As the international press finally started to run out of ‘hip Berlin’ stories it was inevitable that a replacement city would be required to fill the gap. It is fortunate then, that just over an hour away by train sits Leipzig – another sparsely populated, graffiti covered city full of abandoned properties and one that is seemingly on the cusp of greatness once again. A raft of positively tumescent features have appeared in recent times hyping Leipzig as a successor to Berlin, as if it has already been decided once and for all that the German capital has lost it. Der Spiegel was at it back in October last year, (‘Calling all Hipsters: Leipzig Is the New Berlin’) shoe-horning the h-word into the headline and tracking down an artist with “a three-day beard and carefully dishevelled hair” as well as some people drinking beer in a park as conclusive proof of the city’s newly acquired status. Away back in July 2010, the New York Times was suggesting much the same thing, somewhat bizarrely providing the discovery of a €6 carrot salad by way of evidence.
My curiosity piqued by these extravagant claims, and spurred on by a steadily growing sense of shame at having visited almost no other German cities during my five year stay in Berlin, I decided to finally see Leipzig for myself, to see if there was substance behind the hype and to find out what the locals thought of the comparisons to Berlin. Giving a city two-and-a-half midweek days in the middle of winter to prove itself was, in retrospect, a little unfair, but my first impression was helped somewhat by the skies getting slowly brighter the further I got from home. We left behind a Berlin still mired in the death throes of the darkest winter in decades and by the time we reached Leipzig we were greeted with azure skies and snow-capped rooftops glittering in the sunshine. To compound matters, every Leipziger we encountered in that first giddy afternoon seemed desperately attentive, and eager to please. Consequently, despite my initial scepticism, the entire first day felt like we had left behind a sludge-drenched misery pit occupied entirely by impatient trolls only to arrive in a wonderland full of polite, blonde pixie-volk.
To the east of the old town, just behind the university stands a cluster of long-derelict factories and warehouses, an industrial graveyard of DDR mementoes slowly losing the battle with the vegetation spilling out of gaping window frames. A pleasant but somewhat ethereal lady eyed us taking photographs of a partially collapsed apartment block, an entire façade missing to reveal its patchwork of gaudy wallpaper. She offered to show us some kind of hidden route into a hulking factory, which sat dripping with rust across the other side of the wasteland. Having lived in Berlin for a while, and being unused to this kind of unsolicited helpfulness, I declined her offer after a brief mental image of a Brothers Grimmesque scenario occurring were I to follow her down the secret path.
It was time to go out west, anyway, in search of this mythical New Leipzig. A short tram ride from the centre showed us some of the most eclectic architecture I had ever encountered in a European city; soot-dappled and moss-covered palatial Grunderzeit houses sit side by side with the Plattenbauen.
As we approached the Plagwitz neighbourhood, the fiercely glowing, low-hanging winter sun silhouetted a huddle of hooded figures who were stalking around atop a line of vehicles in a Wagenplatz that snaked along the half-frozen Karl-Heine canal. Next to their adopted home was a vast tract of land fringed by yet more crumbling tenements. There was a flimsy chain link fence around the land but by the roadside was a large open entrance with a ‘Wilkommen’ arch sitting poignantly out of place.
Since unification Leipzig’s population has dropped by around 200,000, leaving it with a little over half a million inhabitants and no matter where you find yourself in the city, the sense of abandonment and loneliness is astonishing. Between the cracks, though, little flashes of colour are blooming throughout the city. The collapse of industry and rapid depopulation can of course lead to indirect benefits. Previously the largest cotton mill in Europe, the Alte Spinnerei sitting just west of Plagwitz has been transformed, by both canny investment and the totemic presence of the New Leipzig School artist Neo Rauch, into the city’s artistic hub. Over 10 hectares of sprawling, imposing red brick buildings are filled with galleries, studios and cafes. In another town, these would have been turned into luxury apartments years ago, carved up and sold to heartless bastards.
Several times during our short stay the locals saw right through my apparently ludicrous German accent and questioned why on earth a foreign, adopted Berliner would even bother with a place like this. This initial bemusement was soon replaced with a kind of quiet pride that emerged during discussions over the best way to spend our time there. Closer observance however, reveals that at least in a half-serious manner, there was a growing self-awareness of the city’s changing image. Nestled amongst the Bach and Goethe tourist tat on sale in the historic Auerbachs Kellar, for instance, were badges emblazoned with the somewhat optimistic “Leipzig: The Better Berlin. ” Although we were unsure what to make of the more cryptic sign reading “Hamburg – Schöne Schuhe; Berlin – Schöne Scheisse; Leipzig – Schöne Stadt” behind the bar of Café Pushkin.
We ventured down to the Karl Liebknecht Straße, a long boulevard south of the town centre locally known as the ‘Karli.’ In one bar, our English conversation began to attract the not so subtle attentions of a nearby table of youths. Eventually one of them, the most blonde and pixie-like of them all, could stand it no longer and sat herself down at our table, demanding to know where we had acquired our “funny” English accents. She was closely followed by her beefy-forearmed boyfriend Tobias, who, unprompted, began to offer his opinion on Berlin and its citizens.
Tobias claimed that the modern day and, in his view, not-so-friendly rivalry between Berliners and the denizens of Saxony can be traced back to the latter days of the DDR. His father had told him that the arrogant Berliners were just generally treated better than the people in other towns in the former East, and in a country sorely lacking in luxury items, still managed to get their hands on fly-looking leather jackets. The antagonism began, he said, when Berliners would come down to Dresden and Leipzig, in said jackets, presumably looking like a gang of Fonzies, and scoff at all the stupid yokels and their shit clothes. Momentarily, I thought to question young Tobias’ entertaining but somewhat dubious tale but after a pause for reflection and based on what I know of Berliners, I decided that it was a scenario that I found entirely plausible after all.
In reality, it is the overbearing presence of nearby Berlin that may prove to be the making of Leipzig. Despite the steadily growing line of grim-reaping taste-makers waiting to pull the plug, Berlin is far from over, but for those who have fallen out of love, there is an easy substitute, and a chance perhaps to get in on the ground floor. The scramble for a New Berlin will prove ultimately fruitless – nowhere else has a recent past that can even begin to compare – but it’s difficult to look at Leipzig as it stands today and avoid making these comparisons upon returning to Berlin. The feeling of sheer emptiness and fractured, chipped beauty still present in Leipzig can, in Berlin, increasingly be found only as a mere echo of former days. Held up alongside a sense of almost unlimited possibility it’s clear why it is beginning to become so attractive.
Even in the dead of winter, and despite, or even perhaps because of, the feeling of emptiness, there is an unavoidable sense that Leipzig is on an upward trajectory. The petty grumbling that one hears in the bars and cafes of Berlin, the tension between older and newer residents, the piss-taking landlords – all of these things seem still absent from Leipzig. Much more than present-day Berlin, it sits there almost as a blank canvas, both grand and desolate. It’s ripe for change and if the hype is anything to go by, that change is already underway. Jump on the train and see for yourself next time Berlin all starts to get a bit much. Just leave your leather jacket at home.
Image credits: Alana Richards