East German cities came by their reputations as grey, dingy and depressing places honestly. From the early 1960s onward, efforts by the GDR authorities to give their urban centres a “socialist face” often meant that the renovation or maintenance of historical buildings was neglected in favour of new construction using prefabricated blocks with little charm, character or colour. The approach left most East German cities looking rather generic and unattractive.This is not to say that no attention was given to the aesthetics of development, and one tool that city planners did turn to in an attempt to brighten up these city scapes was the neon sign. This post will examine the use of such signage in GDR-era Leipzig and also include a section from my Master’s thesis which looks at the restoration of Leipzig’s most famous neon, the Spoon Family.
A (very) brief history of neon signs in the German Democratic Republic featuring Leipzig’s iconic “Spoon Family”:
Wed, February 10, 1999
“Do you have time?”, she asks ambiguously, the friendly but pleading tone perfectly complementing her difficult situation. I am on the way back to my apartment in my new hometown of Leipzig when I happen upon her: an elderly woman balancing precariously on her cane, afraid to go further upon the icy, uneven path. Stranded and in need of a way out, preferably not at the price of her dignity.
Her question catches me off guard as I move to pass her. I stop and am momentarily confused, thinking that she wants to know what time it is. As she waits for an answer, I realize that she really wants my help. “Time for what?”, I ask.
“A short walk perhaps?”, she suggests, her steady tone betrayed by the onset of panic in her pale blue eyes. When I nod in agreement, her body visibly lightens as she straightens and slides her arm through mine. We have walked a few meters in silence when, with the disarming directness that appears to be one of the few privileges old age bestows, she asks, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
“A man,” I answer. She smiles, only momentarily embarrassed by her uncertainty.
“Of course. A man.”