Leipzig: Community in Concrete

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

Early residents of Grünau referred to the neighborhood, still under construction, as <em>Schlammhausen</em>, 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.

When Harald Kirschner moved into his 16-story tower in 1981, the area in front of his building was a muddy expanse strewn with construction materials. Schlammhausen, many called the new neighborhood—“Mudville.”

Kirschner, 77, is a retired photographer. Throughout the 1980s, he documented the life that developed in the new settlement: a paradise of adventure for the kids who rolled in pipes and clambered up mountains of dirt, and a source of endless toil for the adults who set to work planting flowers and laying roads.

Before moving to Grünau, he and his neighbors had mostly lived in cramped tenements in the city center with shared toilets in the stairwells. At its founding in 1949, East Germany faced a housing shortage of an estimated 2.1 million units. To create better housing conditions, architects and planners began experimenting with faster, cheaper construction methods in the 1950s. Like their counterparts all over the former Eastern Bloc, they turned to the concrete panel. Panels of concrete, reinforced with steel, could be stacked on top of each other by cranes on tracks. Structures constructed in this way came to be known as Plattenbauten—panel-buildings—or for short, Platte.

In 1973, the Communist Party announced a program that aimed to end the housing crisis by 1990, mostly by erecting buildings on the outskirts of cities and towns. These new apartment blocks featured central heating and hot water—luxuries by East German standards. Couples with kids had priority, and after construction began in 1976, Grünau filled with young families, among them people of every professional stripe. “The professor next to the laborer,” many Grünauers liked to say.

In its early years, Kirschner’s building was not all that different from Taucher’s. Kirschner and his neighbors began cleaning and finishing their tower and its surroundings. They planted trees and brought tables down to a room in the basement to play Ping-Pong. When the weather was nice, they put on parties for the kids. Neighbors got along by necessity. “We had to rely on one another,” Kirschner says. “We wanted to live in a good house, so we nurtured a sense of neighborliness.”

Relationships then were also essential for securing goods. The GDR was plagued by shortages. When Taucher moved into Binzer Straße 1, the rooms in the basement were bare concrete, unsuitable for a New Year’s celebration. There were no warehouses lined with home-improvement offerings. Instead, neighbors who worked on construction sites in the area collected wood from shacks that the laborers no longer needed and scavenged abandoned rolls of wallpaper. With these supplies, they built tables and covered the walls.

When Germany reunified, the entire economic system of the former East and the structures and values it had supported evaporated. Factories that had once employed entire cities closed. Jobs common in the GDR became irrelevant. By 1992, more than a million East Germans were out of work.

Taucher had been an administrator for a mining company. Shortly after reunification, as the region’s coal industry collapsed, it fell to her to lay off her colleagues. “That would have hurt,” she says. Instead, she switched to a job in another firm, which then laid her off. She started driving taxis and continued to do so until she retired in 2013. Even at Binzer Straße 1, the house fests went dormant in the years after reunification. “Everything fell apart a little bit,” Taucher says. “No one thought about parties.”

Throughout the 1990s, a variety of factors conspired to drive residents out of Grünau. After reunification, the government subsidized the construction of single- and multifamily houses and the renovation of the inner-city neighborhoods that the GDR had neglected. Fliers for new private homes filled Grünau’s mailboxes. Many of the residents who could afford it left for new suburbs that were sprouting up nearby, and those who had lost their jobs often relocated to the former West Germany in search of work. By 2015, Grünau’s population had shrunk by half, to 42,000.

Financial distress also hit Grünau’s landlords. The GDR collapsed because, among other reasons, it went broke—and it went broke, in part, because of places like Grünau. The government spent hundreds of billions of Marks constructing more than two million apartments, for which residents paid only a nominal rent. After reunification, the construction costs became debts that were laid on the heads of the companies that owned the buildings. In the GDR, there had been two types of housing companies: state-run firms and housing co-ops, both of which took their directions from central planners and paid for construction with state funds. After reunification, state-run housing companies transformed into municipally owned but independently run firms. Co-ops, which had existed since the 19th century, adopted the West German model.

In 1993, the German government enacted a new law that relieved much of the debt, but it required that housing companies sell off at least 15 percent of their properties in order to receive financial relief. They started establishing new housing co-ops to buy off buildings. Then they began selling whole complexes to private corporations.

As Grünauers tried to adapt to the new German society, many turned inward. They lost the recognition that had come with their former jobs and the stability of their lives in the GDR. Preoccupied and ashamed, some avoided their neighbors. They no longer relied on one another for spare lumber or rolls of wallpaper. The housing companies hired firms to tend the hedges and clean the stairs, and the sense of communal responsibility that once bound Grünauers together disappeared.

A band provides music for teen volunteers as they spend a Saturday making improvements outside their Grünau Plattenbau.(Harald Kirschner)

The white walls in the entryway of Kirschner’s building are smudged, as if the pigment of the gray floor tiles is climbing to the ceiling. The elevator buttons are so worn that the up-and-down arrows are long gone, rubbed away to reveal holes out of which two small lightbulbs stare like jagged eyes that cannot blink.

On a Monday in September, Kirschner sat in his office scrolling through old photographs of the social life that once thrived in his building—families crowded around a table laden with cakes, a neighbor playing guitar for the children gathered around him on the front steps. He shook his head. “Yeah, that would never work today,” he said.

