Hamburgers pile up the chips: Europe's wealthiest city is on a winning streak, with living standards double those in South-east England

VILLAS, mansions, palaces. For mile after mile, the display of wealth spreads out as you travel west from Hamburg towards the former fishing village of Blankenese, now the city's most exclusive suburb.

The residences, built by Hamburg's merchants old and new, stand beside the river Elbe, which has contributed so much to the city's prosperity. Some of the houses are easily visible. Others are hidden behind electric gates, and screened by rhododendrons.

In Hamburg, money and power have long been interwoven; Hamburgers point out that the old city hall backs directly on to the stock exchange. The rich merchant families of the old Hanseatic port - who were nicknamed 'Peppersacks' because of the money that could be made by importing spices - have always played a key role in the city's political life.

The European Commission has just published a set of comparative statistics showing Hamburg to be the most prosperous city in Europe. If one takes the European average as 100 - measured as gross domestic product per head of population - Britain lies at 98, ahead only of Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece. The UK's poorest regions have become poorer in the past 10 years, while the richest, the South- east, is a comparative plodder at 117, behind a whole string of cities and regions in Germany. Of these, Hamburg tops the bill, with a staggering 209.

In some respects, this extraordinary pre-eminence is overstated, because of a statistical quirk. Many who work in Hamburg - and therefore contribute to its wealth - live outside its boundaries. But none would deny the city's affluence. In some respects, it is the Liverpool-that-might-have- been. Hamburg suffered heavy air-raid damage in the Second World War, which destroyed industry and flattened many residential areas. More than 40,000 died. But the city's raison d'etre remained. As in Liverpool, maritime trade is an important part of the city's heritage; one noted 1920s office block is even built in the shape of a ship's prow. Unlike in Liverpool, however, the connections with the sea are not just the stuff of wistful memories.

The old warehouses, which in Liverpool and London have been occupied by television studios, museums and fashionable housing, are still used in Hamburg for the storage of goods: oriental carpets, coffee and tea. Despite the advent of containerisation and modern warehousing techniques, the docks continue to be the hub of the city's economic life. Even serious flooding - which has hit the city again this weekend - is seen as a part of Hamburg life.

Bridges, of which Hamburg claims to have more than Venice, criss-cross the canals. Shopping arcades, affluent even by German standards, are everywhere. Top fashions, luxury kitchens, oyster bars: all high- spending consumer life is here. A glitzy city centre is not, in itself, evidence of overall prosperity. Third World and British cities bear witness to the fact that oases of wealth can exist in the midst of poverty. In Hamburg, however - ruled for 40 years by the Social Democrats - the shops are a confident part of the city's self-image.

The poorest area is Wilhelmsburg, south of the Elbe, which has a large Turkish population and is home for many of the 40,000 asylum-seekers and refugees to whom the city has given money and shelter in the past few years (Hamburg alone has taken in more refugees than the entire UK). The district's population is about one-third non-German.

Even in relatively poor Wilhelmsburg, however, there is little of the stark contrast between rich and poor that is a familiar part of the British landscape. Even the district's unattractive tower-blocks are not filthy, neglected, or boarded-up like many of their equivalents in London or Liverpool. Still, the dangers are real. In Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg's Tower Hamlets, the extreme right-wing Republicans enjoy about 15 per cent support. The Social Democrat mayor of the city, Henning Voscherau, recently caused a political storm when he was alleged to have suggested a quota system to prevent foreigners from swamping the area (the mayor said his words had been taken out of context).

The cosy nepotism of the establishment finds itself under threat not just from the extreme right, but from the extreme centre. The Instead Party, a newly created group with almost no political programme and basing its support only on distrust of the old parties, humiliated the Social and Christian Democrats when it gained seats in the regional parliament last year. The ruling Social Democrats were forced into quasi-coalition with this German equivalent of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

None the less, it seems unlikely that Hamburg's good-burgher, cross-party stability will be seriously undermined. Certainly, some things seem likely to remain unchanged.

The Reeperbahn, 'Europe's most sinful mile', is as busy as ever. In what must surely be one of the most unusual traffic signs in the world, motorists are warned: 'Danger of accidents, 7pm-6am.' Translated: watch out for the drunk, distracted and over-excited. On nearby Great Freedom Street, where men in raincoats murmur constant invitations to step inside, a plaque marks where the Beatles played in 1960.

Not only on the Reeperbahn are things still lively. There has been steady growth throughout the period when others were stumbling or collapsing. German unification was one reason for the boost, since Hamburg gained a huge hinterland in eastern Germany. But the boom began even before unity in 1990. The increase in imports from the Far East - an obvious source of difficulties elsewhere in the economy - has provided Hamburg with an important source of income in recent years.

Other sectors, too, have survived almost unscathed. Hamburg is Germany's advertising and media capital. About 50,000 people are employed, directly or indirectly, in the media which, again partly because of German unity, have expanded in recent years. The European Airbus plane is being built here - the first A-321 was officially baptised on Friday - and is one of the largest sources of employment. The financial services sector, too, is strong.

Hamburg remains proud of its attempts to square the circle, so that more money for the few does not necessarily mean less money for the many. Despite the villas of Blankenese, it does not feel like a millionaires' city. It does, however, feel like a city where the money is unlikely to run dry.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz