Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The post-industrial city has been crowned Germany's Austin. But it might be more like Germany's Detroit.
Judging by the country's media, Germany seems to be getting a little bored of its major cities. Berlin is touristy and pretentious. Hamburg is so rich and uptight it hurts. Munich? You'll end up selling a kidney to pay your rent.
No, if you want to move to the German city where it's all supposed to be happening now, it absolutely has to be Leipzig.
That's the impression you'd get from the German press, at least. The media there has fallen all over itself to cover the city's cheap rent, elegantly wasted old tenements, and a globally rated artist community. Articles with headlines like "Life's Best in Leipzig" and "Like Berlin Only Better" have heaped praise on the city. The Israeli media has gone so far as to call Leipzig "Europe's new hipster capital." Leipzig even has a new nickname – Hypezig – and a German language tumblr that catalogues trend pieces on the city. It has over 100 entries for 2013 alone.
But is Leipzig Germany's Austin, a city where every other "hip" twenty-something will soon want to live? Or is Leipzig Germany's Detroit, a struggling place where small pockets of revival get highlighted while the rest of the city quietly rusts away?
The answer lies somewhere between. Apartments in Leipzig are indeed still affordable: you can rent a one-bedroom in a historic building for under $500. If you're on a very tight budget, basic studios in city fringe high-rises start as low as $175.
For getting around, the city is compact and bike-friendly. For getting out, it's surrounded by wooded, hilly countryside that’s arguably more attractive than Berlin's rather stark hinterland.
And then there’s the art scene. Almost every up-and-coming city fancies itself as a latter-day Montparnasse, but in Leipzig, the art is often quite good. The artists of the New Leipzig School group have become an international art world sensation since the millennium, the product of a city art school that taught the immaculate photographic technique of socialist realism right up to the 1990s.
This group gravitates around a space that's the stuff of creative class fantasy – a 25-acre old cotton mill now converted into studios, galleries, workshops, and restaurants. One of various ex-industrial spaces in the city, the converted mill is at the heart of a community that includes the coffee shops, organic food stores, makeshift bars and independent local businesses that tend to sprout in up-and-coming German neighborhoods.
But before you pack your suitcase, take a breath. Just like Berlin in the 1990s, the excitement Leipzig's currently generating is really made possible by flaws in its economy. All those factories and warehouses ripe for creative re-use? They're memorials to lost livelihoods. The 24 years since reunification have seen lights go out in almost all of Leipzig’s industries. Between 1988 and 1998, the city lost over 100,000 people (though a portion of this was due to suburbanization). At 520,000 citizens today, Leipzig is still 15,000 short of its population during the GDR's final years. And while manageable by Eastern Germany's low standards, Leipzig's unemployment rate remains high.
Thanks to years of massive bailouts from the central government, Leipzig's economy does finally appear to be heading back in the right direction. There's state support for a handful of start-ups, such as at biotechnology hub Bio City, while more major companies (including Amazon and DHL) are opening headquarters. That said, many of the new jobs they create are insecure and poorly rewarded – Leipzig's Amazon depot is currently on strike over low pay.
It's not yet clear whether post-industrial Leipzig can find its place in modern Europe. It's no doubt this ambiguity that makes the city so attractive to those singing its praises. Leipzig's rise in fortunes gives longstanding residents hope of more, better jobs, while its relative poverty attracts escapees from the anti-gentrification battles souring urban relations elsewhere in Germany. With the city's future far from fixed, it’s no wonder there’s a sense of possibility and excitement hanging in the air.