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European focal point parallels Pittsburgh

| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

ESSEN, Germany — Fritz Pleitgen would get along well in Pittsburgh.

He's eager to point out that he shares his home, the Ruhr region, of which Essen is part, with four symphonies, people of 173 nationalities and more theaters, concert halls and museums than any German state. He expresses some frustration that despite the growth in higher education and high-tech industries, the region's symbol — the image with which it is most often associated — is a coal mine.

Sound familiar?

Ruhr's selection as the European Union's cultural capital for 2010 drew the same bemused confusion as the White House's selection of Pittsburgh to host the Group of 20 Summit. Pleitgen spent the last three years planning a party he hopes will begin to open a few eyes.

The $90 million, yearlong celebration began Saturday night at that former coal mine — the Zeche Zollverein, which was once the world's largest and now is a UNESCO world heritage site. German President Horst Koehler and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the European Union's governing body, spoke to about 1,200 invited guests as heavy snow fell and praised the region's transformation from its steel-making and coal-mining heyday into an incubator for artists and entrepreneurs.

"I think we've been able to win over people's minds and hearts," said Oliver Scheytt, who, along with Pleitgen, serves as managing director of RUHR 2010, the organization managing the exposition. "I think this is a new chapter in our history."

The opening festivities, which run through today and are expected to attract about 100,000 people, include acres of exhibitions by local artists and light displays that transformed the steel and concrete facades of the coal mine's architecture into multistory works of art.

Despite a winter storm that whipped wet snow through the industrial site's man-made canyons, the buses, trains and trams continued to arrive fully loaded well into the night.

The respect has been a long time coming, said Bodo Mauser, 55, of Essen.

"When I grew up, Essen was a coal town," Mauser said. "Now you can see all over the finer industries."

The Ruhr region's selection is an acknowledgement that culture is more than "art and old things," said Daniel Holko, 25, a student at Duisburg-Essen University.

"I think it's something new that people accept industrial culture as a culture in its own right," Holko said. He noted that unlike previous Capital of Culture designees, the Ruhr region is a collection of cities rather than one municipality.

About 5.4 million people are divided among the Ruhr's 53 municipalities, which include Duisburg, Dortmund and Essen.

Essen and the Monongahela River are the namesakes of the Pittsburgh suburb of Monessen.

Led by chemical manufacturing, the Ruhr region's output makes its state, North Rhine-Westphalia, the most productive in Germany. Its gross domestic product — $779 billion in 2008 — is more than Poland's.

"We have (the pillars of) science and industry. We need the creative pillars," said Christa Thoben, North Rhine-Westphalia's minister of economic affairs.

That's where RUHR 2010 comes in, Pleitgen said. Dressed in a black suit and hiking boots because of the snow, Pleitgen said the region is tapping locals' creativity to undo the ravages of the Industrial Revolution, while preserving a history of which many in the region remain proud. The centerpiece is a project that has created Europe's largest regional park, 174-square-mile Emscher Landscape Park, a collection of rehabilitated industrial sites connected by 435 miles of trails. Two hundred separate sites make up the park, and 250 are in the works.

"We are restoring the areas which we destroyed by industrial development like coal mining and steel-making," Pleitgen said. "We want to regain them back for the people."

Planning of the celebration began in January 2007, shortly after European Union commissioners selected the former industrial juggernaut.

"Most people were totally surprised," said Andreas Rickenbrock, who served as spokesman of the 10-year regional redevelopment initiative that concluded in 1999 and gave birth to Emscher Landscape Park. Despite the multibillion-dollar transformation of industrial sites and slag heaps into public parks and mountain-sized works of art, most Europeans' perceptions of the Ruhr region remained colored with the coal dust and smog of its past.

"This is our chance to change that," Rickenbrock said.

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