When Joachim Seifert tells his life story, he begins “in the year 1864”, and proceeds by a series of short and snappy sentences. "Helmet’s warmer than cap,” he says, so he still wears a miner’s white helmet with his anorak: that model stood him in good stead for 30 years down in the pit. Now that he’s pushing 75, the Ruhr region has become a cultural capital – and the retired collier’s past one of the many attractions at this year’s international event.

He has already told thousands of visitors how he and his fellow miners hauled coal out of the bowels of the earth day in, day out, till their shift was over at the Zollverein colliery. And when they ask why all this drudgery, he answers: on account of the year 1864. "That’s when my wife’s grandpa came here. He was the first in the family at Zollverein."

Austerity order of the day

This is the first time a whole German region has been designated a cultural capital. Although hardly any more coal is mined here, Old King Coal still reigns supreme over the culture and development of this area. Yes, but! interject the organisers of this year’s festivities, Ruhr culture has long since embraced a whole lot more than industrial culture: the area now boasts 120 theatres, five universities and hundreds of research institutes. The Ruhr district, they insist, is a modern metropolitan area, the third-largest conurbation in Europe. Its 5.3 million inhabitants are no longer breathing coal dust, but the future.

And yet in the Ruhr region, amid the postwar architecture, bargain basement shops and allotment gardens, 275,000 people are currently unemployed. Only four of its 200 mines are still running. 53 towns are situated in the 4,435-square-kilometre area between Hamm and Wesel, and virtually all of them are running on an austerity budget these days. There is no overarching intercity identity. The Ruhr district is no metropolis, but an aggregation of small communities with a big shared history of coalmining.

History of mining is deeply ingrained

There were huge hopes. A look at Liverpool, which had the honour two years ago, made the investment look worthwhile: at the end of the day, the returns were five times the expenditures, and Liverpool managed to cast off its reputation as the dreary blue-collar city in North West England. The "Ruhr 2010" organisers were out to create the same effect, to build up the image of a new departure. So in July, 20,000 tables will be pushed together to put the “world’s longest table” on the permanently congested Autobahn 40. And the residents, who otherwise keep to themselves, are actually going to sit down to lunch together there, triumphing over the traffic that has long since come to be recognised as a regional evil.

But high hopes have since given way to deep-seated doubts. In the middle of the recession, sponsors reneged on their pledges, paring the budget from €80 million to €62.5 million. Large-scale projects remain uncompleted. People have long since begun to wonder how an area is to develop if even standard infrastructure is unaffordable. And how can a structural transformation take place in this earthbound region, whose long history of mining is deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of people?

Exhibitions a form of public mourning

In no other German region did industrialisation take place on such a gargantuan scale. Within the space of a few decades, a marshy landscape was metamorphosed into a colossal production site. Seven billion tons of coal were extracted until the crisis hit the mining industry. Two world wars, the economic miracle and Cold War, steel for cars, steel for weapons. Workers poured in by the hundreds of thousands, forming immigrant towns, blue-collar towns, around the industrial plants.

The last shift went down into the pit in December 1986. For a long time, despite the perennial anxiety about their livelihood, the colliers had a secure, straightforward life. Working the mine was a whole way of life. Some consider all the tours, concerts and exhibitions at the industrial sites as a form of public mourning.

A thousand jobs created to date

A ministerial decree issued in 1986 saved the Zollverein from demolition. Now a new masterplan has been implemented so as to keep making money at least on this monumental symbol of the mining industry. So it is that the colliery became what the whole Ruhr region is supposed to become: a creative centre. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed a bright orange escalator to serve as the new entrance to a visitors’ centre, and his British colleague Norman Foster redesigned the boiler house.

The number of visitors has been growing, about a thousand jobs have been created to date, one of which is held by Joachim Seifert’s son – a collier too with a university education. The Seifert family has made it through the structural transformation. "My son is the fourth generation at the colliery,” says his proud father. And yet the project won’t serve as a model for others. Zollverein cost the European Union, the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia and the City of Essen €155 million. That kind of money can’t be raised on a regular basis.