When I visited Ithaca, in New York state, I visited a tiny town of a few thousand souls, lost in the hills, between an immense, uninhabited lake and the forest behind. The next center worth mentioning is three hours away by car. The town is a half-dozen of orthogonal streets, populated by small wooden houses with a quietly fragile appearance. The true history of Ithaca is in the many fossils of Devonian shells around the gorges, not in the books of men.
Jülich – at least double the inhabitants of Ithaca- is instead a few minutes’ traffic from Cologne or Aachen, in the exact heart of Western Europe, in one of the most populated and historical locations of the world. When Ithaca was still a wilderness of woods and indigenous tribes, Jülich was leading a rich duchy, which war of succession would have fired the Thirty Years’ War. In the 16th century, its impregnable fortress defended the Rur valley, a necessary bottleneck to invade the fat marrow of Germany. Its streets were planned by an Italian architect, Alessandro Pasqualini, according to a Renaissance utopia plan.
Ithaca has a soul. Jülich has not.
The soul of Jülich has been assassinated the 16th November, 1944, when an Allied bombing destroyed what was, until the night before, a quiet but lovely Medieval town. One in three died, but that is nothing. The real horror would have been reconstruction: Jülich resurrection was way worse than its death. Jülich was rebuilt, but forbidden every trace history and beauty. The remains of the cathedral that enlightened the city center were engulfed in a modest, obtuse small church, too shy even to be ugly. Of the two main streets cutting the center, one has become a tiny walk of suburb shops; to the other even this dubious honour was denied, becoming an annoying chore for the cars leaving it, or the students stopping to the Greek take-away.
Of past, only two memories stand: one is the fortress, locked in the city center, and that the city actually seems to avoid as fearing contamination. The other is the city gate looking towards Aachen, built in the classic German style: two fat, stubby towers with a standard, whimsical conical roof. It has the fairy-tale name of Hexenturm, the Witches’ Gate, and it is oddly in place with the neighbourhood. In fact, it correctly darkens a descending path that becomes quickly more meaningless closing on to the gate. After the gate there are a few houses, a Burger Kind, a mattress’ shop and, eventually, the Rur river. Jülich is exceedingly careful in not closing in to the Rur, let alone be crossed by it: this would imply a promenade, an urban place apt to human happiness. Rather, it stops a few meters before, taking steps to keep the banks wild and unmaintained, final destination of weeds and rusting shopping carts, akin to corpses of metallic beasts. Beyond the river it is said there is a park: expensive, artificial, empty.
Back from the Hexenturm, one reaches a small square with a light wood-coloured pavement. The most happening there is a twice-a-week market, where they sell too expensive and too little attracting food. The square is surrounded by nothingness: small buildings, shops, Italian bars that are visually 25-years backward. The church actually does not dare to loom on the square, making it gentler: in fact, it is instead somewhat behind, half-hidden, the facade squished in front of a pharmacy. Going on, in fact, one can see it on the right, askew behind an anonymous water fountain. Moving forward, on the left, after the only one bookshop and the everywhere pharmacies, there is a minuscule park, buffering between the city center and the fortress. The park’s location is strategic: this way everyone strolling through the center on a Saturday afternoon is not forced to face the only beautiful, ancient object left in town, and can distract himself with the grey shoe shops’ windows, or sit in a bakery where dozens of wasps will frolick and chew the pastries. Beyond, one ends nowhere: awkward residential neighbourhoods, supermarkets and, beyond, the endless rapeseed fields.
Elsewhere, as in Dresden, that nevertheless suffered similar destruction, reconstruction was honest. Now the center of Dresden still vibes with the senses of 18th century -truly, it then switchs suddenly and bizarrely towards a Soviet-style suburb, but this loads the place with beautiful tensions. Berlin managed to recreate, by exploiting its own tormented history instead of bending under it, a world-unique personality. Munich is a solid, real city, with a permeating culture. In Westfalia -or, at least, what I’ve seen of it- nothing like this ever happened.
In general, Westfalian towns seem penitence places. They have allowed Cologne and Düsseldorf to resume as human beehives, as fatuous habitation nodes: nothing that could build a nobility, a human spirit has actually been allowed. Düsseldorf wants to play American: glass skyscrapers, futurible skylines over the Rhein, chic ateliers. The illusion of being in a real city is still possible, especially on the beautiful Rhein promenade. Papier-machè. Once you turn around a corner you find yourself within desert highways surrounded by banks or, if you’re lucky, in a residential neighbourhood perfectly kept, anonymous and useless, a plastic imitation of peace that nobody can buy.
Cologne instead doesn’t even maintain the shame of its own demise. Cologne is a mass of shopping malls pressed around a cathedral, which is gloomy and out of place like no one else. Whoever walks through Cologne can think only of one thing: everything here was destroyed. Architecture is rigid, brutal, thick. The smashed down churches have been rebuilt, but by pouring cubical concrete on the few ruins, to let the wound be forever a scar, instead of hiding it. A park was aptly named after Hiroshima. Aachen is the one that still maintains a medioeval map and a somewhat picturesque center, but in a minor tone, almost with shame: it’s clearly the Belgian and Dutch influence keeping it vivible and vibrant. In every case the intent is obvious: remembering forever to the German people what their hybris has meant, living inside of it as in an interminable, tidy Purgatory.
Even worse, even darker has been the fate of Jülich. While big cities have at least kept some memory, keeping their scars open, Jülich has been exiled from history. Every trace of time has been replaced by anonymous, neutral buildings, out of nowhere, like it was a periphery suburb built upon clear countryland. The small pond in the city center is square, to make it certain it is artificial. Statues and fountains are in the typically silly, playful style of Germany, devoid of every historical or cultural reference. The only exception is a tiny stone, half-hidden in the park, where one can see an ugly low relief including bombers, a tunic-wearing figure in tears (Christ?) and the date “16 NOV. 1944”. Was there something before that 16 November? A well kept taboo. The mute stone fortress doesn’t dispute it: it just stays there, people walk around it, a few walk dogs in its moat. In the middle of the fortress they built a high school: the effect is not unlike that of a civilization of a deep future that, ignoring completely the sense and meaning of it, would build a city office in the middle of Rome’s Colosseum.
Other cities are young: but aware of this, they managed to create their own legend, history, or at least a shade of soul. That they manage to succeed is another thing. To Jülich, instead, history has been uprooted away, and replaced with anonymous eternity. Much more dignifying would have been, after November 1944, just to bury it and leave the fortress as a tombstone, surrounded by rapeseed fields. But they obviously thought its people, for generations ahead, would deserve a worse fate. The sons of Jülich inhabit a hollow shell, which aim is to remember them that they do not deserve a place of their own.