Once, everyone wanted to move away. Now, living, working and eating ice cream on trendy Eisenbahnstrasse is all the rage. Our Hamburg-based author, from Eastern Germany herself, went to Leipzig to see what the hype is all about.
My legs dangle in the air. I’m sitting on the window sill, the morning sun warm on my face. As I run my hand over the rough facade, the plaster crumbles between my fingers. In the opposite apartment, the drapes are still holding the new day at bay, while outside the café below, burly men are heaving crates of flatbread out of a van. Birds chirrup, cars honk, and immediately beneath my feet, a tram rumbles noisily over the tracks. I watch it move on down the street, surveying the place I love.
There are plenty of stories to tell about Leipzig’s Eisenbahnstrasse; this one is mine. Eisenbahnstrasse is the main thoroughfare in the east of the city. One-and-a-half kilometers long, it connects the city center with the surrounding area. The sun rises on one side and sets on the other. What happens on this street is very much in the eye of the beholder. I was raised in the hinterlands of Saxony but moved to Hamburg nearly ten years ago. Now I’m visiting my friend Annabella, like me in her early 30s, who grew up in Leipzig. Annabella lives at the end of Eisenbahnstrasse. If you want to understand what you see on this street you have to retrace its history.
Eisenbahnstrasse connects three neighborhoods, and this circumstance alone makes it difficult to get a sense of the street’s identity. Although close to downtown and about ten minutes from the main train station, it looked for a long time as deserted as the city’s outskirts. In spite of its magnificent, almost decadent Wilhelmine architecture, most of the buildings remained unoccupied after East and West Germany reunited. In the 1990s, the city filled the empty apartments with asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia and Africa; folk from the Balkan states, Vietnam and Poland moved in. The newcomers kept to themselves and were left to fend for themselves. Social exclusion and hopelessness bred crime. That was the reality Annabella discovered six years ago: “Back then, my friends were scared to come and visit me here.”
Her apartment: broad, creaky floorboards in the hall, heavy wooden doors. An old building, partly renovated – this was the framework Annabella wanted for her life. She tore the yellowing wallpaper off the walls, filled the homemade kitchen shelves with jars of olives and fresh herbs that she found at the local greengrocers. Eisenbahnstrasse is the city’s melting pot, with Vietnamese and Syrian takeaways, an Iraqi grocery, a Russian video store and a Korean supermarket between the ubiquitous phone shops and hairdressing salons. We walk down the stairs, heave open the front door to the sight of asphalt glittering in the midday sun. A moving van roars by. Annabella looks pleased. “Now everyone wants to come here.”
Eisenbahnstrasse and its immediate surroundings have recently become popular. First came the artists and creatives, then the students and finally, following the classic script for urban renewal, the investors. The influx rate was 30 percent in 2016 – a record, even in an expanding city! A year ago, you could lose count of all the empty windows after walking halfway down the street, but now you are more likely to lose track of where you are, given all the freshly renovated facades. The students are beginning to worry whether they will be able to afford the rents here in the future. “Leipzig for everyone – no crazy rents and crowding out!” say the placards on the plywood boards nailed over shop windows.
Molekühl ice-cream parlor opened on the corner of Hedwigstrasse and Ludwigstrasse a few months back. Outside, children have no hope of challenging the laws of physics – even the coolest flavors soon melt in the sun. Inside, Jona Funke runs his fingers through his hair and proudly pats the glass ice-cream counter. “I had virtually no budget, but really wanted to get something going here,” says the 21-year-old engineering student. Light gray walls, untreated pine-wood benches, industrial-design lamps: Jona made everything he could himself and picked up the rest from flea markets. He and a friend spent four weeks drilling holes and driving in screws in this former snack bar. Now, salted caramel, orange-and-rosemary and strawberry- and-basil are passed across the counter at 1.20 euros a scoop.
Outside Molekühl, a young woman in a white crop top with black dreadlocks tilts her face up to the sky. Amira Schauki, also 21, is Jona’s girlfriend. She’s helping him out while waiting to get into art school. When she isn’t preparing posts for Instagram or designing logos, she makes herself comfortable on the bench in front of the shop window and takes in the life now buzzing on this corner of the street thanks to the ice-cream shop. A few people have climbed on top of the junction box and two friends are sitting in the sun. Amira smiles: “Gentrification’s not great, of course,” she says, “but at least Eisenbahnstrasse is starting to look nice.”
Casinos and organic food, student life and Turkish tea: Eisenbahnstrasse is alive with diversity
A gentle breeze ruffles the trees. Annabella and I walk past gambling halls and organic food stores; old men drink Turkish tea; young girls take selfies. The air smells of hummus and shawarma, of coriander and cumin, of what it’s like when people in a diverse neighborhood get along. Sitting outside the Brothers Café, Mucahid Yakut, 23, tries to speak without a Saxon accent. He came to Leipzig from Turkey as a child and speaks the local lingo like a native. He’s also the only one in the store who understands the local workmen. After ordering the scrambled eggs with sucuk, a number of them ask for his advice. “A construction worker recently complained that his wife had gotten cross with him for preferring spicy Turkish sausage to the German variety,” Mucahid tells us.
When his father and his two brothers opened the Brothers three years ago, the menus in the neighborhood were printed almost exclusively in Arabic, Russian or Turkish. In between, there were bars with signs saying “Only Germans allowed.”
Parallel worlds, little solidarity. The Yakuts wanted to create a place where Mucahid could take his East German classmates and his mother could take her relatives from the West. Mucahid’s uncle is a master baker and came down from Hamburg to help set up the business. He knew what an urban café needed to make everyone feel at home: Tahini börek now sit cozily side by side with Hamburg’s typical cinnamon Franzbrötchen pastry and Saxon crullers, gleaming in the golden light of the ceiling lamps.
Brothers has helped to make Eisenbahnstrasse sparkle. More and more store owners have started scratching the opaque plastic off their windows and selling not just halal meat but vegan dishes, too. Competition is enlivening the neighborhood. A new café, bar or other business opens here almost every week. Annabella and I stroll down the street, whiling away the afternoon. As the day begins to tire, Eisenbahnstrasse comes to life. People sit around on the remains of fallen walls, hungry for nightlife and building their strength for it with falafels from the Syrian place, and a beer from the next-door supermarket. Just before we reach Torgau Square, we turn down to the left and head toward the small bridge that crosses the railroad tracks. Like silver arteries, they stretch away to the main train station. We lean on the railings and reflect what Eisenbahnstrasse could be like in one, two, five or ten years. For the moment, though, the street is fine just the way it is.
Eisenbahnstraße from one end to the other
Getting there from Germany
In September, Lufthansa offers six daily flights to Leipzig (LEJ) from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to four daily flights from Munich (MUC). Use the app to calculate your miles: