john skinner

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I've come to love Stuttgart, which is not a statement you'll hear very often. Certainly the locals won't say so. The socially accepted norm is to apologize for the city: "It's neither as exciting as Berlin, nor as rich as Frankfurt, nor as lively as München, nor as cosmopolitan as Hamburg." Well, yes, that's all true. But those negatives are the mirror images of my positive feelings about the city. I chose Stuttgart over London, England — which is also not a statement you'll hear very often.

Stuttgart lies in a deep and narrow valley known as the Kessel [cauldron], which is enclosed on three sides by forest. To the east, the city opens onto the Neckar River and beyond that a vista to the next range of enclosing hills (also forested). This constraint has meant that industry is located outside the city, which keeps it clean and quiet. (The locals also keep it clean, they wash and polish everything. There is very little graffiti, and hardly any litter. This manic cleanliness has its downside too. In England I regularly found money, notes as well as coins, lying on the street. It's happened once in nine years here.) The Kessel is the reason for the density of Stuttgart, which is one of the aspects I like the most. The city has a population of over half a million, yet you can walk from forest through the middle of town and back out into forest in two hours. (It's admitttedly a hard walk: there is a 330 meter change in altitude within the city limits. The world-famous hills of San Francisco are mere wrinkles at only 284 meters. I don't know why the tourist board doesn't try to make something of this.)

The city is very densely built, uniformly six storeys high with up to three layers of courtyard buildings parallel to the streets. Because of the constant changes in altitude, the courtyards are not as claustrophobic as those of Berlin or Barcelona. The downhill side is always at least one storey lower than the uphill side, so you have a generous expanse of sky, and sometimes even a view out. The courtyard buildings are also usually two storeys lower than those on the perimeter.

The effective population of Stuttgart is much greater than the half-million of us who live within the confines of the Kessel. We could never support the multiplicity of theatres and cinemas on our own, much less a world-standard opera company (recently voted European Opera House of the Year for the fourth time in five years, by golly; and where Philip Glass premiered and recorded several of his operas). The region within a ninety-minute car drive of "downtown" has a population of some twelve million people — they support "our" theatres, cinemas and opera.

Stuttgart is a city of three-dimensional streets. I can't think off-hand of a single street which drops or rises by less than a meter per city block. I've come to see this as the norm: a street whose change in altitude per block is less than my own height, is for me "flat". Look along almost any street in Stuttgart, and you see trees above you at its end: the ridge of the Kessel. No part of Stuttgart is more than two kilometers away from forest (or densely treed parkland), so the city is full of birds. There are many hawks and at least two resident pairs of eagles, which circle high over the valley. ("High" is relative: you can stand at the ridge and look down on them!) I guess they eat rats, I don't know what else they would find.

Given the close proximity to the forest, it's odd that I haven't (yet) seen foxes or hedgehogs, which I regularly saw on the streets of Hampstead [north London]. I fear they must fall victim to the traffic. According to the Bureau of Statistics, there were 348,070 cars registered in the city in 2001, or 590 cars per 1000 people. Factor in that many streets in Stuttgart rise or fall steeply, meaning that they are narrow and twisty, and you can guess that the city has a big traffic problem. (The biggest car-related problem is actually parking: especially where I live in the western valley, you may have a ten minute walk from the best available parking space to your home. Consider how many people live in a six-storey apartment house, and then how few parking spaces there are along the kerb in front of that building. The city actively discourages the building of garages, on the theory that the difficulty of finding a parking space will cause people to give up their cars and start taking the bus. It's a nice theory.)

There are also very few bats in the city. Land in Stuttgart is so valuable that nearly every attic has been converted into apartments, and bats will only roost where they won't be disturbed during the day. There is a small colony that lives near me in the abandoned storage sheds of a timber wholesaler that left town some years ago [which contradicts my theory about the value of land in the city], but otherwise I've only seen bats in uphill areas, where the rich people live. They live in private houses (rather than apartments) and can afford to leave their attics undeveloped.

The commonest socially acceptable wild animal in Stuttgart is probably the Wiesel [weasel], there seems to be a pair in every other street. They have adapted to living in basements and garages, and have learned that they can face down cats and small dogs. There is one I see evenings from my front windows, it lives in one of the houses opposite and goes out hunting at night. The big brother of the Wiesel is the Marder [marten], these are more common in uphill areas which have gardens. Car owners hate them: in winter they creep into the engine space of recently parked cars (i.e. where it's warm), and chew up anything made of or wrapped in rubber. People have tried all manner of tricks to keep them away, none of which seem truly effective. One just accepts rewiring [or replumbing] the car from time to time.

The commonest wild animal in Stuttgart is of course the Ratte [rat], as is true of every other city of the world. Interestingly enough, it's die Ratte: rats are feminine, whereas the eagle and marten are masculine. Hunter and prey, I guess.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2002-2003. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2003.04.17


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