Calling All Hipsters Leipzig Is the New Berlin

Berlin used to be Germany's hippest city, but the once scruffy capital has long since succumbed to gentrification. The latest city to attract the creative class is the former East German industrial seat of Leipzig. Moving in by the thousands, they are lured by the euphoric buzz of cheap rent and youthful ingenuity.

Before the sun sets, it pierces the clouds once again as a glowing red orb. People stream from turn-of-the-century villas and communist-era concrete apartment complexes and rush to the park. Adventurers and hedonists, painters, students, punks and Internet entrepreneurs come alone and in groups, on bicycles and skateboards, with guitars and cases of beer tucked under their arms.

For months now, the residents of Leipzig have been celebrating every evening on the Sachsenbrücke, or Saxony Bridge, in Clara Zetkin Park. The parties began after the snow melted, continued throughout the summer, and show no signs of abating now that the days are growing shorter and the nights are getting colder. An entertainer swallows fire, a street musician sings a song by Leonard Cohen, and couples smooch on the edge of the canal. People are talking, laughing and dancing on the bridge.

Leipzig languished for a long time. It was a city in the heart of eastern Germany, but barely on anyone's radar. It called itself the "city of the peaceful revolution." After all, this is where people first took to the streets in the weekly "Monday demonstrations" to protest the communist regime of former East Germany. That was back in 1989. But Leipzig didn't experience its transformation until later. The change was heralded by the success of Neo Rauch  and other painters of the New Leipzig School. Every two or three years, Leipzig then showed a sign of life to the outside world. The airport was expanded, and the city made a bid to host the Olympic Games.

In the meantime, a hint of euphoria has seized the city. According to city hall, the population grew by 9,000 last year. With 533,000 people now living in Leipzig, the city finally has as many inhabitants as it did before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It has become a magnet for young, creative individuals.

Ramshackle and Wild

A few hundred meters from Clara Zetkin Park, in the Plagwitz district, artist Julian Sippel, 31, is walking across Karl-Heine-Strasse, a wide boulevard bordered by art nouveau buildings and derelict industrial sites. He points to the galleries, bars and theater that have emerged here over the past few years. "It all started here in Plagwitz," he says.

Sippel has a three-day beard and carefully disheveled hair. He studied art in Frankfurt and urban planning in Hamburg. One year ago, he came with a group of artists from Hamburg to exhibit some of his installations in Leipzig. Sippel recalls how he restlessly roamed through Plagwitz at the time. Artists had moved into the old buildings. Friends took him along to parties in warehouses. The city was ramshackle and wild. In Hamburg, artists were struggling for every square meter of space. In Leipzig, Sippel and his colleagues found limitless space available to them. At the time, says Sippel, he couldn't get the thought of moving to Leipzig out of his head.

Sippel walks up to an old factory. The walls are sprayed with graffiti, windows are broken and steel girders crisscross the building. Before the fall of the Wall, Sippel explains, the Westwerk was used to manufacture faucets and fixtures. Today, the space is used by artists and musicians. Painters are leaning over sketches in the studios, and music is booming from one of the old production halls. A woman with dreadlocks is hauling clothing into a vintage store. "In any other city, investors would have bought the building a long time ago," says Sippel.

Three months after his first exhibition in Leipzig, he gave notice for his apartment in Hamburg and moved with fellow artist Andi Willmann to eastern Germany. Together they have rented a store near the Westwerk that they use as a living space and studio.

In another former industrial building, Sippel and some friends organized an exhibition of abstract art by young painters from Leipzig. For the opening, he nailed together wooden boards to make a bar, and a friend of his played music. No one in Leipzig expects to be a major commercial success, he says, so the artists help each other out.

Room to Breathe

German author Juli Zeh, who studied at the Leipzig Institute for German literature, wrote an essay in which she describes the attitude toward life in the city: "What does a medium-sized, central-German city do if it has no mountains at its doorstep, no majestically flowing river at its heart, no surrounding forests, no nearby coast, no seat of government, no drug scene, no therapeutic hot springs and otherwise nothing in particular to offer? Naturally, it starts to dream."

In former East Germany , Leipzig was an industrial center. There were production plants that produced everything from chemical facilities to textiles. But the factories were closed after German reunification and people headed west in search of jobs. Even today, there are many empty apartments and unemployment is high. Nearly a fifth of the population is living on long-term unemployment benefits. In many respects, Leipzig pales in comparison to Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony. Incomes are higher in Dresden, and there is less crime. Dresden is debt-free, while Leipzig has amassed a deficit of over €700 million ($907 million).

Nevertheless, many young people would rather go to Leipzig. The city has an advantage that is not reflected in any statistic: It gives its residents breathing room. Dresden has the state opera house and the art collections of the state of Saxony, but the subculture is thriving in Leipzig. While Dresden is in danger of becoming a museum for civil servants and the educated middle class, an alternative scene the likes of which can be found nowhere else in Germany has been developing in Leipzig. People who come here are looking for new ways of working and co-existing.

Just like in Berlin during the early 1990s, artists, students and entrepreneurs are moving into Leipzig's empty old buildings. Monthly rents, excluding utilities and service charges, run at about five euros per square meter, or $0.60 per square foot. Rents in Berlin  are now almost twice that, and in Munich they are two and a half times as high. Leipzig has become an escape for young Germans who think Hamburg is too expensive, Munich is too stuffy, and Berlin is overrated. The number of applicants to the University of Leipzig has nearly doubled over the past few years. The New York Times has described the city as the "better Berlin."

Bands from around the world play gigs at UT Connewitz, Leipzig's oldest movie theater, located in the southern part of the city. Young women in drainpipe jeans and guys in retro jackets dance until late in the night in a big hall that, with its wide columns and high ceiling, looks like a church. "Leipzig is a perfect place for young musicians," says Claudia Göhler, the singer of the band Talking to Turtles. She says every night different bands take to the stage in the city's bars and clubs. The music scene is as diverse as in Hamburg, but more open.

Enterprising Spirit

Leipzig is experiencing its golden age. The euphoric mood is attracting not only artists and students, but also start-up entrepreneurs who are looking for well-educated employees. The Leipzig Graduate School of Management, a private business school, is known for producing company founders.

By contrast, attempts by local politicians to move the city forward have often failed. The Leipzig Games Convention, for example, was a flop. Top city officials have also illegally sold off property at bargain prices, and top managers of the municipal waterworks have been convicted of taking bribes. In January, Leipzig will elect a new mayor. The incumbent, Burkhard Jung of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), only has a chance of staying in office because there is no suitable opponent. The people of Leipzig have grown accustomed to expecting little of their politicians. The city's enterprising young people organize things on their own.

The old cinema, UT Connewitz, will be 100 years old in December, and its supporters are celebrating this anniversary with concerts, readings and a film festival. The movie theater has survived wars, dictatorships and revolutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, no one was interested in running the old theater -- until a group of local people founded an association in 2001 to maintain the institution.

Annett Fenske used to see films here with her parents when she was a kid. Fenske, who now works as a geriatric nurse, has mixed feelings about Leipzig's transformation. She's glad that the city is gaining popularity. But she is afraid that investors could soon force long-time residents out.

Fenske also compiles the theater's program, books the bands and selects the films. During the summer break, she and fellow members of the association renovate the building. Over the past 10 years, they have laid a new floor, replaced the roof and cleared out the basement. She dreams that the old movie theater will one day look like it did at the beginning of the 20th century. The association receives no support from city hall. In Leipzig, says Fenske, ingenuity stems from the city's residents.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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