The new face of East Germany

One district of Berlin is regenerating former communist housing in the hope of restoring its declining population.

Pictures by Marco Baringer, text by Melanie Sevcenko

"Either you love or you hate to live here, and there's nothing in between," says Sylvia, a young Austrian woman who studies at Victor Klemperer College in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, an area in northeastern Berlin.

Just 20 minutes by train from the centre of Berlin, the district is home to a conglomerate of featureless Plattenbauten – the towering buildings constructed of prefabricated concrete slabs that typified the architectural design favoured by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany.

Each building is trimmed in a bright, matte colour; their balconies like identical drawers, stuffed with potted plants and satellite dishes. Kissing the overcast skies are the logos of housing associations, stamped on the exterior of every structure.

Under the GDR, constructing identical buildings provided a level of social control that could not be achieved simply through renovating existing structures. It was easier to see inhabitants through each window and for the Stasi to control television signals, since each building had a central antenna that fed all other units.

The Plattenbauten came to prominence after Erich Honecker took over at the helm of the GDR in 1971, promising to bring the region's housing shortage to an end. By the mid-1970s the towers had been erected – the product of assembly line construction by industrial workers and technocrats, not craftsmen.

A relic of East Germany

But since 1995, the area's population has been in decline – falling from 290,000 people to 242,000. This exodus has left the district in an odd state of purgatory, stuck between the progressive centre of the nation’s capital and the societal relics of the former East Germany.

Those that remain are a sometimes uncomfortable combination of the elderly, the unemployed, immigrants and an underground of right-wing extremists.

"During the GDR, Marzahn had the most children per capita. It was the 'Kinderreichste' district," says Eli Rubin, a historian and Marzahn expert. "They couldn't build elementary schools fast enough."

The area was home to 60,000 school-aged children; that number now stands at just 20,000 - forcing the closure of between three and eight schools a year. Fifty schools have closed so far and those that remain open have had to merge to compensate for their empty classrooms.

On any given weekday, the streets of Marzahn-Hellersdorf are largely empty. The many shopping centres, their facades covered in the signage of the stores inside, provide the only form of recreation.

The modest shops that run along each side of the Hellersdorf Promenade, a short pedestrian street, close in the middle of the afternoon, while the three unemployment offices located in the vicinity – whose listings call for secretaries, metal workers, electricians and housekeepers – seem to be in greater demand.

But that should come as no surprise since the region has a 20 per cent unemployment rate – one of the highest in Berlin. Flats in the area can be rented for 150 euro (about $217) a month, which is significantly cheaper than in other parts of the capital.

Before 4pm, Marzahn-Hellersdorf is notable for its silence. By late afternoon, the few people that emerge appear to be in mid-commute. Children play in the greenbelts between the housing complexes, while the elderly and middle-aged wait on the platforms of bus stops. It is a striking contrast from more central parts of Berlin, which seem to transcend daily schedules and routine of any sort.

Moving West

This phenomenon is not unfamiliar to other cities in the former East, explains Mr Ludtke, the council chairman for the Ecological Urban Development of Die Linke (The Left), the governing party in Marzahn-Hellersdorf. Cities such as Leipzig and Dresden have suffered in similar ways – losing 30 per cent of their population after reunification.

The former East now has one million vacant apartments.

But what makes Marzahn-Hellersdorf stand out is the effort being made to lure people – and money – to the region. One method being employed is the demolition of much of the Plattenbau housing – the region has spent more than 50 million euros (about $72mn) cutting the number of communist era tower blocks in half. Four-and-a-half-thousand flats have been demolished, while others have undergone dramatic renovation.

Reducing housing on such a massive scale is extremely rare in a world where most major cities seek to expand, says Ludtke.

Under the GDR, "Plattenbauten were so sought after that the state could pick and choose who got an apartment," says Rubin. Residents often had to wait for up to five years for a flat in Marzahn-Hellersdorf.

"People outside the mainstream usually did not get into Marzahn," Rubin continues. "Families and young married couples were favoured, as were the construction workers who built Marzahn and their families, and other mid-level party and state workers.

"But once the wall fell, there was a growing a sense that Marzahn was too boring, and that the life and excitement was in the centre, which only increased once new life and new experiences filtered into the old East Berlin."

The most ambitious remodelling project to date has been the Ahrensfelder Terraces in north Marzahn. Headed by the housing association Dewego, the project began in 2004 and has since converted 11-story buildings into three to six stories.

The result is a village of terracotta-coloured apartment blocks with roof terraces and gardens, each as generic as the last. It follows in the tradition of what Ludtke says is the true foundation of the region: "In Marzahn-Hellersdorf nothing is real. No real hills, no real lakes."


But renovating housing complexes has done little to increase the area's popularity. Die Linke claims unemployment is the main reason for the declining population and kick-started the migration trend shortly after reunification. Fewer jobs were available in the East, so residents moved West to find work.

There is, says Rubin, a general consensus that Marzahn is an "entry" neighbourhood. It is not a place to aspire to, but rather a place to make a start before moving elsewhere.

There has been a substantial influx of Russians, Turks and Vietnamese into the area and signs in shopping malls are written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

One Russian student at Victor Klemperer College, which is essentially a high school where adults study for A'levels, says she has lived in Marzahn for less than two years and is considered an outcast by the Russian community.

She has "little connection to them," she says, "because they speak Russian at school and I don't".

She says the Russian community in Marzahn chooses not to integrate with Germans, preferring to form their own circles in their own language. Her Austrian friend, Sylvia, adds: "There are a lot of people who don't like the fact that there are Russians here. I would love to speak with them, but they don't want to, they just stay in their group."

Fighting the far-right

The National Democratic Party (NDP), notorious for its far-right policies, holds a worryingly high five per cent of the seats in the district assembly.

Terry, a member of a local anti-fascist group, says that although the NDP cannot accomplish much in the district, younger fascists are active. Nazi tagging still finds a way onto the facades of buildings, while some people brandish Nazi buttons and symbols on their clothing.

Terry says immigrants are regularly the victims of violent attacks, but that "the police say that there are only a few people who do this, so it's not really a problem".

"But we say we have problems here, so the politicians must do something against them – to fight against them."

Various NGOs, political parties and concerned citizens in the area have come together to form an alliance against fascism under the banner 'A better life without Nazis'.

For the past two years, the Social Pedagogical Institute (SPI) in Berlin and Polis, the coordination unit against endangered democracy in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, have held rallies where people speak out against right-wing extremism.

Carl Chung, an SPI project manager, says: "For years Marzahn-Hellersdorf led the list of the most racist attacks in Berlin. But in the last two or three years, the attacks have dropped in number and there is a change in the social climate and atmosphere. There's still a lot to do, but change was caused by the efforts of a lot of people."

Rubin believes that fascism flourishes in places like Marzahn-Hellersdorf when lower-income whites feel disenfranchised and impoverished. "Being white becomes the only thing that gives them status, so they become racist," he says.

Residents now hope that redevelopment and job creation in an area where 20 per cent of the population is still dependent on the solidarity tax, introduced after reunification with the aim of assisting the East to prosper, might transform more than its architectural landscape.