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A Tale of Two Cities on the German-Polish Border

While Frankfurt (Oder) seems to lack appeal to Germans, people in neighboring Slubice, on the Polish side of the river, may jump at the chance to live in one of the thousands of vacant apartments in the border town.


Frankfurt and Slubice: Regulations keep them apart

Hardly anyone moves to the other Frankfurt.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, eastern Germany's cities and towns have been continually losing inhabitants. More and more apartments were vacated, particularly in the neighborhoods of prefabricated, concrete apartment blocks built since the 1960s. Before the end of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), 90,000 people lived in Frankfurt an der Oder. Now its size has shrunk by nearly a third, to a total of 67,000 inhabitants.

The glut of empty quarters has caused Frankfurt Mayor Martin Patzelt to declare: "I would give anyone who comes an apartment."

Those are bitter words on the Polish side of the river, where an acute housing crisis reigns. Somewhere between 500 and 600 families are searching for new homes in Slubice, according to the mayor's spokesman, Heinz-Dieter Walter. "We have been engaged in joint city developmental policies and joint infrastructure planning with our Polish neighbors for a long time already," Walter told Deutsche Welle.

The German-Polish border is lined with a number of twin cities, but Görlitz-Zgorzelec, Guben-Gubin and Frankfurt-Slubice are the largest. Until Germany ceded the region to Poland after World War II, Slubice was the Frankfurt suburb Dammvorstadt. Nowadays economic development on the German side is practically stagnating, while the Polish side is beginning to prosper -- both economically and in size.

Borders will be borders

Plattenbausiedlung wird demontiert

But most Poles can forget about finding a home in Frankfurt's prefab ghost town neighborhoods anytime in the near future, and Mayor Patzelt hasn't been able to keep his word.

It will be years before people can live in the west and work in the east or vice versa. Nor will that change when Poland joins the European Union on May 1, 2004. Transitional measures will prevent Germans from taking advantage of low prices in Poland to buy property and Poles from working in Germany and undercutting the local labor market with lower wage demands for up to seven years after accession.

But as the clock ticks toward integration, Frankfurt (Oder) officials have found a workaround: the city has been granted permission by the state of Brandenburg to grant Polish apartment seekers residence permits, though there are some strings attached.

Applicants must meet several prerequisites before they may covet the city thousands of people have abandoned. They must have a regular income and be prepared to pay rent that is nearly three times as expensive as in Poland. They also have to relinquish all rights to German social welfare benefits. And that could make the deal a lot less attractive for Poles, who earned an average of $9,500 (€8,500) last year as opposed to $26,600 in Germany.

Heinz-Dieter Walter is aware too that not many Poles are likely to be able to fulfill the criteria. But, he says, "We don't just want to fill up our apartments. We want a normal neighborhood."

But even when the first Poles, residence permits in hand, start hunting for apartments, they shouldn't have their hearts set on moving into a GDR-era prefab, known here as a "Plattenbau." Frankfurt plans to demolish at least 7,000 of the apartments over the next few years.

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