For the German retail industry, spring still has not arrived. For four years in a row, industry representatives say, sales have been declining by an average of 1.5 percent each year, which has had a tough impact on employment. And shops in inner cities were especially affected last year, when 30,000 people in the retail sector lost their jobs. A recent survey forecast pessimistic futures for inner-city businesses, while figures are best for shopping malls out on the urban periphery.
In Mannheim, a city of 300,000 inhabitants in Germany's south-west, shop owners say it's the poor condition of the urban space -- the litter and the run-down streets -- that makes customers stay away. Now, Mannheim city officials have come up with a new idea to prevent inner cities from turning into shabby slums.
Every morning at 7 a.m., Dario Fontanella's workday starts with the same ritual. Although dressed in a neat suit with a stylish red-dotted tie, he -- the boss himself -- grabs a broom and sweeps the pavement around his Italian ice cream parlor in the local pedestrian zone.
"In the 1960s, German streets used to be so tidy and well-kept that you could have eaten off the sidewalk, while in Italy, my home, everything was much grubbier," Fontanella said. "Now it's almost the other way round. If I didn't do the cleaning every day, our tables out on the sidewalk would soon drown in mud."
Dario Fontanella has been running his cafe for 37 years. Over the past few years, he has become more and more alarmed as the inner-city shopping district chokes on its own garbage. Dustbins overflow with empty cans, bottles and hamburger wrappings; the crevices of the historic cobblestone streets are filled with cigarette butts.
And since public budgets are strained, there are not enough city garbage collectors to cope with all the dust. The consequence is that ever more consumers have started fleeing from the inner-city pedestrian zone, according to concerned shopkeepers, a number of whom are also considering moving out.
"You just need to take a proper look around and you'll see how many shop windows are empty," said one pharmacist on the central market square. "This big shop over there -- that used to be one of the truly sought-after locations of the city -- has not seen a new tenant for more than nine months now. If the local government doesn't do something about all this garbage, there'll soon be no one left here."
Sweep for the economy
But since last year, city officials have taken action -- though in a rather unorthodox way. With the coming of spring, they call on the Mannheim population to clean their own streets -- without pay -- during one week of cleaning festivities and other celebrations.
Right in the front line of the clean-up campaign are the Mannheim kindergartens and schools.
"Our pupils throw away their garbage just wherever they are," said one teacher. "Chewing gum, paper, banana peel -- and I hope that they will stop doing so when they realize how much work it is to clean it up again. I want them to feel more responsible for their city."
To drive home the point, some teachers like Mrs. Schäfer, a math teacher at one of the inner-city secondary schools, have taken to bringing their classes out into the city to clean up litter-strewn areas -- to much protest.
Willing cleaners growing
The city council's one-week cleaning festival is meant to convey the message to the citizens that cleanliness is about economic prosperity and the welfare of the community by securing jobs.
The message seems to be getting through. Last year, 14,000 people out of a total of 300,000 Mannheim inhabitants volunteered; this year, numbers have been even higher since the city council holds raffles for the participants which are drawn at a cleaning fair towards the end of the week.
"I collected 700 empty cigarette packets this week," said one retired man, enthusiastically. "It's good for keeping in shape, because you always have to bend down."
Police involvement concerns human rights groups
But persuading citizens to volunteer is not the only measure city government has taken. For the last few months, the local police have been enforcing so-called litter fines: throwing away a cigarette costs 10 euros ($13); for a can, you have to pay as much as 25 euros.
"Every place where you have litter lying around, citizens don't feel safe," said Mannheim official Rolf Schmidt, who's responsible for safety in the city. "That's a fact proven by statistics. And this is a big threat for our local retail industry: For if people are afraid of becoming the victim of a crime, they will never go to this particular area for shopping. And thus we also installed cameras in our pedestrian zone to monitor public space."
However, the cameras have alarmed civil rights groups. They fear that the Mannheim "war on crud" is part of a larger strategy not only of cleaning inner cities, but also of disciplining their inhabitants. Julia, a Mannheim activist, described an incident during a demonstration last year.
"We wanted to distribute pamphlets, small fliers, and then police came up to us and forbade us to do so, since our fliers would only contaminate the streets," she said. "This violates all rights to free speech. All this cleanliness talk is just the tip of the iceberg."
Cleansing gets a new meaning for some
Julia said that, in the end, the public space of inner cities would look like all those privately-owned malls: perfect to do an extended shopping tour on a Saturday afternoon, but cleansed of everything that does not fit into the picture. Lately, Mannheim police have started to drive away homeless people hanging around the central marketplace.
But for one week a year, the marketplace is littered in a very different way: people taking part in the cleaning fair drop their own trash. Tidying up their plastic plates, cutlery and cans will take half an hour, three garbage collectors and two cleaning vans -- but still a good investment, officials say. Some kinds of dirt are simply less dirty than others.