Munich threatens to bring its brooms into 21st century - and sparks an outcry

08/06/2014 3:28 PM

08/06/2014 3:43 PM

After 850 years of using tied-together twigs to sweep the streets, Munich this summer decided to give newfangled plastic brush brooms a try.

The city, which had been importing twigs from Italy so that workers could make their own brooms, decided to make the switch for a number of reasons, though basically they all boiled down to the fact that the year is 2014, not 1420. Modern brooms are cheaper and more durable, can be bought at the store, and generally are a lot less hassle. Still, the cleaning debate is a classic example of tradition vs. convenience, so the switch is not without its critics.

The traditional brooms, which Munich streetsweepers began using about the time the Magna Carta was adopted and a couple hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, were made fresh each day from twigs of heath brought in from Tuscany. They tended to last about one full day of heavy sweeping before needing to be replaced.

Dagmar Ruemenapf, Munich’s spokeswoman, said city workers tied together about 50,000 of the handmade brooms each year. The plastic bristle brooms will be bought already assembled; the city says it expects to need only 900 in a year.

“It’s not just that we want to save money,” she noted. “The new brooms also handle better, and don’t have to be replaced all the time.”

The critics included some of Munich’s streetsweepers, according to the Munchen Abendzeitung newspaper.

“For us, the traditional broom is as important as the baton for a conductor,” one was quoted as saying. Another noted, “The feeling each day to have a fresh-bound broom in our hands was the same as waking to find a new car waiting every morning.”

And the newspaper quoted city sweep Hakan Yavuz as bringing up a practical point.

“The bristles of the plastic broom are not as flexible,” said Yavuz. “It’s harder to sweep nooks and corners. Cleanliness will not be the same.”

Columnist Thomas Anlauf, of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, wrote this week that the “reisigbesen,” or broom made of twigs, often birch, is as German as apple pie is American.

“It is possible to argue that the reisigbesen is the cultural asset to mankind,” he wrote. “Hardly anything has kept poets and thinkers as busy as the broom.”

Goethe, Germany’s Shakespeare, memorialized the broom gone wild in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The Brothers Grimm used talking brooms in their fairy tales. And Anlauf noted that Germany has three museums devoted to the history of brooms.

Today, the brooms are still employed in the regular city sweeps of the uber-clean Swabian state during their “kehrwoche,” or “sweeping weeks.” These are contractual agreements first announced in the 15th century in the German state. The weeks are a deal between renters and tenants on when the property (hallways, staircases, stoops and sidewalks) are swept, and the traditional broom for this purpose is made of twigs.

The best known twig brooms to American readers tend to fly, most recently in Harry Potter stories. In Germany, aside from Munich, only Frankfurt still uses the Tuscan heath brooms.

In comments posted on stories about the change, readers worried that the plastic brooms would fray off little bits of plastic as they scrape over the city’s cobbled streets and sidewalks. That, several readers noted, would increase air pollution.

Ruemenapf wasn’t so sure about the merit of such complaints. Most streetsweepers have told the city they prefer the modern brooms.

Still, the twig brooms won’t vanish overnight.

“The new ones will be phased in,” Ruemenapf said. “We will only gradually replace the traditional ones.”

And there’s doubt that they will vanish completely. After all, the city website features photos of cleaners using the old-time brooms.

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