Now his computer holds a very different series of images that he has shot in the building: pictures of trash that his neighbors dump in public spaces. One shows a garbage bag split open and left to rot in the elevator. “It stank frightfully,” he says. The municipally owned Leipziger Wohnungs- und Baugesellschaft (LWB) is Kirschner’s landlord. “Sometimes I send photos to the LWB: ‘Ironic greetings from Stuttgarter Allee 4.’ ” Occasionally he gets a response, but it never does much good. “They don’t understand the irony,” he told me. Kirschner said that the situation in his building began to deteriorate about 10 years ago. Since 1979, sociologist Sigrun Kabisch has conducted an ongoing study documenting what Grünauers think of their neighborhood. The latest iteration came out this spring. Since 2009, the number of people who say they are completely satisfied with life in Grünau has slowly begun to decline, even though this dissatisfaction is concentrated in a few areas. You can no longer talk in generalizations about the neighborhood. It’s a city within a city, and like any city, it has its nice neighborhoods and its troubled ones.

By the early 2000s, crisis had hit Grünau and other Plattenbau estates all over the former East. Buildings were emptying, and housing companies could no longer maintain them. Many of the private corporations that had bought up complexes in the 1990s had gone bankrupt. To avert collapse, the federal government began to subsidize the demolition of buildings in Plattenbau estates. In Grünau, many of the holes left by the program are now overgrown fields.

With building prices at rock bottom, a new wave of corporations and investment funds bought up financially distressed blocks. Some of these newcomers, too, went bankrupt, but as time wore on, it became easier to make a profit. A social welfare reform bill that went into effect in 2005 allowed cities to pay rents of welfare recipients directly to landlords, and later, when rents rose in cities, so did demand for cheap housing. Private corporations in Plattenbau settlements saw an opportunity: if they filled a building with welfare recipients, kept their costs low, and charged the maximum amount a city was willing to pay, they could reap major profits.

Grünau used to be relatively uniform, but housing companies with varying strategies and structures have differentiated the neighborhood into a patchwork over the past 30 years. Kirschner’s apartment looks out over the Ringstraße, a large complex of six-story buildings. In 2017, a Luxembourg-based company called Grand City Properties took it over. At the time, Germany had just welcomed another influx of welfare recipients: refugees. The Ringstraße began to fill with Germany’s newest and often neediest residents, and residents began to lament the company’s neglect of their buildings. Renters who could afford to do so left, often moving into buildings owned by the co-ops.

The LWB, where Kirschner lives, does not concentrate poverty for a profit; rather, it concentrates poverty, especially in the 16-story towers in Grünau, because its main purpose is to provide affordable housing. Of all the buildings in Grünau, the towers in the neighborhood’s center have some of the most dissatisfied and poorest residents. The buildings are in need of renovation, and their poverty rates dwarf even those of other LWB buildings. Together with the adjacent Ringstraße, they show what can happen when housing companies see value in Grünau only because of its low prices. There, the social and economic disruptions of the past three decades have gone unchecked, fueled by private companies in search of profit and by a city in need of cheap apartments.

Rents in Leipzig are rising, and as they increase, poverty will concentrate where prices remain low. In Stuttgarter Allee 4, anonymity will reign, and the lightbulbs in the elevator-arrow buttons will stare, unblinking, at those who come and go. But that is only one possible fate that awaits Grünau. There are others, too.

In 2003, more than a decade after the last house fest, Taucher decided to restart the tradition. Most of her neighbors had found their footing, and all that remained was for someone to take the initiative. Since then, the building has held parties every few years, and Covid has pushed residents to make them an annual tradition. The sense of community is not like it was in the GDR. Social bonds are looser than they were then, one resident told me, but people still look after each other. Taucher’s husband died in January. With the neighbors there, she said, “It’s really not lonely.”

There is an element of luck in the fact that Taucher’s neighbors get along, but it is not entirely coincidence. Binzer Straße 1 is owned by a housing co-op called the Wohnungsbau-Genossenschaft Kontakt, which takes good care of the building and its occupants. It pays for the food, for example, when the residents throw a party. But perhaps the most important tool that co-ops like this have at their disposal is the doorway to membership. Housing co-ops are owned by their renters, who pay a onetime membership fee to move in. Ultimately, it is up to co-op leadership whether an applicant receives membership or not, and it can steer renters to or from certain buildings.

Angelika Rolle, who leads the satellite office of Kontakt in Grünau, said the co-op keeps tabs on who moves into which building. If a family wants to move to Binzer Straße 1, the co-op tries to make sure it will be a good fit.

Co-ops, which own about half of Grünau, have helped keep the neighborhood stable through constant investment. They have poured money into renovations, and one recently built the first new apartment buildings in Grünau since 1989, which filled up fast despite higher rents. Co-ops still offer the highest percentage of cheap apartments of any company type in Grünau, more even than the LWB. But the few high-price apartments have proven that landlords can attract tenants to Grünau for reasons other than low prices—the greenery, the proximity to schools and stores.

Leila, a young mother of two, came to Germany five years ago from Afghanistan and lives in a five-story block in Grünau’s center. Her landlord is the private company with the lowest satisfaction of any landlord in Grünau, according to Kabisch’s study. A sign outside that declares the building “private property” is taped over with a sticker advertising a neo-Nazi website. Leila said that aside from one other Afghan family in the building—the only other immigrants—she doesn’t know her neighbors. They’ll greet each other in the stairway, but they seem closed off. As she put it, in perfect German, “Their heads are full from the day. Everyone has their worries.” She wants to change that. At Christmastime, Covid permitting, Leila plans to open her door to whichever neighbors want to stop by. Her kids will paint invitations, and she will cook an Afghan feast. In 40 years, perhaps she will say of that December evening: “That was the beginning.”

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Sam Gurwitt is a freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar based in Leipzig, Germany.


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