‘Glück Auf!’ waved Heinz Spahn, a 78-year-old miner who used to work in the washing plant separating coal from stones and sand in the Ruhr Valley. The traditional mining greeting, he says, means ‘May the mine be open for you’.
After the Second World War, this region with five million residents was the economic engine of Germany. Since the 1960s, production has declined to the point that, with state subsidies now over, the last two mines are expected to close by December 2018.
Spahn represents both the end of an era and a new beginning. He is now a tour guide at the Zollverein, a converted industrial complex and Unesco heritage site in Essen. Among the industrial relics − a pithead tower and many holes in the ground – there is an ice rink, a swimming pool, a museum and a hipster cafe. A high-tech centre is emerging which currently is home to 80 start-ups.