New Year’s Eve in Berlin, particularly Neukölln, means war. Two days before the actual event, explosions start going off in the distance. By the 31st, the streets are littered in paper wrappers of cheap Chinese explosives. Biking is reminiscent of a trip across enemy lines, since people hurl fire crackers from their balconies. In short: it is utter madness. So when Anika proposed that we should escape to spend the day in Görlitz, I happily obliged. The city is Germany’s most Eastern municipality and literally borders Poland – there is a footbridge leading across the river into our neighboring country. Notably, it was not bombed to smithereens during the Second World War; I assume that its remote location saved it from what happened to so many other German cities after our crazy nation had declared war on the entire world.
This means that the city center has remained largely unscathed, with only time taking its relentless toll on the beautiful old buildings that make up the city. The decay eventually became so rampant that the East German government apparently considered tearing down much of the city in the late 80s (tearing things down, after all, was one of their favorite past times) – a plan that was foiled by reunification.
We arrived in Görlitz in the last rays of the passing years daylight; just as the old street lamps sprang to life and started emitting an orange gloom. We dropped off our bags and took a walk through what quickly turned out to be an utter ghost town. No wonder: Görlitz has been suffering from immense population decline over the years, reducing its population to about half of what it once was. The economy is weak, young people tend to move away. And even though Germany is aging anyway, Görlitz already projects the sense of a strange future in which only old people walk through the dark alleys while others hide between flower curtains – or celebrate the coming of the new year at parties beginning in the late afternoon. All this made it utterly empty, utterly quiet and very, very dark. But also very fascinating since the old GDR street lamps cast dramatic shadows on old buildings that we wanted to return to in daylight.
Even in the European Union of 2013, it is an odd feeling to cross a bridge and be in a different country. The Polish side of Görlitz – called Zgorzelec – greets you with large signs advertising cheap cigarettes (saving a few euros on smokes, after all, is one of the favorite past times of my fellow citizens). Then there it is Poland: Polish signs, Polish license plates, more darkness, more ghost town. We didn’t last too long in the cold.
The new year came with fireworks that were almost cute in their restraint. We woke up in 2014 to sunshine and – if that is possible – even more deserted streets than before. So out we went. The immediate city center is very much fixed up and tries to project a sense of normalcy. But then you turn a street corner and come across a historic art-deco warehouse that is abandoned and closed off. The normalcy is gone, particularly when you consider that in its glory days, the warehouse looked like this:
But once you think about it, the warehouse really starts to symbolize the problems of the overall city. While much money and effort has been poured into saving it, you can’t gloss over the fact that this is a region in decline, struggling with a weak economy, an aging population and the gargantuan task of saving what rusted away for decades following the war. Walk into a side street and empty houses greet you wherever you look. There are old store fronts, empty hotels, building propped up by wooden beams. Because of that, this day barely felt like 2014; it felt like we were back in the mid-80s, or in a beautiful, real-life museum. Graffiti on one of the buildings said it best: “Celebrate decay”.
It is hard to project where exactly the city is heading. But it is very easy to imagine what it once must have looked like, what it must have felt like to exit the train station onto a busy street of cafés and hotels. I am glad it hasn’t been given up.