Loving the Niche
Text Silke Bücker Photos Andi Zimmermann Illustration Roman Klonek
When thinking of Leipzig historical attractions like the Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument of the Battle of the Nations) or the Nikolai church, book printing or great poets and thinkers like Goethe and Schiller usually spring to mind. But no tourist guide will tell you about what really makes the city special. It's the small germs of ideas and cultural initiatives that give the city its innovative flair; off the beaten track there are creative opportunities, which are hard to find in other places.
At first glance Leipzig appears to be rather 'western', if indeed one can talk in categories like these almost two decades after unification. However, traces of the GDR can be found everywhere if you look more closely; from the socialist buildings, like the Gewandhaus concert hall or the opera house, on which the old emblem with its hammer, dividers and sheaves of wheat still hangs; to a neon propaganda sign on the roof of a building on the Leipzig ring, calling for "tradition and progress for modern living"; and of course the goods displayed in some shops of authentic 'products of the East', like Mocca Fix coffee, gherkins from the Spreewald region and Atoll deodorant.
There is though a darker side as well. Just as in other East German cities, in Leipzig, too, the authorities are trying to counter the dereliction of whole areas of the city that has happened as a result of the chronic lack of jobs and consequent migration. But examples of the creative way empty buildings and wasteland can be utilised are seen in the west of Leipzig, especially in the borough of Plagwitz. With the help of state subsidies, many ramshackle and turn-of-the-century buildings have been redeveloped and turned into modern loft flats, without destroying the original charm of these old buildings. As a result of these developments, more and more art and cultural projects have found a niche here, in the closed factories and on the old industrial sites, especially in the former cotton spinning factory and on the banks of the Karl-Heine canal. Plagwitz is still a long way from becoming a prestigious area for creative talent in Leipzig, but it's certainly getting there.
The southern suburb of Connewitz is a stark contrast; traditionally it is home to various subcultures, reflected in the large numbers of pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs. This area, as well as its inhabitants, are characterised by its anarchism. They remain unimpressed by what the mass-media and mainstream lifestyles have to offer and are determined to develop their own ideas and try out alternative lifestyles. This is where you find examples of free-thinking, alternative concepts, solidarity and respect coexisting quite happily.
Like Berlin, Leipzig is especially attracting young people. Of course, the rents are relatively low and then there is the attraction of diverse artistic courses offered at institutes like the School of Graphics and Book Illustration. Clearly, Berlin, on the basis of its capital city status alone, is slowly but surely building up attractive living spaces and a new structure, but in Leipzig there is still much to do and discover. Therein lies the biggest chance for the city: with its small size and population, creative ideas are being realised here, with a view to the long term and in a resourceful way.