg, the city’s famous red-light district is now something they only see on postcards in the window display of the seaman’s mission. They can send one home as a token souvenir. But the sailors know little to nothing about the changes happening on the north shores of this new Hamburg, Wibel says. “Apart from the fact that there is one more monument at the entrance. But they don’t even have enough time to look at it. We take some of them down to the old tunnel under the Elbe River where they can cross over and head into town. But then all they want to do is go to an electronics store or the bargain supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. Sailors are very poor. They feed their whole family with their wages.”
They use their smart phones to scan the display in the shop and then their family at home can choose something — say chocolate or gummy bears. They might buy some Asian instant noodle soup because it reminds them of home. Then they go out and shoot some pool. It’s the game of sailors. It’s proof that they have solid ground under their feet.
Ironically, the large groups of sailors who helped create Hamburg’s unique character — its port, the red-light district or Reeperbahn and Portuguese quarter populated by immigrant dock workers — are no longer to be found in the city, at least not in the same numbers. They’ve been supplanted by stag party revelers decked out in sailor costumes who have booked red-light tours guided by “Titty Tina” through the former strip club, Ritze, to the 39 euro flat-rate brothel “Cheap Club” or to the latex catheter displays at the Boutique Bizarre.
It’s like trash TV in 3D. Good for attracting a high quota of overnight guests. As are Hamburg’s famous Broadway musicals, of which there are four — including two in the former port area. Rainer Moritz speaks of an increasing “eventization” of culture in Hamburg, and he includes the Elbphilharmonie in this phenomenon.
It’s history’s revenge. If only they had calculated like merchants back then, they would have a “Media City Port” instead of a concert hall for 789 million euros today. Indeed, it’s only because Hamburg ignored some common-sense business rules long ago that it is able to call itself a cultural capital today. But it comes at a price. And there are already dark clouds on the horizon: Hamburg’s reserve bank Nordbank HSH is in deep trouble — another project that the city is backing with billions of euros. It’s things like this that are troubling people like Mathias Petersen.
There are families in Hamburg for which City Hall was always like a second home. The Sievekings for example or the Petersens. Mathias Petersen belongs to both families. One of his great-grandfathers was a mayor, as was his grandfather after the war. Several of his ancestors, among them former senators, have parks and foundations named after them.
If an unflattering story about stolen ballot papers in the Social Democratic Party hadn’t surfaced a few years ago, Petersen may have been sitting where current Mayor Olaf Scholz is sitting right now. “I’m a doctor living in Altona,” says Petersen referring to one of the city’s main neighborhoods in an interview that takes place between patient visits. “Politics was always just a hobby for me.”
When asked what to make of this “new Hamburg” that has the world’s attention with the flashy new concert hall and everything else, he says the same thing that his ancestors might have said: “The people who live and have roots here don’t need this self-confidence boost. Period. We have it even if we don’t talk about it. There was never any need to say, ‘We have to build some kind of building so that the world will see us.’ The world has seen us through our actions and still does today. We don’t need a building like this in order for that happen.” It’s a city whose business leaders have traveled the world to do deals and where even his own grandfather spent 20 years in Siberia establishing a company office. It doesn’t need a calling card.
And that applies particularly to the G-20 summit. It’s an open secret that Social Democratic Party officials in the city agreed to swallow hosting duties for the G-20 in exchange for support from Berlin for Hamburg’s 2024 Summer Olympics bid. But Hamburg residents themselves had had enough of major construction projects and obsessive security, and it was they who rejected the city’s Olympics bid in a referendum.
As a Hamburg native, Petersen says he doesn’t see it “as being an absolute imperative to travel around the world and say: We’re the city with the Elbphilharmonie.” He says he’d prefer to emphasize the city’s advanced technological and research centers — places like the German Electron-Sychrotron, or Desy, a German research institution that is currently testing the new European X-ray free electron laser.
Culture Alone Can’t Save City
Petersen is a doctor and a politician, but above all, he’s a citizen of Hamburg and, as such, looks at what really matters — the port that made the city so famous. “We’ve had lower and lower amounts of freight for years now. That has now caught up with the shipping magnate Bertram Rickmers (whose company said it would file for bankruptcy last month). We need to look out, because cultural events alone will not be enough to save the city.”
And neither are the tourists who come to the city, and for whom the port is just part of the scenery.
The last word, however, belongs to Horst Huhn. Not because his initials happen to be HH, which is also short for “Hanseatic City of Hamburg,” but by virtue of his job. He literally sets the tone in Hamburg when he’s on duty, at 10 in the morning and at nine in the evening. That’s when he stands in the tower of St. Michael, Hamburg’s most famous church, opens a tower window to the east, blows the spit out of his trumpet briefly, takes a deep breath and plays a hymn for the city down below.
The song titles represent his take on the day. “Oh how fleeting, oh how void,” for example. Or another entitled “I cannot believe it yet,” in C major, in triple rhythm. Huhn is one of Michel’s so called Türmer or tower trumpeters and he always chooses his songs at the last minute. He flips through the tattered, pencil-annotated church hymnal book and chooses something according to his mood and that might fit the city’s current vibe.
The tradition of the tower trumpeter has been in place for the last 350 years, since the very opening of the Michel. “Sometimes parents come and say that their child can only fall asleep after I play,” says Huhn, who decided to take up the trumpet as a child when he heard the tunes from the tower.
Today, Huhn chooses No. 477, a song entitled, “Calm are all the forests now.” He hasn’t played it in a long time and a bit of reflection can’t hurt these days.
First to the east, then south, west, north. From up here you can see everything. Around Alster Lake with its villas, the workers’ neighborhoods in the east, Barmbek and Hammerbrook, the proud City Hall with the even prouder adjoining Chamber of Commerce, the fairgrounds sitting beneath the television tower, already sealed off for the G-20 summit. The hilly Elbe shores in the Blankenese neighborhood. And in the south, the other Hamburg: Wilhelmsburg, with its typical red brick buildings, the Veddel neighborhood, sheep pastures, levees, biker gang clubhouses and the famous flak bunker. But most of all, the scenic port panorama, still a breathtaking sight for the tower trumpeter, even after all these years.
The Michel has tied it all together, not without effort, but still. We’ll see, says Huhn, whether or not the Elbphilharmonie has the same effect or not. “It could have been done better. That much money for just two concert halls?” Huhn is now 61 years old. He used to play baroque and contemporary music in Bilbao and Lisbon and Nantes. There are excellent modern concert halls in those cities too. He says he’s not totally comfortable with all the hype.
He opens the tower window to the south where he has seen the new landmark of Hamburg plodding skyward arduously for the last few years, right into his harbor view. “Well,” he says, taking a deep breath and paying particular attention to choose the right approach. Because like all musicians, with all their skepticism and seriousness, he believes that every sound has meaning. It just has to be the right one.