Nearly thirty years since reunification in 1989, the reaps of German East-West solidarity are at last coming to fruition, with Leipzig standing at the forefront of East German economic success. Nothing reflects this transformation from a Soviet industrial stronghold into a neoliberal success story more poignantly than Leipzig’s city centre skyline: the intrusive, yet, utterly bland concrete cuboid that is The Westin Hotel fittingly juxtaposes the unmissable Panorama Tower. Foreign investment has undoubtedly played a role in the city’s revitalisation. Yet there exists something more pertinent to this capitalist fairy-tale, a degree of social consciousness which I had never experienced previously. An air of alternativeness flows throughout Leipzig, and not the kind Jörg Meuthen’s AfD would boast about
The trouble is when writing about a place you love is the ease with which you can slip into the “let’s sell this place to as many people as possible” kind of mind-set. However, the essence that I desperately want to capture through my words is not one of senseless admiration for Leipzig, but rather that of a hopefulness for the future. The polarisation of British and U.S. politics in recent years has, in my opinion, skewered our perception of ‘the left’ and ‘the right’; the former adhering to liberal fascist political correctness, whilst the latter are condemned to the all too simplistic labels such as Nazis and Racists. The constant bickering between both sides has left ideologically driven neoliberal economic policies free (TTIP nearly ruined the nation-state forever) to run rampant over the economy: no, I don’t like there being a St*rbucks on every street corner. How does the insurmountable number of Starbucks in Leeds actually relate to Leipzig? - where, by the way, there is only one Starbucks in the entire town. I believe the relationship is inherent.
The starting point for this journey towards hope begins in the most core and fundamental organ of city: the transport. Upon arrival in Leipzig, you will be greeted by an array of trams of all shapes and sizes, manufactured in both communist and capitalist systems. The Leipzig tram system is impressive. It far outshines any mode of motor transport available in Leeds, both in price and efficiency. The layout mimics that of the Moscow metro: a circle/central line dissected by other lines feeding out into the city’s other districts. Pietro Hammel, a Dutch city planning theorist, stresses the importance of a well-rounded public transport system for two reasons. Firstly, the encompassing nature of the circle ring means that within the city centre you have access to all tram lines. Thus, the need for cars, and more importantly taxis, within the city centre is massively reduced. Secondly, the reduced need for automobiles then strengthens the argument for pedestrianisation of the city centre, as is the case in Leipzig’s baroque core. In such a system it is the utilitarian functions of transport which is favoured, not the ego-centric ‘function’ of transport, where displaying your wealth through your car occupies the primacy. It begs the question as to why British councils and governments (who determine the budgets) have avoided introducing such projects themselves. If efficacy and utilitarianism of transport is not prioritised, we are left with a winding one-way road system where pedestrians and cyclists alike choke on the fumes of neoliberal transport policy and self-indulging consumerism.
Although installing a utilitarian transport system may serve as a resolution to clogged-up town centres, it does little to address another key aspect of city life - the dynamic relationship between its inhabitants. According to Hammel, it is this dynamism that defines the urban lifestyle. In densely populated areas all members of society are interlinked: the house husband who does the weekly shops at the market takes the tram. The same tram driver who takes a taxi to the theatre on the weekend, whilst students take note of Tchaikovsky’s intricate compositions. Money, acquaintances and knowledge are constantly changing hands. Indeed, these relationships, which at first glance appear intrinsic to, rather, inevitable in city life, are actually a result of city planning and extensive research. When developing, renovating or even constructing a new suburb it is not simply a question of cramming as many people into a square metre and hoping for the best. City planners have to take into account necessity of diversity of the landscape, offering a mix of private (housing), semi-private (restaurants) and public spaces (museums). Otherwise, one is at risk of creating sleeper regions, an issue typically associated with large post-Soviet cities.
