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Living in a dying city

14 Jul 2011, 14:05

Published: 14 Jul 2011 14:05 GMT+02:00

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Dancers slowly roll on to a stage like waves while dark instrumental music plays in the background. A large screen shows interviews of people talking about their hopes for the dying town of Hoyerswerda.

Located some 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin, this post-industrial community has turned an abandoned supermarket into a theatre for “Hoyerswerda Lives!”, a dance performance by 70 residents for an audience made up of friends, family and neighbours.

The amateur dancers, aged seven to 70, practised for six months to stage this retelling of their city's history. The second of three installments, it's a story both dynamic and tragic.

“Last year the piece was about leaving behind the bad thoughts and feelings. You have to be free from this otherwise you can't start something new,” says Dirk Lienig. “This story is about coming together, sharing resources, and sharing life.”

Lienig toured the world as a classically trained ballet dancer and film director for 21 years. But last year, he returned to Saxony to help his struggling hometown through art projects. Lienig choreographed the production of “Hoyerswerda Lives!” with the support of Berlin colleagues and a regional artistic collective to document the rise, fall, and possible future of the dramatically shrinking city.

Boomtown gone bust

Hoyerswerda was once a boomtown and an important centre for communist East Germany’s coal industry. But after reunification, production plunged, jobs dried up and the town lost about 40 percent of its population as people headed west in search of work. Not long afterwards, depression set in and even xenophobia took root.

In the early nineties, the city even became infamous nationally after hundreds of locals cheered neo-Nazis as they attacked a housing project for asylum-seekers. Since then, the name Hoyerswerda's become synonymous with racism and the economic blight affecting many eastern German cities.

“When I tell people I am from Hoyerswerda, many times I get a weird reaction like, 'How can that be?'” says Lienig. “But why not? It just shows people's ignorance.”

His hope is that through community building art projects, residents will feel more pride in their city and perhaps even find a reason to stay in Hoyerswerda.

Torsten Muecklech's one of the few young people who has decided not to leave. He's found a job and a decent quality of life in this troubled town. But Muecklech knows he’s the exception; an estimated five people move away everyday.

“The city gets older every year,” says Muecklech. “In this region, we don't have so many places to work so it is difficult for those who live here.”

But he says his experience as a dancer has brought him closer to his neighbours and made life a bit brighter.

“It's a great feeling we have when we dance. And then in life, we have a little feeling of the dance,” says Muecklech. “If every person felt this way, the whole life in the city would change.”

That's a sentiment architect Dorit Baumeister encourages. She, like her brother Dirk Lienig, is trying to use creativity to foster communication among residents.

Her first big idea came in 2003 when she created a space for artists to document the dismantling of one of Hoyerswerda's abandoned prefabricated concrete buildings that are common throughout eastern Germany. The deconstruction was part of the German government's urban redevelopment programme to facilitate a controlled downsizing of cities with shrinking populations.

“There had been no public dialogue when the first buildings started being taken away,” says Baumeister. “The goal of the project was to create a conversation even if it was painful – and it was – it was really emotional.”

She remembers a woman who came during the last week of the installation. The woman cried saying it had taken five weeks to convince her husband that they needed to confront the reality that their city was slowly disappearing.

Baumeister says these kinds of conversations lead to a better understanding of how Hoyerswerda's story fits in to the broader discussion of deindustrialization and Germany’s demographic decline. As industries move elsewhere and German society ages, many cities will be left in the same situation as Hoyerswerda. And that makes the town’s residents trailblazers after a fashion.

“Then people here don't feel like losers anymore. They can feel more avant-garde,” says Baumeister. “Because at least we're creating something new. It's not something everyone can say.”

Story continues below…

Pioneers of urban decay

Baumeister and Lienig are what Christine Hannemann calls “Raumpionere,” or pioneers of space. Hannemann's an urban sociologist who's researched changing cities for more than 15 years.

“The main problem of shrinking cities is the loss of jobs. You need to give people prospects for their lives and in this case we don't have a lot of new ideas,” says Hannemann. “But there are some people, and you will find them in Hoyerswerda, who are trying to do something about this bad situation.”

Hoyerswerda's abandoned buildings are finding new life as art spaces. Nature's encouraged to flourish in the parts of town left vacant. Other cities are trying creative approaches too.

“In Gera, Germany, for instance, people are developing mushroom farms in high rise estates. There are some very interesting projects like this, and most of them are inspired by culture and arts,” says Hannemann. “But you have such things in Detroit, Michigan too, and you don't know if such a thing works and will it be enough of a base.”

It's unclear whether art and agriculture will be enough to save Hoyerswerda from completely disappearing. But Baumeister says it's important to at least try.

“We are creating a new atmosphere. People are visiting the city to see what we are doing, and this creates a more positive image,” says Baumeister. “Of course, no-one can say what the city will look like in 20 years. But if we don't do anything then the end is clear.”

