The Afterlife of Utopia: Urban Renewal in Germany's Model Socialist City
Samantha Maurer Fox
This project examines urban renewal efforts in Eisenhüttenstadt, a German city on the border between Germany and Poland founded in 1950 as a socialist utopian project. Originally called Stalinstadt, Eisenhüttenstadt was planned as a steel manufacturing hub and worker’s paradise. Its products would enable the rise of cities across the Eastern Bloc and its design, focused on the needs of young families, would be a model of humane urban living. Under East German rule the city thrived. Then, in 1991, came German reunification. Today Eisenhüttenstadt suffers from urban blight, massive unemployment, and depopulation. At the same time, state and private actors are working together to revitalize Eisenhüttenstadt, imprinting on the city a new utopianism as they transform it into a new urban paradigm: an environmentally sustainable city that caters to an aging and shrinking population.
My research uses ethnographic, archival, and visual methods to examine these efforts, and asks how new urban futures can be imagined in deindustrializing cities when traditional engines of growth disappear. I observe how architects and municipal officials draw on Eisenhüttenstadt’s legacy of socialist ethics in urban planning—prioritizing an attention to community cohesion, population density, and the economical use of resources both natural and financial—as they address contemporary crises: unemployment and urban emptiness, rising energy costs, an aging population, and an influx of Syrian refugees.
My two primary theoretical interests are, broadly, temporality and materiality. I ask how the 20th century’s industrial and material legacies are being reimagined and redeveloped, what logics stand behind those changes, and how those logics—and legacies—are understood by the people who encounter them. I ask how people use their interactions with the built environment to situate themselves in history, as well as how people’s perception of the past influences their imagination of urban futures. And I ask how, as federal mandates are interpreted at the local level, the socialist ethics which influenced Eisenhüttenstadt’s officials reemerge in the present day.
I do so over the course of five chapters. Chapter One examines how socialist urban planning was defined in East Germany and how residents of Eisenhüttenstadt experienced the transition from socialism to capitalism. Chapter Two focuses on one element of the urban landscape called the Wohnkomplex and how it is being rebuilt, according to socialist logics, to accommodate the needs of the elderly. Chapter Three examines street names, and how history comes to be experienced or erased in the urban landscape. Chapter Four examines street lamps, whose partial privatization in 2015 set off robust debate about the failure of local government to prioritize citizens’ well-being over financial gain. Chapter Five focuses on the refugee housing crisis and how residents and municipal officials in Eisenhüttenstadt responded to the unexpected need to house thousands of new residents.