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25/05/2005

Leipzig's urban facelift

By Dankwart Guratzsch

A citizen's movement has sprung up in Leipzig to protest against the city's strategy for urban renewal. Instead of sprucing up the prefab concrete "workers' lockers", they say, it should safeguard the Wilhelminian buildings in the city centre that give Leipzig its identity.

Will urban reconstruction in the former East Germany become "urban demolition"? That growing apprehension in Leipzig could soon become a widespread fear. The reclamation of the old city neighbourhoods in the new, Eastern states of the German Federal Republic was a success story. It is here – if anywhere – that the promise of blooming landscapes had been fulfilled. Investments in the billions have stabilised entire cities and regions, which seemed to be hopelessly doomed to decline. In Leipzig alone, 30,000 inhabitants of the outskirts – who had once given up on the city - moved back into it. Now this rescue effort seems in danger of failing.

The reason is the scourge of shrinkage, which is presenting politicians with challenges on a previously unknown scale. Germany is losing millions of inhabitants, and must "revitalise" its cities if it wants to avoid a disaster on the real estate market, an unbridled social crash in entire city neighbourhoods and horrendous, uncontrollable increases in the costs of maintaining technical and social infrastructures.

But the question is: what to tear down and what to keep up? According to unanimous expert opinion, often quoted in politicians' Sunday speeches, the revitalisation must take place "from the outside to the inside". That is, it must begin with the prefab concrete high rises and large housing estates. This now obsolete form of mass human husbandry no longer functions, even when the large calibre "worker locker-rooms" are spruced up and renovated to tiptop condition. But the recent events in Leipzig show that this strategy threatens to fail.

2,500 Wilhelminian buildings are on the brink of ruin in Leipzig alone. The head of city planning considers at least 500 of them to be especially valuable and in need of conservation. To appease the citizens, a "building safeguard programme" was announced with pomp and ceremony. But according to the programme planners, only 70 buildings can be saved. At the same time, the demolition trucks were brought in to "perforate" the inner city.

The more reasonable approach would be the opposite: to invest the limited financial means in the demolition of the prefab high rises, and to care post-haste for the old city buildings, which have been completely ignored until now. And there is a demand for this, as is demonstrated by the "vote with the moving vans" – the movement of city residents back into the city. Leipzig has developed an identity, which is the envy of cities that were more primitively reconstructed after the war, or regions that were more broadly surface-bombed. But the housing associations, in which some of the city's capital (and a large portion of its debt) reside, pose problems. Under their pressure, the concept of revitalisation is being watered down and turned around. The destruction should proceed not from outside to in, but in a "loosening" fashion. To put it cynically: a continuation of the war damage in those quarters which were previously spared.

In Leipzig, the "city of heroes", emotions are running high. When the diggers drove up to the neo-classical "Kleine Funkenburg", which is under the building protection authority and beloved of professors of the Dresden Technical University, intending to demolish it because it allegedly stands in the way of a traffic artery, the people took to the streets. Newly founded citizens' initiatives are active. Pamphlets are being circulated. People of artistic sensibility, such as the internationally renowned painter Neo Rauch and the writer Erich Loest, are becoming involved. The city and the state governments have managed to cause something like a rebellion for the first time since 1989, when human chains formed to protect the old city district, which was slated for demolition.

What is happening here can have far-reaching effects. It marks the beginning of a fundamental re-building process. The tearing down of the old buildings that give the city its character acts as adrenaline for the rage of the people - as was demonstrated before the revolution of '89 in the East, and in the 'building wars' of '68 in the West. And this rage is extensive, because the property structures and economic resources, the entire technical middle class as well as company owners are affected. The city's protection of "the prefab block" over private housing is poisoning the atmosphere and becoming a political mood killer. The spark from Funkenburg could light a fire.

*

The article originally appeared in German Die Welt, on Friday May 20, 2005.

Dankwart Guratzsch is a journalist and editor of Die Welt.

Translation: jab.

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