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Thousands of miles away and a thousand-dollar plane ride across the Atlantic lies a German city with a soft spot for Buffalo that won’t make the cut on most trip-to-Europe itineraries. Yellow and black soccer team flags flap from windows. A plain medieval church where painted wooden panels of saints – hidden during the war but proudly displayed again – is a point of pride. A café with a talking parrot where you can order a mean slice of Black Forest Cake.

This is Dortmund, Buffalo’s Sister City.

It is one of 17 in our collection of Sister Cities, a national postwar program intended to keep peace by building friendships with old enemies. After almost 40 years, Dortmund is one of Buffalo’s oldest, strongest and busiest connections.

Turns out our German Sister feels like a genuine Western New York relative, like an urban mirror, European style. Similar ingredients, some different results.

After its steel industry collapsed, Dortmund rebounded with information technology, biomedicine and logistics. But unemployment is still 11 percent. Immigrants have settled here, but the community is segregated. Its championship soccer team, founded in 1909 and named for a brewery, embodies its identity as an authentic blue-collar place.

When all but one of the city’s 14 breweries closed down, an old building was salvaged and gutted. It was converted into an art museum, cinema and restaurant with a giant U on the roof. Its iconic top story is wrapped in an LED screen that shows changing pictures of floating leaves, runners and rushing water.

The city has the European look of century-old apartment buildings, not houses, along the sidewalk edges. A downtown corridor of shops is closed to traffic but busy with walkers and cyclists. Old buildings are converted for new uses, like an old tram station that’s now a restaurant. Parks, tall trees and grassy medians cover half the city of 600,000, north, near the Dutch border.

I didn’t set out to vacation in a Sister City, but when I applied for a program that invited journalists to Germany for two weeks of education about Europe and its U.S. connections, one of their questions was, Would you like to do a story? I remembered Buffalo had a Sister. Why not find out what it was like and what its connection to us meant?

Who would have thought there would be a little plaza named for Buffalo next to a buffalo sculpture?

German roots

The temperature in Dortmund was in the 50s as I arrived, cold enough for a jacket and scarf. The sky was gray. Not my first pick for a summer getaway. I was surprised that the double-decker tourist bus was nearly full. Turns out more and more Europeans have been coming to check things out here in the last few years: In 2010, the European Union provoked a spike in tourism by bestowing the annual “Capital of Culture” designation on Dortmund’s Ruhr River region, reserved for the underrated.

I thought of home again.

Some of Dortmund’s tragic history has been repurposed: The bombed Gestapo headquarters, a plain office building, were remodeled into a new home for the Foreign Society, which among other things, runs one of the high school Buffalo exchanges that have kept the Sister City connections strong.

Getting there – it’s 300 miles from Berlin – took about four hours by speeding train, time to write 15 postcards and nearly finish a book on German history.

Helpfully, it had an account, and a chart, of the 19th century flood of immigrants to the United States during Germany’s own warring, sputtering beginnings of democracy and country:

It was why at least two of my great-great grandparents moved to America, why the last census found “German-American” ancestry as one of the top ethnic backgrounds and why it was German skilled laborers who opened breweries and built buildings. It was a German – Jacob Friedrich Schoellkopf – who rigged hydropower from Niagara Falls when Buffalo was starting to grow.

The front door of the Dortmund train station led to a bare plaza that made the city seem uninviting and gritty. It is not the sort of place with obvious cachet. Getting random American travelers to add this to a 10-day trip through Rhine country, as if it were Cologne with its soaring cathedral and perfume, or loaded with modern glamour like Berlin, would be a hard sell.

I thought of home again, specifically how some travelers must feel as they roll their suitcases under the highway overpass from the Exchange Street Amtrak Station.

Then, just across the street and past a two-story library shaped like a funnel and covered in dark glass, I saw steps with a rose garden terrace. They led to a more central pocket of streets, a plain, flat-sided medieval church, shops and Café Kleimann.

There, the parrot whistled and Hartmut Peinemann, the man who would be my guide for the next 36 hours, ordered himself a slice of bread smeared with liverwurst.

