Structural change: How do northern German city centers cope with job vacancies? |

Status: 2022-11-23 18:24

In many cities, the inner cities are abandoned. Large department stores close and remain empty, chain stores dominate the mall, and owners of smaller stores can no longer afford the rent. Interview with author Kristine Bilkau.

“The Other Door” – that’s the name of Kristine Bilkau’s latest novel. It takes place in northern Germany, and the question of how public space and places of social interaction develop plays an important role.

You did extensive research for this book and looked at many different cities. Why did you mostly visit smaller cities?

Kristine Bilkau © dpa Photo: Georg Wendt

Author Kristine Bilkau was nominated for the German Book Prize for her novel “Nebenanas”.

Kristine Bilkau: It gradually developed for me. I myself grew up in a small town near Hamburg. I mostly drove in northern German cities, where I feel at home. Cities like Itzehoe, Elmshorn or Rendsburg. First I paid attention to the empty stores, what they were actually saying and what they were doing to me as a person emotionally. Then I began to wonder why I was interested. Then I realized: these cities and empty storefronts say something about the commonality.

As I wander through these inner cities, it causes me some anxiety. How was it for you?

Bilkau: absolutely. Of course, there is a feeling of anxiety. Especially on a North German autumn or a North German February day when it’s a bit gray and rainy. That’s what I asked myself. I remember from childhood and adolescence that you are very keenly aware of your surroundings. And if a free place suddenly appears. And then the next question: why is this? And who cares?

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Book cover "Another door" by Kristine Bilkau © Luchterhand Verlag

Kristine Bilkau’s third novel Next door, our NDR book of the month, focuses on two contrasting types of women.

Let’s stick to “why is that”? What other patterns of interpretation have you noticed?

Bilkau: The first thing I noticed were signs of change. Then there is a lot of talk about it. Is it because of online shopping? Are people going to the city and shopping less? Is it because of rising rents? Then I researched it all. When I went on research trips like this, I often went into stores and just asked. For example, it was also talked about that the rental prices have increased and the demand has decreased. And it’s just disproportionate. This creates more vacancies and makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to open anything. The risk is increasing.

There are special cases: bookstores or a bakery, where everyone goes. Special places where there is a common will and then they survive. For others, it just goes down the drain. Did you find any differences?

Bilkau: There are also these cities in the north, it’s quite different there. For example, in Eckernförde, the town is actually always full there. And you see fewer vacancies there. But these are also cities that are naturally attractive logistically as well. Eckernförde is right on the water. You can get directly to the beach from the old town.

It’s sometimes a bit more difficult for towns further inland, which may not necessarily benefit from tourism. I’m not an expert on this. I looked at it mainly from a literary, human and psychological point of view. But from what I understand, it’s just very, very complicated. Why one city or region is suddenly structurally weaker than another is partly about jobs and economic power. In any case, it is clear that downward dynamics can develop there. When a large, empty department store, or perhaps a small shopping arcade, rots for years, it is difficult to stop and change this dynamic.

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Further information

Kaufhaus © picture-alliance / akg-images |  akg-images

They used to draw the masses, today they are often empty: a history of department store culture.

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