Hei­del­berg, af­ter the troops

The de­par­ture of 20,000 US troops from the univer­sity town left a hole. In­no­va­tive lo­cals found ways to fill it

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Matt Pick­les

The lights no longer work in the sports hall of Pat­ton Bar­racks, so build­ing man­ager Heiko Müller uses bricks to prop open the doors and let in the sun. It re­veals fray­ing bas­ket­ball nets and blue gym lock­ers scarred with rust. The whis­tle blew on the hall’s last bas­ket­ball game five years ago.

For nearly 70 years af­ter the sec­ond world war, Hei­del­berg was the US army’s head­quar­ters in Europe, and a Nato com­mand cen­tre. But in 2009 the Pen­tagon de­cided to re­duce the num­ber of Amer­i­can troops in Europe and pull out of the Ger­man city en­tirely. By Septem­ber 2013, they were all gone.

Their de­par­ture stripped Hei­del­berg of a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of its iden­tity. It had long been known for its me­dieval univer­sity and cas­tle, but the link with the army had be­come in­escapable: 20,000 sol­diers and their as­so­ci­ates had lived in a city of only 150,000 peo­ple, oc­cu­py­ing more than 180 hectares – roughly the same size as the city’s his­tor­i­cal cen­tre.

“There was a lot of fear when the Amer­i­cans moved out,” says longterm Hei­del­berger Car­men James. “They were a big em­ployer and part of our way of life.” The mayor, Eckart Würzner, pre­dicted their loss would cost the city €50m ($58m) each year, and even flew to Wash­ing­ton to try to per­suade the US to change its mind.

The army’s de­par­ture did lead to job losses, and to a fall in trade, but grad­u­ally the city re­alised that the space left by the army was an op­por­tu­nity.

Hei­del­berg’s univer­sity ranked highly for med­i­cal and life sci­ences, and was home to the soft­ware multi­na­tional SAP. But grad­u­ates would reg­u­larly leave for bet­ter jobs else­where, and the city’s nascent tech­nol­ogy sec­tor was hav­ing trou­ble get­ting off the ground, be­cause it lacked space – for re­search to be spun out into com­pa­nies, for star­tups to ex­pand and for em­ploy­ees to live af­ford­ably.

The de­par­ture of the US army changed that. One vic­tory came when a young com­pany, Ame­ria, which de­vel­ops dig­i­tal shop floors, was con­sid­er­ing leav­ing – un­til it was of­fered space in the for­mer of­fi­cers’ casino at Pat­ton Bar­racks. The digs suited Ame­ria, and in 2021 it will move into new of­fices that con­nect to pop-up shops where it can test ideas on cus­tomers.

“There was no space like this in Hei­del­berg, or any­where re­ally,” says Ame­ria’s Jo­hannes Tröger. “In­no­va­tion needs space, and the for­mer Pat­ton Bar­racks are the space to cre­ate a vi­brant com­mu­nity of star­tups, es­tab­lished com­pa­nies and cor­po­ra­tions.”

The US with­drawal also came be­fore the global mi­grant cri­sis, when hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees ar­rived in Ger­many. Many cities strug­gled to ac­com­mo­date the new ar­rivals – but Hei­del­berg had Pa­trick Henry Vil­lage, a 100-hectare site that once housed 16,000 sol­diers. It be­came the regis­tra­tion cen­tre for all refugees to the state of Baden-Würt­tem­berg. Twice as many refugees have since come through the


On guard A soldier at the US HQ in Hei­del­berg, in 2002


Empty ta­bles The of­fi­cers’ mess, now the Pa­trick Henry Vil­lage refugee cen­tre

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