He remembered one of his 12 trips to Buffalo. “Everybody was crying when we were leaving.” From 1982 until his retirement, Peinemann, a former high school vice principal, ran the weeks-long student visits to Buffalo.

Short, merry and eloquent, Peinemann walks with a cane and energy that would have come in handy when he took calls late at night from homesick German teenagers.

His city, which has remade itself into a white-collar center for high-tech information technology and biomedical jobs, is known for its strength. Medieval Dortmund, he said, fended off an invading bishop when others couldn’t. “They never could get the city,” he said. “What people always say about Dortmund: ‘As fast as Dortmund.’ That means, ‘so firm.’ ‘So strong as Dortmund.’ ”

Steelmaking’s demise

Buffalo got matched up in the 1970s, when a visiting Dortmund teacher at the University at Buffalo – the late Herbert Morgenroth – was so struck by the similarities between the cities that he started the official networking required to found a Sister City, a program started after World War II to foster peace and goodwill.

In 1976, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger joined a “very large contingent of Buffalonians” – including the disc jockey Shane “Brother Shane” Gibson – who went to check out Dortmund.

It was Schimminger’s first trip to Europe, which he also remembers for the beer, serendipitous camaraderie, an industrial city that had proudly rebuilt itself after the war. “People make connections and friendships,” he said, “and better understand the world.”

This 2013 Dortmund portrait came together on wandering walks with Peinemann, through conversation with a coordinator of soccer fans who seemed like a more outlandish, yet-earnest version of Bills fans and on a red double-decker tour bus that went too fast by places I wanted to stop in at.

A defunct, brown hulk of a steel plant was one of the grandest sights. In the yellow afternoon light it loomed tall as a skyscraper. With guts exposed, its pipes, ladders and smokestacks looked like a grounded ship or waterworks gone dry. It was hard not to be reminded of the deserted Bethlehem Steel.

The plant, which once employed thousands, started to close in 1998. The oldest part was left in a monumental tribute of the past. Registered on the city’s “heritage” list, people can tour it.

Empty space left behind was converted: modern condo cubes, where soccer stars are moving, with matching squared off terraces ring a man-made lake with its own little dock. The development’s rising-from-the-ashes name, same as the old factory, seems prescient: Phoenix.

After we sped by grass medians and parks that threaded through the city like ribbons, there were more old and new buildings, more in a plain cube style that held the six colleges with about 45,000 students. Dortmund’s Sister City coordinator Andreas Schulz pointed this out from his seat across the aisle.

Schulz’s job helping curious visitors from Dortmund’s eight sister cities has included Buffalo delegations. Musicians, artists, police, firefighters and university people have gone back and forth.

I thought of Buffalo’s own new medical corridor plans with UB when Schulz said a technology center was set right next to the university in 1985 to encourage collaboration as part of the city’s economic shift.

Working with so many foreigners trying to make things happen has changed him. “This liaison makes one more friendly,” he said, “and more interested.”

As the bus eased back to its train station beginning, it passed a gully of construction cranes and dirt diggers that will be the new museum devoted to soccer, a game at the core of the city’s identity.

The Borussia Dortmund – “BVB” – soccer team, named for a defunct brewery, is beloved for its championship wins against the wealthy, high falutin’ Munich team – the German equivalent of New York’s Yankees – and because it persevered through two wars and the shut-down of a decades-old economy.

“In the former times, we had the breweries. There was change the last, about 20, years. Borussia Dortmund was always there,” said Timm Hübner, from an echoing conference room at team headquarters, where a queue of people buying tickets for next season filled the first floor lobby.

“We came from the bottom, now we are so successful,” said Hübner, one of the team’s “fan liaisons.” “We showed we are a workers’ club. We worked from the bottom to the top.”

The BVB stadium with yellow scaffolding that looks like bug legs sells out its 80,000 seats every game. Hübner is in charge of previewing signs, such as the black and yellow picture of an enormous binocular-wielding fan with the grin of Batman’s Joker.

