Workshop Report "Rethinking the Histories and Legacies of Industrial Cities", University of Luxembourg, C²DH, 10-11 December 2020

Jens van de Maele's picture

The history of (Western) European industrial cities is often told as a tragic tale of rise and decline: from rapid industrialisation in the late 19th century and economic prosperity during the Trente glorieuses, to the structural changes of the late 1970s and the subsequent deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s – decades in which most mines and steelworks closed down, unemployment rates went up, new social problems emerged, workers’ identities eroded, and once prosperous urban centres became faced with shrinking populations and empty stores in their shopping streets. Finally, since the 2000s, former industrial towns have tried to reinvent themselves as creative and cultural centres. If we take a closer look, however, we can see that the socio-economic, demographic and cultural transitions were more complex than suggested by a simple rise-and-decline narrative.

By offering an opportunity to compare the historical trajectories of various European industrial towns, the two-day online workshop Rethinking the Histories and Legacies of Industrial Cities aimed to reinvestigate the transitions outlined above. Organised by the REMIX team from the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) at the University of Luxembourg, the workshop placed special emphasis on inhabitants’ perception of change: how did people living in industrial regions made sense of a rapidly evolving “lifeworld”, and how did they cope with the shift in norms and values that accompanied this evolution?


Workshop report by Jens van de Maele (first day) and Maxime Derian (second day), University of Luxembourg, C²DH

First day (10 December)

Following a general introduction of the workshop’s goals and ambitions by REMIX team leader Stefan Krebs, the first thematic panel (chair: Valérie Schafer) looked at transnational crossings. Romain Bonnet (European University Institute, Florence) explored the personal trajectory of Italian fascist missionary Flavio Settin, who settled in the Luxembourgish industrial town of Esch-sur-Alzette during the late 1920s. Prior to this, Settin had been active in the agro-towns of his native Veneto region. An exponent of far-right Social Catholicism, a movement with major strongholds in Italy, Spain and France during the interwar period, Settin combined nationalist views with an eagerness to cross borders. Similarly paradoxical is the link between the missionary’s work in both agrarian and industrial milieux, indicating that industrial towns were not conceptually isolated from rural regions.             

While Bonnet focused on the transnational crossings of an ideological movement, Mara Marginean (Romanian Academy, Cluj) investigated the transfer of expert knowledge. In the late 1960s, when the Ceaușescu regime was at the height of its popularity, the Romanian government established an interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to what it called “youth problems”. Drawing upon internationally accepted methods from disciplines such as sociology and architecture, this institute tried to improve both the quality of life and the productivity of the young labour force employed in Romania’s industrial towns. In one of its main conclusions, the institute suggested that young labourers be accommodated in their rural family homes rather than in new urban dwellings. This solution, facilitated by the existence of an intricate railway network, was not only cost effective but also took psychological factors (the preservation of family ties) into account.

The second thematic panel (chair: Denis Scuto) focused on the (re)creation of social cohesion in times of industrial decline. Théo Georget (University of Lorraine, Nancy/Metz) analysed the difficult and ongoing transition of the former French steelmaking town of Longwy. In the 1970s, a series of massive layoffs initially sparked a communal spirit, as many of the affected workers (and their families) engaged in strikes and events. In the long run, however, this cohesion was subject to erosion because of the changing socio-economic and cultural profile of Longwy’s inhabitants. Located close to the Luxembourgish border, Longwy effectively evolved into a “sleeping town” accommodating a large percentage of cross-border workers employed in Luxembourg’s flourishing service sector. In this new context, many physical remnants of Longwy’s industrial past were unscrupulously destroyed. In recent years, however, local media have criticised this collective amnesia by calling for a commemoration of the social struggles that took place in the 1970s.

Julia Wambach (Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin) looked at the question of “social cohesion after deindustrialisation” through the prism of football. Her case study on the public and social profiles of two clubs – the French Racing Club de Lens and the German Schalke 04 (Gelsenkirchen) – showed that football has played (and continues to play) a crucial role in the creation of solidarity and a collective sense of belonging. Club managers, players and supporters from both Lens and Gelsenkirchen have consistently emphasised a continuity with the industrial past of their respective towns. One example: to this day, Lens players regularly visit the local mining museum, where they are symbolically turned into “miners for a day”. A similar nod to the “invention of tradition” can also be found in rhetoric emphasising the players’ “puritan work ethic”, which supposedly harks back to the miners’ work ethic during the heyday of industrialisation. However, this tradition-oriented mindset has come at a cost, as exemplified by the almost complete absence of women as well as new (North African) migrant groups, despite club discourses evoking “one big family” of players and supporters.

The observation that industrial decline need not go hand in hand with social disintegration was also central to the presentation by Sarah Thieme (University of Münster). Her case study on religious social networks in 1970s and 1980s Manchester showed that churches of various denominations played a crucial role as facilitators of social action, by stimulating volunteer work and bringing people together in church buildings outside the context of services. Moreover, by translating popular grievances into well-defined policy recommendations, local church leaders also acted as intermediaries between the population and politicians. This was a way of successfully placing the structural causes of poverty and urban decay on the political agenda while also greatly improving the self-esteem of Manchester’s inhabitants.

Concluding the first day of the symposium, the third panel (chair: Christoph Brüll) assembled papers on urban reconversion issues over the past three decades. Federico Camerin (Universidad de Valladolid/Bauhaus-Universität Weimar) explored major developments in the urban geography of Barcelona and Bilbao since the 1980s, focusing on the crucial role of local authorities in creating frameworks for long-term strategic planning. In both the Catalan and the Basque cases, reconversion processes were greatly facilitated by the waterside location of the cities, which made them attractive to tourists and real estate developers. Ironically, former port zones that were once disparaged by urban elites because of their industrial function and working-class image have now turned into gentrified hotspots for the wealthy.

