Guest article by Seamus Murphy of Trenditionist
(Images by Seamus Murphy of Trenditionist unless otherwise stated)
If you visit the city of Chemnitz in the German Free State of Saxony, your first impression is going to be distinctly Soviet. You might regret you came, even wishing you went to one of Germany’s more alluring destinations like Munich, Hamburg or Berlin. But it’s important to persevere, because hidden under Chemnitz’s grey and gritty exterior, it’s possible to unearth a plethora of historical riches.
Not far away from the beautiful city of Dresden, Chemnitz was named Karl-Marx-Stadt between 1953 and 1990. German reunification tore the heart out of the city’s traditional industrial backbone. Struggling to compete in a new Germany driven by economic powerhouses in cities like Munich and Stuttgart, Chemnitz started to decline. Its factories and apartment blocks were torn down or abandoned as people flooded west in search of new opportunities.
Since those early days of reunification, Chemnitz has started to recover, as mechanical engineering, metal processing, and vehicle manufacturing have made a welcome comeback. Statistics show that more and more of Germany’s top brands, including Volkswagen, are seeing potential in Chemnitz’s highly educated and youthful population. In fact, Volkswagen’s plant in the city was rated “Factory of the Year 2009” in the “outstanding innovation management” category by management consultants A.T. Kearney and the German magazine “Produktion”.
Today, the city is growing steadily, posting some of Germany’s highest annual GDP growth rates. Unemployment is falling dramatically, while 16.3% of all inhabitants hold a university degree – twice the national average. However, old scars are difficult to heal and despite the city’s new found success, there is a lot of work to do. Chemnitz is still grey and bland, full of abandoned monuments to a more prosperous era.
I walked through the city with a friend back in 2009. Deeply familiar with Chemnitz and its history, he regaled me with stories of abandoned apartment blocks and business premises. Apparently, he used to enjoy champagne breakfasts with some friends on the roof of a deserted factory. For him, sunrise was the best time of the day in Chemnitz, and where better to enjoy it than the best vantage point in town. With a mouth full of croissant and champagne, he’d watch the sun slowly rising over the smokestacks, transforming the lifeless shades of grey into a vibrant mosaic of orange and red.
I was keen to see these forgotten locations for myself, and we duly arrived at some neglected apartments, their facades a mixture of old peeling paint interspersed with artistic graffiti. It was clear that the occupants had departed some time ago. The downstairs windows still had battered and flimsy wooden shutters, affording the building little protection. The upstairs windows, unprotected by shutters, were cracked and broken. With a little work, we managed to open the front door and stood in the hallway.
Of course, we certainly weren’t the first people to enter the building since its occupants left, and its state left much to be desired. It certainly wasn’t as well preserved as a well known East German flat discovered in Leipzig in 2009. Still, there was plenty of evidence of a happy former life. Even though the cooker was still in place, the kitchen furniture was probably long since looted. The living room had an old GDR-era television with a cracked screen and an old sofa. Some beer cans were scattered around, indicating the old flat was still being used by squatters.
In the bathroom, the pipes, sink, toilet and a long neglected bath were still in place, making me wonder why the squatters didn’t avail of them. Perhaps the plain of thought “it isn’t my house so I can do as I please” prevailed. Casting such notions aside, we went to the bedroom, catching glimpses of ourselves in an old dusty mirror perched on the night-stand There wasn’t too much left of the bed, just a basic square structure with some rusty springs. In places, the wooden floor felt unstable, so we decided to leave and move onto something even more interesting.