He is also called on to carry out a wide, and sometimes weird, array of tasks, and to consider hard-to-answer questions like, “Is it OK to drive through Europe – London, the Netherlands, Belgium – with a team scarf flying out the window?”

“How can I know what is, in Belgium, allowed or not?” said Hübner with a smile.

High school connection

Kids played soccer on a break between classes outside Heisenberg Gymnasium, a short walk through a field from the tram stop. Inside, a classroom of students who spoke English with casual, thoughtful ease explained how they were fascinated by local open-hearted ways at their exchange homes in Niagara Falls, pregnant students who get help so they stay in school and the freedom to drive a car instead of riding a subway everywhere.

Benita Schwengler was most impressed during her Niagara Falls stay when she got away from the industrial buildings and hiked the Niagara Gorge and tried to see the falls through the spray on the Maid of the Mist. In Germany sports happen outside of high school. Niagara Falls High School’s football and crowds were much more exciting.

“I really liked that part of American students’ life,” said Schwengler, 17.

The class giggled at the mention of dancing – stunningly close – at homecoming. “It was very funny to see how American pupils celebrated because we do it very differently here,” she said.

The food was better than they expected, too. Instead of the fast food Luisa Toennissen figured she’d be eating, her Niagara Falls mother cooked “European style” with a lot of vegetables and pasta. Her exchange brother, who had picked up a love of Dortmund soccer on his own visit, even watched games with her. “It was really cozy,” she said. “I liked the whole relation.”

The high school exchanges, started with a letter to Bennett High School, which had just started an international studies program. “We were kind of shocked that we got a letter from Dortmund,” said now-retired principal Jim Christmann. “I don’t know how they got our name.”

The exchanges that followed were dependent on interested teachers and went through a few schools, including Kensington and City Honors, before landing at Niagara Falls almost 10 years ago.

Yet as German gets taught less and less in high school – this year students from seven local schools competed in the annual essay contest – people from Buffalo aren’t as interested in visiting as Dortmunders are. Dortmund’s Foreign Society, which runs a second, more expensive, semester-long program, organizes stays for about 40 kids a year at schools like St. Joe’s Collegiate and Buffalo Seminary. If more families were willing to host, 125 could be placed.

Buffalo’s Dortmund Sister City President Joseph Roetter said there has been friendship, and the occasional romance, since the exchange’s mid-1970s beginnings. Some, like his daughter working as a university foreign study coordinator, were inspired to international careers.

High school exchanges open possibilities, said Roetter, a former City Honors teacher and exchange coordinator.

“It isn’t limited to Bailey Avenue or the Niagara River. It’s a big world out there and you can be successful in it,” Roetter said.

Next stop: Buffalo Place

Between bites of liverwurst at the café, Peinemann talked about his good friends in Buffalo. They’ve planned a trip out West together before too long. Connections like this are one way to help make up for the evil and fascism of the war. It still haunts the country and people like him who weren’t even around for it.

“So Buffalo is our Sister City,” said Peinemann. “I want to keep that. It’s not the city that’s important; it’s the people in the city who are important.”

As the parrot whistled from the cage beside us, café owner Sebastian Schröder came by with his smart phone to show us the Google link to one of the things he was proud to know about Buffalo.

A funny and real, grammatically correct English sentence about buffalo who live in Buffalo getting buffaloed conjured up by a UB philosophy professor: Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

“We are partner cities since years here,” Schröder said. “I think we have a square over there and there’s a buffalo on it.”

“Platz von Buffalo” was our next stop. There it was, a few blocks away. Just outside a subway station’s glass atrium exit was a little buffalo sculpture and a blue street sign.

There are plans, Peinemann said, to move this across the street and build a new Sister City park beneath the old brewery and converted art gallery-cinema complex with the giant U on the roof.

That way, he said, it will join other little “platzes” that celebrate all of Dortmund’s eight sisters and what can happen when people turn empty buildings, businesses gone bad, and even the disappointment and heartbreak of war, into something better.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com