speech by Michael Grzesiak
b-team conference, »reusing the past for the future« Seville, 2012

Leipzig, the sleeping beauty gets hungry
- on the rise and risks of its creative scenes

colored light district, work by Daniel Schörnig©1998-2000

Within the last 10 years Leipzig has made it from rank 49 to rank 6 in the top 50 city- ranking, according to a renowned German business magazine. The creative scenes have played a crucial role in that development but Leipzig has become hungry and bitten the hands that fed it.

When I came to Leipzig in 2001, after having lived in Dresden for 7 years, Leipzig was a Sleeping Beauty, loved by its inhabitants and a few courageous foreigners who had managed to get past the multitude of prejudices against East Germany, concern about dangerous streets, 20 % vacancy in housing estates and 20 % unemployment. Administration and private real estate owners were fighting to maintain houses that were falling apart. Only tax-breaks encouraged people to invest their money, more often than not in the wrong areas of the city, where their investments failed to be profitable.

In the years prior to 2001 people in East Germany had been frugal, satisfied with little and conscious of their tough socialist past. One earned less than in the western states of Germany but life was relatively cheap and living conditions were not as bad as one would assume. This became more and more attractive to insiders, namely people already living there as well as those arriving, a situation which consequently kept them from leaving. Space seemed limitless, cheap to rent or, in the best cases, free. The financial risk of starting a business or a non-profit organization was low due to low living costs and this availability of undefined and unlimited space. People felt comfortable with their living conditions and started to use the space in creative and resourceful ways.

Vacant factory buildings and blocks of flats initially led to vandalism or were used for illegal parties. Gradually, ‘spatial pioneers’ were enticed by all the excess space at hand and began to use it innovatively. The supply produced demand.

The city’s appeal results from a combination of rich, historic architecture, the remnants of the German Democratic Republic’s aesthetic charm and modern buildings, which are interspersed among them. More than this, the city is permeated with an openness regarding forward-thinking projects, businesses and networks, which are embedded in a functioning infrastructure and cultural landscape. Leipzig is authentic and thrilling for a young generation and therefore unique within the German and even European context.

Over the last ten years investors have focussed on projects with return while creative people from all fields have tried to find their own approach to unoccupied spaces. Apart from using spaces for their work, the option of cheap living has provided a great freedom in terms of where or how to live, as well as what size of space to live in. At the same time these spaces offered, and still offer, close proximity to healthcare, childcare and the infrastructure.

During this time few were aware that this status would be a temporary phenomenon. People often felt comfortable with their living conditions and smug about rent prices in comparison to their friends’ living costs in Munich, Cologne or even Berlin. The situation, however, was too good to be stable.

There was space for everybody and the absence of spatial competition allowed different ways of living, working and making business to coexist: Professional business models alongside alternative ones; the call centre next to a one-man record label; luxurious renovated apartments beside flat-sharing communities.

One could find analogies to the success of a group of painters who lived and studied in Leipzig in the nineties, most of whom still live there today. They were generally ignored when media art was a big deal and painting out-dated. Their oversized canvases corresponded with the sizes of their studios.

They studied at an excellent art school, rented big studios and took their time to do something relevant. Suddenly they became renowned and the global art world travelled to Leipzig to see and to buy art. Art lovers, collectors, art scouts, art consultants and dealers pilgrimaged to Leipzig to get their share.

With its population getting increasingly older, Germany has a demographic problem. Cities that can provide opportunities for a new generation will attract young and middle-aged people. Our working environments have radically changed to a flexible, lifestyle-oriented market. The freedom of choice and self-determination concerning our living and working conditions will be unique in terms of the attractiveness of a city. Diversity and flexibility of lifestyles (with or without children), working during the day or at night, having multiple jobs: many of these issues were generated by people in the creative scene. They were pioneers of lifestyles and contemporary living and created a lively cultural landscape. The off-scenes are a crucial location factor. Self-initiated art spaces do not cost a cent, whereas theatres and opera houses do.

After the sudden fall of the wall, Leipzig lost inhabitants; empty houses and waste land made the local planners change their strategies from growth to shrinkage. Leipzig was proclaimed the »perforated city« that needed to accept vast voids in its structure. But now, once again, the situation has radically changed and the demand for space has started to grow again. Within recent years the ‘Schleussig’ quarter of Leipzig has experienced the fastest growing rental prices in Germany.

Due to the banking crisis, real estate has become highly attractive as an alternative to hedge funds and the stock market. Investors have bought real estate and have built anonymous standard rental space, substituting the unique structure of the city with average, standardised houses and apartments. Buildings used by artists, which sometimes consist of over one hundred studios, have been sold and closed down.

Some creative people were astute enough to secure their share by buying »their« spaces, but the numbers are low. There have been numerous cases within the last year where buildings used for studios have been closed without any alternatives being offered to the tenants. As similar spaces are rare, investors look to profit from this situation by increasing prices. Consequently, the process of gentrification has begun and areas risk loosing their diversity and unique atmosphere.

The story of the Leipzig creative scene is a story about the attractiveness of space. Alongside the classic economic stabilization of the city, a generation of creative people have built a productive cultural landscape based on a series of positive prerequisites. It has become a brand in the world, a growing atmosphere within open structures and networks. Now 1760 inhabitants live in one square kilometre of the city, which is 40% the density of Munich. Theoretically this means that large amounts of space are still available but Leipzig officials estimate an increase of 9000 inhabitants a year, suggesting a growth rate of nearly 20% over the next decade.

This could be perceived as an excellent situation for a city that was formerly shrinking but emerging from a brownfield history, this scenario was to be expected. As soon as land and space become valuable, those with financial means will gain power and, as such, the pace of growth should be kept as slow as possible. City administrations tend to have limited funds and as a result can often lose significant influence over their city’s development, especially when forced to sell properties to gain liquidity. When a city changes from shrinkage to growth, (arguably a comprehensible goal), or better, before this change occurs, there should be means developed to protect its urban protagonists and to let them reap the benefits of their input.

translation by Rosemary Hogarth