The ideal result of meticulous city planning is as follows: a large urban area that consists of multiple socio-economic cores, each individual in nature, that not only allow dynamic urban relationships to flourish, but also prevent mono-centric city structures, like those of Leeds or Reading, to develop. In this respect, Leipzig has succeeded. To further explore the intricacies of city planning and the division of different spatial topographies, I’d like to employ the example of Lindenau, the district which I called home for a few months in 2017. The core of this bustling region is the Lindenauer Markt (Lindenau Market). The square itself is a public space, which is encompassed by colourful baroque apartment buildings, i.e. the private space. When the market traders of Middle Eastern origin are having their days off, Kaufland (a supermarket) – note, a semi-private space – is there to provide for late modern society’s consumerist needs. Allotments (semi-private) offer refreshing greenery to the yellowy tinge of the baroque, whilst the two theatres, public spaces, offer alternative creative outlets for adults and children alike. The list could go on.
The diversity I’ve just outlined is paradoxical to the situation at home, however. Hyde Park unequivocally lacks any sort of spatial balance. Damp student housing, food and booze outlets – which are for the most part extortionately overpriced – and a primary school is the extent of our spatial diversity. I’m not suggesting we knock down our authentic red brick terraces to open a theatre, per say. I do question, however, the short-sightedness of the council’s decision to give planning permission for new housing developments such as Victoria Gardens. These new-builds offer nothing to the spatial diversity. They are available to only the upper quartile of the student population. In short, they represent the prioritisation of neoliberal interests over the needs of the local community, nothing short of typical for today’s Britain.
The next point I’d like to address is slightly more subjective in nature and steps away for Pietro Hammel’s theoretical approach. Aesthetics are everywhere. On a human level, our dress sense, hairstyle and body modifications convey an unshakeable impression of who we are. We match our aesthetic to who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather, to how we want perceived. My frosted tips unconditionally pay tribute to my noughties nostalgia. Yet, as a whole, it is difficult to define – let’s say – the aesthetics of Leeds. In Leipzig, for the most part, this is anything but the case. Outside of the city’s lively baroque centre, there exists a paradoxical aesthetic which, despite its complex components, arrives as a whole; as a unified pluralistic palimpsest of then, today and tomorrow. Socialism, neoliberalism and ethical capitalism. A hochmodern tram stops in front of Westwerk – a converted soviet factory which puts on arts exhibition of all kinds. The tram stop itself is covered in graffiti and stickers advocating hard-left and anti-consumerist slogans: Hier steht Eure Werbung (Here’s your advert). In this visual metaphor, the soviet factory is the ‘then’, the tram the ‘today’ and postmodern slogan the ‘tomorrow’. From this multi-faceted aesthetic, I’d like to explore the ‘tomorrow’.
This tomorrow, perhaps better described as hopefulness is the essence of Leipzig. It takes many forms. The Wohnprojekt (house project) is one of these forms. A Wohnprojekt is, in my eyes, a means to self-sufficiency in late modern capitalist society. Its principals are ironically based on the ‘principles’ of capitalist economics; i.e. supply and demand. In a Wohnprojekt a community-based project is undertaken. Educating newly arrived refugees, promoting veganism within a district or creating alternative artistic spaces for the romanticised poor artist are all examples of potential projects. The project, in other words, constitutes the supply. The demand is the consumption of these projects, be it from people who rely on its services or from those supporting the project for ideological or moral reasons. The donations – I stress these systems work fundamentally on a give-as-you-feel basis – fund the living quarters for those who run the project. The circle is thus complete. I see these projects as an imperative action, whose origin stems from the discontent with neoliberalism. People take unto themselves these challenges in order to fix and resolve issues that neoliberalism cannot, or perhaps will not. This pragmatic, imperative action is the essence of Leipzig. Whether it stems from the top-down city planning approach, or the neo-socialist grassroots organisations, the results are clear for all to see. The German youth are flocking to Hypezig – a legitimate pseudonym – to offer their contributions to this neo-Berlin paradise.
Yes, Leipzig is a capitalist city: its fundamentals are capitalist in nature and are sustained by an inherently neoliberal government that is Angela Merkel’s CDU. In Marxist terms, our overarching socio-economic conditions are indefinitely defined. Yet, and Leipzig is evidence of this, we are still able to manipulate these conditions on a microscale. In other words, we can define the length the chains that oppress us.