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Your comments about this article

17:42 July 14, 2011 by truelytrue
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
22:48 July 14, 2011 by german-guardian
From the early 20th century, always many people in country side have come to cities in the hope of finding jobs and better conditions. However I think that Germany is going toward a right direction. The town that has more people living, should consider having more children, so that we can increase our population. Healthy and strong people to build Germany strong and healthy and help the world with their creativenss. peace to everyone and love to the world. God, please be with Germany and help her improve, just like you have always loved and cared for Germany. Always remember christmas tree was a German idea during 1700. May the sun rise and bless this world with its beauty and light. May the flowers grow, and the brids sing. May God be with us all.
00:51 July 15, 2011 by Wobinidan
The post above me is one of the most insane things I have ever read. God doesn't care about your country, or any country.
01:16 July 15, 2011 by rwk
Christmas trees are older than 1700, having pagan origins. and Germanic, rather than German.

Germany needs to embrace industry, and to do that, Germany needs power. Nuclear power, affordable, cheap, and safe. Not coal, not wind turbines, not gas. Otherwise, Germany will sink in a tide of declining population, industry, wealth, and standard of living. New nuclear power plant technology can deliver German from decline, and only it can. Molten salt reactors, either uranium or thorium, are the future that is bright, all else is darkness.
03:52 July 15, 2011 by german-guardian
@ rwk

What do you mean pegan origin. You are like a trickster that mixes his false ideas, with some little facts and presents it in a vague way. Listen, Christmas trees where founded by Germans for Christmas becuase even though in winter everything is cold and dry, Christmas trees are green. This will be a symbol of the birth of Jesus Christ. That is the symbol it will be for. Now, a trickster like you comes and says, pegan; well the only pegan here is you who is against regligion.
08:29 July 15, 2011 by LiberalGuy
A problem all too common in Brandenburg and Saxony I'm afraid. This story could apply to any town in the former east.
17:49 July 15, 2011 by aslanleon
My Amish and Moravian ancestors left Europe, mostly Germany to escape persecution. They have a high birth rate and are land hungry. I have a modest proposal. Give us back the land you drove us from over two hundred years ago. We will populate it quite well with people who rely on themselves rather than the government.
19:10 July 15, 2011 by jg.
@german-guardian The Christmas tree as a symbol of the birth of Jesus? How do you explain Jeremiah 10:1-5 then?

Getting back to Hoyerswerda - I doubt that any number of arts projects will keep the city alive. It all comes down to jobs - if there aren't enough large employers, then the city is unlikely to retain the critical mass of people needed to keep services going.
19:37 July 15, 2011 by Vadis
I for one have not forgotten what happen in Hoyerwerda in September 1991. Hoyerswerda was the place of one of the most horrible racist violence in post WW11 Germany. Hoyerwerda is a Hot Bed of Neonazi and we are suppose to feel sorry for them because people are leaving? Everyone should simply go to youtube and type in Hoyerswerda and see the hate just spring up right before you eyes. I do not feel sorry for anyone living in Hoyerswerda
23:06 July 16, 2011 by wenddiver
We shouldn't be so hard on the people. For decades they were occupied by the Soviet Union and taught nonsence in school. These poor souls are waking up like a person after a bad acid trip in a room full of people who were given loans, acess to foreign markets and technology, had freedom of religion, freedom of thought and speech, cultural acess to ideas all because they lost the same war, but were occupied by a benevolent Western culture that wanted them to succeed and be a player in that western culture.

The attitude of West Germany towards the former East Germany should be one of "There but for the Grace of God go I". If General Eisenower had decided to strike towards Berlin in a collum instead of advancing on a broad front, a lot of Germans would have participated in this horror, that now laugh at the former East Germans.
15:56 July 19, 2011 by provita67
Germany has produced great Christian leaders, one such leader was a Christian theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life to help bring an end to the diabolical Third Reich of Nazi Germany.

03:24 July 21, 2011 by wenddiver
@provita67- Sadly, Secular European Socialists have did an excellent job of suppressing Religion in School, so You won't find the young reading Dietrich Bonhoffer's "ETHICS" they are every bit as efficiently suppressed as under the NAZIS. Moral Heroes are not popular.
21:40 July 21, 2011 by mkvgtired
Vadis, it is very ignorant to assume all living in this town are neo-nazis. Maybe the people leaving dont agree with this ideology. They have the right to be upset for having to choose between leaving their family home or staying in a decaying city.

Your analogy could apply to someone on the outside looking at Germany. Did everyone forget what happened in Germany in the 1930's? It was the site of extreme racial hatred. I dont feel bad for anyone in Germany today. Clearly this line of reasoning is garbage.
01:01 July 28, 2011 by jomamas
Yes, those socialists did a great job in Eastern Europe, didn't they?
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