There’s not much in the world that I love more than a party. The bigger the better. Something that spills out onto the streets, instils a feel-good vibe into everyone and brings a sense of community and togetherness. Especially when the party has the added incentive of being free. Fortunately a lot of people feel the same way, but unfortunately once something like this gains a bit of momentum it struggles to stay out of the radar of advertisers, money-grabbers and suffocation from commercialism and bureaucracy.
This was tragically witnessed last moth with the death of 20 people at the Love Parade in Duisburg. The Love Parade is an annual gargantuan techno festival that has its origins prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall as celebration of peace and international understanding through music. As it was classed as a “political gathering,” the clean-up and security costs had to be covered by the German Authorities until 2001, when Love Parade was declared by the authorities to be a commercial enterprise, leaving festival organizers had to cover the costs.
The result of this? An increase of advertisement which caused the original founder Dr Motte to stand down due to the over-commercialization of the event. Up stepped Rainer Schaller – head of McFit gymnasiums sensing the perfect opportunity to market his company. Last year Schaller told the German Handelsblatt newspaper that it allowed him to “use a relatively small budget to gain a high recognition factor.” Not stopping at this, he sensed that the Love Parade of 2010 would be the perfect chance to push the “Ruhr 2010 European Capital of Culture” bid, no doubt taking a sizable cut from a 5-year contract to keep the Love Parade in the Ruhr region and drag it away from its Berlin home which had managed to accommodate the large number of attendees previously.
The city of Duisburg, with a population of 500,000 people, was declared as a perfect host for a gathering which the year before had attracted 1.4 million people. To add to this, a massive underestimation of the number of attendees was uncovered by German news magazine Der Spiegel in an official document from the city that said the event was cleared for only 250,000 guests. Additionally, Wolfgang Orscheschek, a spokesman for the police trade union, said Schaller and his team had pressured the city into hosting the event, despite concerns among locals and safety officials. Police experts from all over North Rhine-Westphalia commentated that it was “a death trap”. And the fire brigade had also warned the organizers. The site chosen had one main access route which was a 200 to 300 metre-long tunnel through which the crowd were to be funnelled.
The inevitability of an incident stemming from a million plus crowd (which the Love Parade has consistently drawn in recent years) squeezing through a bottleneck to cram into a space which only could accommodate 250,000 people was obvious to all except the Schaller-influenced, money-hungry authorities. Twenty one people who planned for a day of celebration and happiness paid the ultimate price, with hundreds more facing severe injuries as the bottleneck filled, and revellers and organisers panicked causing a huge crush. One person attending the parade said “Everywhere you looked, there were people with blue faces. My boyfriend pulled me out over the bodies, otherwise we both would have died in there. How can I ever forget those faces? The faces of the dead.” In a statement on behalf of the 1,400 police on duty at Love Parade, Orscheschek said the victims had been “sacrificed for material interests.”
While this was going on, I was attending the much lower key “Tramlines Festival” in Sheffield. This is a council backed, free festival which aims to showcase all that the city has to offer, meanwhile encouraging the use of public transport (all the venues were within walking distance of the “tramline”) and an environmental conscience – highlighting the fact that Sheffield was recently named the greenest city in Europe. Excepting some of the acts that played, commercialism and advertising were barely noticeable. The vibe in the city was fantastic all weekend, filled with families with small children, elderly couples, hipster teenagers and everything in-between. Local businesses will have thrived with the extra 50,000 or so people on the streets, and local residents seemed to genuinely feel proud of what their city had to offer.
On a smaller scale still, I also attended Cowley Road carnival in Oxford earlier in the year. This is an annual celebration of the clash of cultures in the area – like a scaled down version of Notting Hill Carnival. Again, the vibe of the place was contagious. Street performers weaved in and out of the crowd, passing sound systems, barbecues and buffets that restaurants had put out while everyone ate, drank and were very merry. Another example of a successful council-backed arts project which isn’t overrun and heavily influenced by corporate sponsors.
Occasions like this are important, not only for the people attending, but the cities hosting them and the businesses within these cities. The soaring popularity of music and performing arts festivals in this country along with the ever rising ticket prices mean that free alternatives if offered, would be well attended, and would have a predominantly positive effect on the local area. More importantly, these events are organic and have evolved from the area which they are held. If sponsorship money or overriding political motives caused them to move to a new area which was incapable of handling the logistics of the event then similar tragedies could occur.
I fear that the Love Parade tragedy will reflect badly on the people who loved to celebrate for the right reasons and reflect the traditional, original vibe of the event. I hope that investigations castigate Schaller for the negative slant he’s managed to eternally stamp on what has always been known an overly positive, peaceful gathering.