Frankly … social Three City Rat Scenes

As department stores downsize, fast-food restaurants disappear and tourists throng to gentrifying neighbourhoods, Maximilian Buddenbohm observes changes in the city as reflected in its resident rats.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

Portrait of a rat, looking upwards to the left The rat works without any hustle and bustle | Photo (detail): R. Richter; © mauritius images / Tierfotoagentur
I walk twenty minutes from my flat to my office. The route takes me through two neighbourhoods, one of which is made up almost entirely of office buildings. Over the past two years, three takeaway joints along my route have closed down for good. Maybe they didn’t survive the during the pandemic. Or maybe patrons stayed away because they had to save money on account of high inflation, so they made themselves sandwiches in the morning instead of buying takeaway for lunch the way they used to. Or maybe there are simply fewer office workers around post-Covid, now that most of them work from home at least a few days a week. I think the latter is the most likely explanation, though it’s well-nigh impossible to find out for sure. On the whole, these shuttered takeaway joints along my route reflect broader changes in the city. Something that was a normal part of everyday urban life for such a long time is now fading away.

Post-apocalyptic scene at the shuttered takeaway

One of the three shuttered fast-food joints is looking particularly derelict lately: all the fixtures in front have been torn off, including the signs, the awning, the outside lighting, even the canopy tents over the plastic chairs. Some cardboard boxes haphazardly dumped on the pavement out front are now partially torn open and sodden with drizzle. The whole place looks like a ruin – in which I spy, as I pass by, a rat nibbling up the last scraps of food. Could be a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. The rat nabs something out of a broken bucket, carries it a little ways off, then comes back for more. It is methodically performing a job that humans have entrusted it with, and I estimate that in a few weeks there’ll be no trace left of this former takeaway. We tear stuff down, the rat lends a hand – or rather a paw – and takes a cut.

Then again, who knows: a new takeaway restaurant might very well open up here and the rat will have to make new arrangements with the next proprietors. They’re bound to agree to work different shifts, though people might not notice who’s taking over every night after closing time.

Tearing off a chunk of the city’s history

Change of scene. They’re tearing down the back of a big department store in downtown Hamburg, literally downsizing the place. This store is part of a chain that’s closing branches in many cities and laying off lots of workers. It’s been all over the news, widely discussed and heatedly debated. But hardly anyone claims to know how to solve the crisis that has hit retailers and city centres lately, no one has even a halfway-plausible solution good enough for small talk. Which makes the subject fundamentally different from many other current problems.

We’re talking about big department stores here, some of which used to occupy whole blocks at the core of many a city centre. They weren’t necessarily nice to look at, in fact some were the very epitome of ugly architecture, atrocities left over from the 1970s, but they were important all the same. That’s over now. It’s the end of an era. A crane reaches high up to the steel girder of a skyway bridge connecting two parts of the building and violently shakes and tugs on it. The skywalk is no longer needed. The walls are trembling amid the dust and noise. Meanwhile, a crowd of people below are watching from the pavement, many with a look of consternation on their upturned faces. Some of them probably used to work – or still work – in this building. Some may have just found out today about the next round of redundancies, as I read later in the local paper. So this is another piece of the city, of local history, shopping culture and working life, that’s disappearing, along with associated experiences and memories. Some of the onlookers are shaking their heads. We’re watching something changing here, we don’t know what’s to come, and the faces around me definitely don’t look optimistic.

Everyone seems to be watching the demolition, but down at the base of the building, which I only happen to notice whilst jotting something down, a rat slips over the rubble, dashes across the street and disappears around the corner in seconds flat. Maybe this rodent is losing its home too, or at least a chunk of it, I think to myself. If I were a press photographer with a fast-enough trigger finger, I’d have got a good shot of that rat scurrying past the department store’s sacked workers at the demolition site – and sold the photo for a good price. But I’m only capable of writing about what I’ve seen, and weeks later at that, after which it takes another few days for my articles to come out. Everything takes a little longer in written journalism.

Tourists snapping up everyday life

Another change of scene. My neighbourhood is often featured in travel guides. It’s what you come to see when you travel to Hamburg. This is where people head to shop, stroll or go out on the town. You can even take a guided tour nowadays to get the whole story. These tours are catching on, and this is another sign of change; they hardly ever used to come round here. When I moved here twenty years ago, this was still a pretty run-down, inexpensive part of town – it’s hard to believe how low the rents were back then. Now, whenever I go out for a walk in the hood, I invariably come across some well-informed person explaining to a cluster of curious tourists where they are and what they are seeing. I know where they are and what they are seeing, I think to myself: they are standing in my way and seeing me make my way to the local discount shop. So it is that some people’s humdrum daily lives become a backdrop and even an event for others, who will associate their memorable holiday experiences with the locals’ everyday errands. It feels strange and I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like for the residents of Venice or Amsterdam, where even more tourists mill around marvelling – according to plan – at everything they see and thinking to themselves: So this is how they live round here.

There’s a group of maybe ten or twenty people standing in front of a church. It’s the church facing my building. Some fellow with a clipboard under his arm is reciting the history of the church and holding up a picture: when the church was built, when it was partly destroyed in the last war, how and when was it rebuilt. Some of the tourists are taking pictures of the beautiful steeple and the big blue and yellow wooden letters forming the word “LIEBE” (i.e. “LOVE”) in front of the portal.

A rat steals the show

And then a rat comes along. It’s limping around slowly, looking pretty ragged, even mangy. It’s out and about in broad daylight, oblivious to the people there: this is clearly a sick rat. So this may well be one of its last forays. The tourists now notice the rat hobbling past them and almost all of them immediately begin snapping away: Look, look, a rat! These are not cries of horror, however, but of delight. A rat right in front of the church, and so friendly – how marvellous! So this is Hamburg. What a sight, better snap it up fast! The tourists are too busy shooting souvenir photos and videos of the rat to keep up any pretence of listening to the guy with the clipboard, who stoically continues his talk all the same. The rat’s better and more interesting. Then it takes a little break behind a carton littering the pavement there, which is a shame: hard to get a good shot of the little critter there. "Come on out!" orders one of the tourists jokingly, as if the rat were under contract to the local tourist office and had to finish doing its act as agreed.

I suppose these people weren’t disgusted or horrified by the rat because they were in tourist mode and found everything there of interest: it all depends on your state of mind. We all shift into this tourist mode now and then, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it does distort our sense of reality, as you can tell from suchlike scenes. Coming across a rat on their own doorstep would doubtless rub these people the wrong way, but this particular rat limping around in front of the church will become a memory of their trip to Hamburg: Remember the rat in front of the church? Now that was good stuff!

I checked later on to see whether the rat had given up the ghost behind the carton, but it was gone, must have moved on. In the meantime, the tourists who’ve moved on too will have long since shared the rat shots with family and friends: Look, that was in Hamburg. That’s what it was like there.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Susi Bumms und Sineb El Masrar. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.