Letter From - Winter 2022

Leipzig: Community in Concrete

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Grünau’s social life sprang from a muddy wasteland as families tried to turn buildings into homes and neighbors into friends

By Sam Gurwitt | December 1, 2021
Early residents of Grünau referred to the neighborhood, still under construction, as Schlammhausen, or “Mudville.” (Harald Kirschner)
Early residents of Grünau referred to the neighborhood, still under construction, as Schlammhausen, or “Mudville.” (Harald Kirschner)

One rainy Saturday evening in September, Renate Taucher and her neighbors at Binzer Straße 1 sat in a low-ceilinged room with whitewashed concrete walls in the basement of their building. A few of them, their faces now sculpted by wrinkles, had celebrated New Year’s 1985 in that same room, back when they used it to hang their laundry and were citizens of a country that no longer exists. Neighbors new and old lounged among the tables laden with grilled meat, pasta salad, and open bottles of Ur-Krostitzer beer. Balloons that the Glausch kids had hung from wires stretching across the ceiling dangled above them. Everyone laughed and joked and drank late into the night.

Binzer Straße 1 is a six-story concrete apartment block on the outskirts of Leipzig in the former East Germany. West of its beige and brown walls is a bank of trees and a lake that was once an open-pit coal mine. To the east is another block, and beyond that more and more of the same, extending in excess of two miles toward the city center. This is the Grünau neighborhood, one of the largest housing settlements built in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it had about 85,000 residents.

When Taucher and her family moved into their sixth-floor apartment in 1983, they looked out over a sea of mud. They would come home at the end of the day, and the muck coating their boots smeared the stairs. One spring weekend in 1984, Taucher and her neighbors got out their rags and buckets and scrubbed the stairwells clean. Then they filed down to the courtyard to celebrate with sips of beer and brandy. “That was the beginning of a well-functioning community in the house,” said Taucher, a 73-year-old retiree with tall, arching eyebrows. “The first friendships between families grew from there.”

Grünau and its social life sprang from a muddy wasteland as families tried to turn their buildings into homes and their new neighbors into friends. But today, the feasts at Binzer Straße 1 are the exception. The days when whole apartment blocks celebrated holidays together are long gone, laid to rest by financial insecurity and jobs in the West. In some buildings, people no longer know their neighbors at all, and the old sense of togetherness has been replaced by anonymity.

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