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20 April 2006

Down and Out in Dortmund

Derelict hotel in Dortmund

Yesterday I decided to visit Dortmund. In my mind it was one of those generic-looking cities clustered in what Rem Koolhaas terms Hollocore, a shapeless, boundless conurbation devoid of any real centre, and from what I'd seen from the train before nothing seemed to distinguish the place from neighbouring Essen, Düsseldorf or Cologne. The centre had indeed that impersonal, sanitised quality with its full array of pedestrianised shopping precincts and bland institutional buildings. Only the vicinity of the railway viaducts had a distinct sexual feel, with derelict warehouses and boarded up hotels scattered in the sun, and the deserted Opera House was almost eerie in its silence. The unlit foyers and reception halls were a cross between the Royal Festival Hall and the Palast der Republik, and it felt as if a big party had just been deserted by its guests as confetti and streamers were strewn all over the thick, purple carpet. The last thing to explore was the extant underground system the city seemed to be endowed with, as not only has every biggish German town a network of its own, but they were also mostly built in the seventies, which explains the sheer abundance of moulded plastic and extravagant designs to be found in some of them. Dortmund was no exception and after getting off at a random stop and taking a few pictures of empty concourses I set off to the mainline station to catch my train. As I was getting back to the platform  two policemen were carrying out an identity check on a man who seemed unable to produce any paper and was trying to justify his existence in a profuse if slightly disjointed manner. For a split second I sensed that I too might come in for it and in the blink of an eye I was indeed escorted back to street level where a van full of colleagues was patiently waiting.

The area, situated on the other (wrong?) side of the railway tracks, was pretty run-down and very working-class, old Jugendstil tenements replacing the faceless, gleaming buildings of the centre. The identity check was conducted in the most dispassionate, neutral manner, which didn’t dispel the sense of inner panic I always feel when in contact with the police. It did actually drag on for a while, probably twenty minutes, and it wasn’t until all ID documents had been returned to their owners that I realised that all the men loitering around the station’s entrance, tramps and winos who I’d originally thought were part of the scenery, had also been checked out by the police as in some massive roundup - although they'd been one short to meet their target, which is probably why I was so hastily brought in to save the day... As the control was taking place a wide range of nightmare scenarios crossed my mind, delirious what-ifs fed by alarming news from France and the lurid professional culture of its police. It dawned on me that they could do or say anything they wanted without me being able to defend myself or explain my presence away – and without actually knowing my rights in this country. In no time at all I had crossed the invisible line dividing a 'normal', respectable population from the eternal suspects of some virtual, generic crime, the crime to be there in the midst of society. It felt like seeing the world from a completely different place as passers-by casually glanced at the small, beleaguered group and went about their everyday business. A woman even actively encouraged the police to carry on with the good work. During the wait I was something else, something I wasn’t even thinking of a few minutes earlier or indeed I never think of in my well-ordered, law-abiding life.

The disruption it caused (I'd missed my train) and the mild irritation at being mistaken for a dropout (i.e. those gathered around the police van) are of course small beer compared to the sort of harassment and institutional violence the homeless and destitute of all kinds suffer on a daily basis. As I was hatching plans to alert the British Consulate to my predicament, I was absent-mindedly staring at the men milling around the station's entrance. Some were standing quietly, resignedly awaiting the outcome of yet another police check, while another one sporting a black eye was muttering a few hopeless words of protest against the madness of the situation. As I made eye contact with the man from the station I felt from his blank expression that he didn’t quite understand what I was doing there or whether I was supposed to do anything at all in such a place. Whereas I had vaguely toyed with the idea of an implicit solidarity suddenly uniting us all, the victims of police intrusion and state coercion, it quickly became clear that such a prospect was meaningless and even absurd. Like in any life situation class difference and alienation were still operating to the full and our temporarily common experience in the hands of the police certainly wasn't going to break the pattern. It was a dispiriting idea, which I accepted with resignation and weariness as I took the train back in the opposite direction. Looking at people on the streets I wondered if there was such a thing as a safe citizen, whether there was a theoretical fine line separating those good people whom the police could never possibly target from those perpetually suspected of getting up to no good, or whether every single one of us was liable one day or other to fall prey to bureaucratic zeal and experience that unnerving, intense little moment of isolation from the entire world. It took me a few hours in the warm, sunny evening to feel at ease again in the community of men and resume my well-ordered, blissful - and I'm starting to suspect, increasingly blinkered - life.


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