Living in a dying city

Living in a dying city
Photo: Caitlan Carroll

Hoyerswerda is Germany's fastest shrinking city – and a potential trailblazer for other communities facing demographic collapse. Caitlan Carroll reports on how its residents are trying to cope.


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.”

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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