Similar ironies could also be found in the presentation on Sheffield by Chris Corker (University of York) and James Fenwick (Sheffield Hallam University). After the decline of mining and steelmaking activities in the 1980s, local governments sought to turn Sheffield into a consumption hotspot (through the creation of a vast shopping centre) as well as a “sporting city”. The latter ambition resulted in the construction of a sports stadium, which was demolished in 2013, less than fifteen years after being built. The example of the Don Valley Stadium illustrates that not only can industry itself fall into decline; the same fate can also befall visions guiding future development. Nowadays, reconversion strategies focus mostly on the marketing of Sheffield as a tourist destination, given the city’s proximity to the Peak District. Overall, however, Sheffielders have not yet found a satisfactory solution for their ongoing identity crisis.

Another northern English city, Salford, was investigated by Carole O’Reilly (Salford School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology). Part of the Manchester conurbation, Salford has long been perceived by many (particularly those in southern England) as an exceptionally bleak place, inhabited by a large and deprived working class. In the early 2000s, a controversial attempt was made to counter Salford’s “slum” image: in order to reinvent the town as a “media city”, some BBC departments were moved from London to Salford. Far from becoming the source of a new civic identity, this move did little to alleviate the city’s negative image, and the effect on local employment was also very limited. Moreover, the creation of the BBC media hub went hand in hand with an eradication of industrial remains: large parts of Salford’s heritage were thus replaced by a rather bland technocratic architecture representing a blind veneration of a vague digital future.


Second day (11 December)

The second day started with a thematic panel (chair: Werner Tschacher) looking mainly at local identities and workers’ memories through the use of life stories. Dennis Möbus (University of Hagen) presented his research related to the “Lebensgeschichte und Sozialkultur im Ruhrgebiet (LUSIR)”, a collection of personal life stories of workers who lived in the Ruhr area between the 1930s and the 1980s. His goal was to find a way to explore life narratives more fully using digital history methods like text mining and topic modelling. This method makes it possible to go beyond certain assertions that were previously considered as certainties (for example to highlight the existence of different political discourses among women in the industrial region).

João Pedro Santos (NOVA University Lisbon) presented an ongoing research project about the life stories of workers in the Setúbal region in south-west Portugal. The collected stories offer new insights into the history of the region, from its rise (1960s to 1980s) to its subsequent economic decline (post-1980s). These sources provide information on fundamental issues linked to population growth, the economic crisis and unemployment, as well as the advent of new artistic movements and museums which bear witness to memories of this iron and steel region.

A salient aspect of the research presented by Matt Beebee (University of Exeter) on the shipyards in the late 1960s in the Tyneside conurbation (north-east England) was the demonstration that even at the height of the industrial age, workers were anticipating the future decline. The author treats deindustrialisation as a meta-narrative that encompasses different life trajectories and diverse social representations. A firm belief in the value of manual skills among older workers in the 1960s attached a certain prestige to the act of shipbuilding. However, already at that time, the younger generation of workers no longer had the same vision about the future prospects of their work.

The last presentation of this panel was made by Nicole Horáková (University of Ostrava). She described a forthcoming research project on living conditions and working class identity in the Ostrava region (north-eastern Czech Republic) since the early 1990s. This life story-based research aims to shed light on sets of values and social norms through the study of the oral discourse of coal miners in this “Manchester of the East”.

The fifth and last panel (chair: Karin Priem) studied the question of the visual and more broadly artistic representation of the memory of industrial cities. It was an opportunity to analyse how images associated with the memory of the popular classes can develop in a context of structural changes such as industrialisation and deindustrialisation. First, Nadège Mariotti (INSPE – University of Lorraine, IRCAV – Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris Cité) gave a detailed presentation of the history and types of audiovisual sources in the collection of two million photos and 30,000 films from the “Mémoires d’images de l’association Image’Est” project on the industrial past of the Lorraine region. New digitisation techniques have made the diversity of this industrial heritage more accessible than it used to be, in particular through online resources. During her presentation, Nadège Mariotti showcased images of daily life in the past in the Lorraine region (both professional and personal aspects) gleaned by means of a study of extracts from films including Vulcain 53 (a short film directed by Bernard Brun in 1953) and Les Nouveaux Hommes de l’acier (a Jean G. Duclos film from 1968).

Irene Díaz (University of Oviedo) explained during her talk that a significant industrial decline has affected the region of Asturias since the mid-1980s. This region in northern Spain was once prosperous and booming. As in many other industrial regions, factory closures have severely affected the economy and the socio-cultural fabric, generating high unemployment rates. After a considerable lapse of time, this identity-related trauma for the local population has given rise to research on memory and to various artistic creations on the legacy of industrial heritage. It is from this viewpoint that Irène Diaz analysed a selection of artistic productions (by filmmaker Ramón Lluis Bande and comic book illustrator Alfonso Zapico), noting that: “Far from falling into the reverie of idealising the past, this nostalgia appears tightly bound to an epic memory full of defeats, but also of conquests which reinforce an embodiment of resistance.”

In his closing comments, Sebastian Haumann (University of Darmstadt) summarised the main points raised in the presentations. In his view, each case of transformation of an industrial town or city invites us to call into question the related local master narratives. Adopting a methodological historical approach can help us to study the inclusion or exclusion of certain social groups in the chronological evolution of each narrative accompanying the transition process from industrial heartland to post-industrial urban area. For the author, two aspects are crucial when “Rethinking the Histories and Legacies of Industrial Cities”. First, it is important to determine precisely what defines an industrial and post-industrial city; and second, we need to study the history of how these cities represent themselves as well as the representations conveyed on them by others.