Hoyerswerda Slight Return: Revisiting the GDR’s Second Socialist City (2008)

"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

Hoyerswerda, the GDR's second planned city - 1. Shopping District, 2. "Glückauf" Restaurant, 3. "Friendship" Restaurant, 4. Miners' Lake (Bild u. Heimat, 1968)

Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second planned city – 1. Shopping District, 2. “Glückauf” Restaurant, 3. “Friendship” Restaurant, 4. Miners’ Lake (Bild u. Heimat, 1968)

“Having reactivated Herr Schmidt from my visit 2.5 years earlier, the itinerary for our day in Hoy was flawless and expectations (for me at least) ran high. Upon arrival at the train station, we were met by Herr Schmidt, along with Frau Angela P., the Gymasium teacher who was once again providing Reimann readings throughout the day as we made our way through town. She began with an excerpt from Reimann’s “Ankunft im Alltag” (Arrival in Daily Life) which recounts the protagonist’s arrival at the train station with Hoy depicted as a rusty, dirty town. From here, the group boarded our bus and got a brief overview of the core area before heading to the City Hall where we were received with remarkable pomp.

Angela Potowski, teacher of German at Hoy's Lessing Gymasium, reads from Brigitte Reimann's Ankunft im Alltag (photo: author).

Angela Potowski, teacher of German at Hoy’s Lessing Gymasium, reads from Brigitte Reimann’s Ankunft im Alltag at the town’s train station. To her immediate right Martin Schmidt, our guide for the day, listens intently (photo: author).

City Hall’s main meeting room was laid out for our arrival. A visiting delegation of American solar panel entrepreneurs wouldn’t have been received more warmly! Admittedlly the Mayor wasn’t present; thankfully, he had other more important things to do, but councillor responsible for “Social Affairs” gave us a welcome speech as we sat around a large board table normally reserved for actual VIPs. At each place setting there was a package of informational materials, little bottles of juice and water sat clustered in the middle of the table near several small flags bearing the town coat of arms. Surreal. Marcus got up and gave a very heartfelt thank you to our hosts and afterwards he was interviewed by the local cable TV show on the steps of the building.

Marcus interviewed by Lausitzer Welle TV (photo: author).

Marcus interviewed by Lausitzer Welle TV (photo: author).

From here, the group trundled to the City Castle where we heard a fascinating presentation from Frau Christine Neudeck, a retired architect who’d been present at my last visit but to whom I did not have a chance to speak with then. She provided us with a fascinating paper arguing that the GDR’s prefab building program should be understood as an attempt to reanimate such groundbreaking Weimar-era Bauhaus developments as Berlin-Britz and Dresden-Hellerau. I don’t know if I buy it, but it was interesting to understand the traditions in which some GDR architects had understood themselves to be working.

Christine Neudeck, GDR-era architect in Hoy, presents to our group (photo: author).

Christine Neudeck, GDR-era architect in Hoy, presents to our group (photo: author).

After lunch we headed out to the Brigitte-Reimann-Encounter Centre for a tour and some information on the town’s most famous writer and her ambivalent relationship to the town that inspired what was arguably her best work, the novel “Franziska Linkerhand”. Marcus and I had assigned the group of chapter of the novel as background and it proved a useful bridge to our discussions with the director of the town’s planning department and a representative of a local housing cooperative. Between these two, we got a good sense of what had been done to renovate and update the town’s prefab apartment blocks and what was planned. They have done some innovative things and the town is remarkably pleasant in its physical form.

To get a sense of what their work has accomplished, we drove over to tour one of the recently renovated tower blocks adjacent to the main square. On its roof they created a viewing platform/patio which affords the most amazing panorama view of the area. To the left the new Vattenfall coal-fired plant on the old Schwarze Pumpe (Black Pump) site pumped out clouds of CO2 (or something), to the right a mass of windmills stretched across the horizon and then if one gazed downwards, you saw the Wohnkomplexe (“Living Complexes”, the GDR-era term for a neighbourhood) which have been thinned out through “selective deconstruction” process. At the foot of the tower stood an open field, space where several other 12 story towers had stood. One of the locals who’d glommed onto our group sidled up to me as I was staring down at this wasteland and told me that this was going to be “our ‘Central Park'”. I could not tell whether this was intended ironically or the product of some sort of delusion. (Ed. note: in preparing this post I came across a YouTube clip from the summer of 2013 documenting the opening of a new Central Park for Hoy. Right where the man had said it would be.)

