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German Reunification

New buildings, new problems for restored east German cities

Eastern Germany is rich in historical urban centers, and in the last 20 years, a lot of money has been invested in their restoration. Torgau is one place that has benefited, but the city also faces new challenges.

A palace in Torgau

Torgau's palace represents a proud past

A wrought-iron guild sign hangs between two arched store-front windows. It shows a small boy riding a rocking horse, and that tells passers-by that in this house a wood-worker earns his living by making toys. In fact, the toy-making business Carl Loebner is the oldest in Germany: the family business was founded in 1685, and today, Joerg Loebner is the eleventh generation to run it. He still works out of the house on Baecker Street in the town of Torgau that one of his ancestors bought in 1780. Someday, he says, he will inherit the house.

"But for now, my father is still the owner," Loebner says. "Even back under the GDR, he invested a lot in restoration. The house has become really quite nice."

Housing politics of the GDR

The old town of Torgau

Torgau's old town looks different than it did in East German times

In 1990, most old towns in East German cities were in a sorry state. The housing policies of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) placed an emphasis on modular housing, and entire neighborhoods for up to 100,000 people were quickly built. The policy worked to the detriment of the city centers with their often historic buildings. The buildings were rent-controlled, and there was no way to come up with the money needed for renovations.

Moreover, in the eyes of socialist city planners, the historical buildings typified capitalist tendencies which they wanted to overcome. So the buildings were often left to deteriorate, and because they didn't have bathrooms, and their inhabitants had to put up with external toilets, coal ovens, and damp walls, they were not seen as attractive.

Torgau, however, looked pretty good in comparison to most cities in the GDR, says Karin Hahn from the city's planning office. Here, many homes in the old town were privately owned even before 1990, and people felt a sense of responsibility toward their buildings. In addition, the city had been under protection as a historical site since 1973.

"That was another reason there was a lot of interest in maintaining the old town," says Hahn.

A moving past

The old town's gabled homes, noble Renaissance town hall and grand palace send the message that this town on the banks of the Elbe was once home to aristocracy and booming businesses. The buildings have been painstakingly restored, and their facades shine in freshly painted yellows, whites, and reds. Small businesses, cafes, and museums entice visitors, flowers bloom on windowsills, and the pedestrian zone is filled with trees and patches of green.

In the years leading up to German reunification, Wolfgang Wehner recalls a much greyer city. Wehner is a shoe salesman and head of the Old Town Society in Torgau. But the lack of color didn't mean there was a lack of business, Wehner says.

A construction site

Nearly everything in the old town has been renovated

"In 1989 we had many more retail businesses in the old town, since there was nothing outside the city gates. All the business was conducted here in town."

New rules

The big change came with German reunification, in Torgau as in the rest of East Germany. After reunification, what was once state property began to be privatized, and private property that had been taken over by the GDR was returned to its original owners.

Soon, the rules of the free market took over, changing the cities and the people who lived and worked in them. Old East German stores had to close, real estate changed hands, and in some places, the population sank as people facing high unemployment moved to western Germany to find work. Old buildings were either completely restored or torn down, while modern shopping centers began popping up outside of town.

Restoration and historical protection

But in Torgau, says city planner Karin Hahn, developing the old town has always been a priority. Soon after reunification, the city began projects for public renovation and historical protection.

"We tried to develop the old town further and push the modernization and maintenance work," she said of the projects.

Torgau was one out of more than a hundred cities that profited from federal and state projects aimed at public protection of historical sites in the former East Germany. Hardly a single facade in the old town was not renovated, and nearly every building has had its heating, water, and electricity modernized.

There were also public projects like the restoration of the palace, a new cultural center, or a "heritage trail" for tourists. Nevertheless, toy-maker Joerg Loebner says some things are still lacking.

"We're missing a steady stream of customers here in Torgau," he says. "We can't only live from tourists. As long as the customers are missing, one business after another is going to be up the creek."

Fading population and vacancies

'For rent' sign on a Torgau building

'For rent' - even renovated businesses have a tough time surviving

About 120 businesses are currently empty in Torgau. Most customers are in the big shopping center outside of town. The message from city hall seems to be "that's the way it is in a market economy." But even the town's politicians are worried. It's not only storefronts that are empty; 17 percent of homes are waiting for new tenants.

"When a landlord has renovated a house, the next question is of course 'how high should the rent be?'" says Karin Hahn. "'Is there even a clientele there, which can afford the rent? And how do we get such people into the old town?'"

Challenges for the future

At the time of German reunification, Torgau had around 23,000 residents. Today, that number has dropped by about 5,000. There has been a particular drop in young people who have left to follow work opportunities - a problem Torgau shares with many other eastern German cities. The average age of the population is 44.

And not only is the population not getting any younger, they aren't getting any richer either, says Karin Hahn. For the old town to remain attractive, she says it needs more parks, quiet areas, barrier-free access, rent subsidies, and in particular, a supermarket where one can buy food.

Joerg Loebner plans to hand his toy-making business over to his son in 2017, but he's committed to keeping it where it is, even though he already makes a quarter of his turnover on the internet.

Author: Silke Bartlick (mz)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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