Kassel, Germany: A city used to looking back

by Lars Hoffmann / Jun 09, 2009 / 0 comments

The 20th anniversary of the day supposed to change everything for good will come up this November. Twenty years ago, the city of Kassel suddenly found itself right in the center of it all. The Berlin wall had fallen and Kassel, having been forced onto the outskirts of the Federal Republic of Germany for decades, over night became German heartland, center city, in the middle of the map. Plans were made quickly. With the new opportunities and a whole economically underdeveloped country right in front of the door, Kassel seemed to be the perfect place to supply this whole new world from. City officials declared that the town, which had for long years been the beneficiary of federal aid and subsidiaries due to its unfortunate location so close to the Eastern Bloc, would from now on be the economical hub where goods and services from West Germany would be manufactured and transported into the new neighborhood. What was once a frontier with hardly a chance to get through now became the corridor to economical wonderland, prosperity and population growth. Looking back twenty years later there are indeed signs that things have changed in Kassel. Being located in the center of Germany has attracted quite a number of logistics companies, but unfortunately these tend to build giant, mostly automated warehouses in which hardly anyone actually works. Apart from that, not much has changed and the unemployment rate is just as high as it has been two decades earlier, only that now you need to drive some 50 miles east to see a more promising economical environment. One might cite a number of reasons why this region never really grabbed its chance. Federal help was cut in favor of the reconstruction of East Germany. The Autobahn 44, supposed to connect the Rhine Area with Eastern Germany by way of Kassel, still only exists in sections not connected to one another after twenty years worth of lawsuits. The Kassel airport is still a rather lonesome runway somewhere in the suburbs with no commercial services. And, most importantly, a sense of entrepreneurship still goes missing around town. It almost seems as if politicians are still looking for a concept and as if people here just cannot grasp the idea of waking up from the state of Sleeping Beauty.

Speaking of which, Kassel nevertheless has something to offer for visitors. The Brothers Grimm have lived and worked in Kassel for a long time and the city proudly displays this heritage. There are quite a number of beautiful parks and gardens, along with castles built by landgraves a long time ago. Then of course there’s the documenta, the world’s premier modern art exhibition which takes place every five years and which lends the city some international flair for 100 days, respectively. Exhibits from previous shows have been bought by the city and are now on display throughout town.
Kassel today is a city with a population of some 200,000, center of a region of about one million people and still right there in the center of Germany. It is easily reachable by train or car, at least if you happen to come in from the North or South. For tourists from overseas, a one-day stopover is recommended, preferably in the summer and focusing on the art museums and park areas. There’s a pedestrian zone downtown which you might like to visit but don’t expect shopping wonderland. While you’re on the way, notice the 1950s architecture visible throughout the city as a result of it having been rebuilt almost completely after the war which saw Kassel as a primary target for allied forces. The stark contrast between the 17th century Ottoneum, now a museum and the 1950s theater building right next door presents an interesting study of what time does to a city. Make sure you are headed back to your hotel room in time not to notice the missing nightlife or street cafés you might have seen in Hamburg, Berlin or Munich. If you follow this advice, maybe looking back on Kassel twenty years from now isn’t such a bad idea after all.