The tower itself had been spruced up very nicely, stripped to its concrete frame in places to give a modern, post-industrial feel, but the façade was bright and the hallways had been opened up with glass to allow more light in. Nice and airy. Several buildings, we were told, now have concierge service, a nod to the fact that the increasingly elderly residents of Hoy often have no family in the area as these been forced to leave to find work. The concierge runs errands to the pharmacy, reminds residents of doctors appointments, schedules taxis, etc. Interesting.

Site earmarked for "selective deconstruction" on the northern edge of Hoy (photo: author).

Site earmarked for “selective deconstruction” on the northern edge of Hoy (photo: author).

On our way out of town, we made a detour to the north end of Hoy to drop Herr Schmidt off at his home in one of the last WKs built before the GDR ended. Erected in the 80s, these pose a real challenge to the town’s planners as they increase its footprint in a way that stretches municipal services to the limit. Ideally, planners would like to see Hoy consolidate itself around the New Town core to create the densities necessary for urban infrastructure (sewage, water, public transit), however, the relative newness of these WKs means that their units are still completely liveable while the fact that they’ve not been renovated makes rents quite low. Compounding the problem, a number of essential services were put in here (fire hall, swimming pool) in the early years after unification so winding down the residential areas around these would make no sense. This is the circle the town is trying desperately to square. It was interesting to see this area as it is quite different from the larger GDR-era prefab districts I’d seen such as Berlin-Marzahn or Leipzig-Grünau. Here the buildings really were built right on top of each other, the roads are very narrow (confirming that car culture was not a driving force in planning this). While people are live cheek to jowl, there was a feeling of street life and community here that seemed to be lacking elsewhere in town. Interesting.”

Marcus’ Recollections

Before posting this, I asked my collaborator on the tour Marcus Funck whether he had any memories of our day in Hoy that he’d like to share. Here is what he came up with:

“What I found so remarkable was our hosts’ will to present Hoyerswerda as a “normal” town to the group. In my perception they did not deliberately try to be mute about the town’s infamous recent past as a hotbed of right-wing extremism and site of anti-foreigner pogroms. But they didn’t want to see their town reduced to this.

The group of maybe ten people that guided us through town was remarkably lovely and welcoming. What I asked myself was if they were the only ones? I hardly remember seeing other people in the streets in the windows of their apartments etc. Am I right recollecting that Hoyerswerda felt like a ghost city with handful of people trying to give some life to it?”

I’d have to answer this question with a nod. On both my visits to the town, I’ve had this same sense of wandering through some sort of set. In fact, I think this quality probably helps contribute to the soft spot that Hoy has in my heart for because this emptiness makes it easier for me to see in it the prototypical East German town that I so desperately want it to be. Walking through the WKs of Hoy is somewhat akin to strolling through a full scale architectural model of the GDR, the Bauhausian lines and general rationality are left essentially undisturbed by anything as messy and disruptive as actual humans living their messy and disruptively human lives.

Postscript: Fall 2014 – “Hoyerswerda Remembers” – A Town Struggles to Free Itself from the Past
"Hoyerswerda does not forget. We remember." (the opposite side reads: "Fall 1991") (photo: SeptemberWoman, Wikicommons).

“Hoyerswerda does not forget. We remember.” (the opposite side reads: “Fall 1991”) (photo: SeptemberWoman, Wikicommons).

Its been nearly 24 years since the anti-foreigner pogroms took place in Hoyerswerda and despite the efforts of many in the town, this past continues to colour its present. In the fall of 2014, after years of wrangling, the town dedicated a new memorial to the events of 1991. Pictured above, this monument stands in the town’s new Central Park and bears the inscription “Hoyerswerda does not forget. We remember. Fall 1991.” Reaction among townspeople has been muted at best, hostile at worst. Well-known neo-Nazis attended the dedication ceremony, posing provocatively for media cameras. The news reports on the event were quickly augmented with scores of vile comments from some residents, something that was quickly reported on separately and which served to further undermine Hoyerswerda’s negative reputation.

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