Once blighted by high unemployment, the northeastern town of Anklam has for years been seen as Germany’s economic black sheep. But as the country prepares for elections on Sunday, the town’s residents say this reputation is no longer deserved.
Germany’s thriving economy has become the envy of many of its European neighbours in recent years. But despite the country’s prosperity, the town of Anklam, a two-hour train ride north of Berlin, has struggled to shake off its reputation as Germany’s economic black sheep.
In the early 2000s, the German press had a field day at the town’s expense when figures revealed that 31 per cent of its population was without work. Anklam, whose population has dropped by more than a quarter since the fall of the Berlin Wall, became a symbol of the difficulty in reintegrating towns of the former East Germany back into a unified, capitalist state.
But for many Anklam residents, the town’s image as an economic wasteland is undeserved or, at least, outdated. “It is no longer the case,” says Matthias Kühn, a local engineer who drives a Mercedes and owns several buildings in Anklam.
Nevertheless, the town's numerous dilapidated buildings, most of them uninhabitable, suggest that, whether through a lack of funds or a lack of will, urban regeneration has long been neglected in Anklam.
Moreover, a poster for Germany's far-right NPD party that greets newcomers at the local train station is a reminder that here, as in other impoverished parts of the country, extremists are expecting a strong showing when the country goes to the polls for the September 22 general election.
A building for 20,000 euros
For Matthias, all this is a facade -- the remnants of a past that, though recent, no longer reflects reality. “Things in Anklam are shifting now,” says the 47 year-old, who describes himself as a “self-made man”.
Indeed, for several years the town’s jobless rate has been hovering around the ten percent mark – still more than the seven percent national average but a long way from the headline-grabbing rates of more than 30 percent from a few years back.
The problem of substandard housing also seems to be on the mend, with almost every dilapidated residence standing next door to a newly refurbished building.
“The buildings that are still in a bad state are actually being bought up one after another and will be refurbished in the next month or two,” says Matthias, whose engineering firm handles regeneration projects.
“Investors are becoming more and more interested, it’s a sign that they think something is happening here.”
Prices are certainly attractive enough -- a building in need of renovation can be bought for as little as 20,000 euros in Anklam, suggesting it is only a matter of time before investors snap them up.
But it is not just improved housing that Anklam has to offer. The standard of living is also higher than many may expect, Matthias argues.
“With my two children, I think I’m better off here than in Berlin, Hamburg or any other big city,” he says, launching into a list of the various new services and attractions the town offers: theatres, concert halls, sport facilities, restaurants, to name a few.
Two buildings hold a particular importance for Matthias, the cinema, which opened six years ago after the town went nearly a decade without one, and the college, which attracts students from every town within a 40km radius.
A change of mentality
Matthias is not the only local to be convinced that Anklam is on the right track.
“Business has finally taken off here,” says local entrepreneur Sven Stiemer, co -founder of Bogensportwelt, a leading supplier of archery equipment and employer of 45 staff.
He believes that the years of stagnation were merely “the time the town needed to figure out which direction it wanted to take after reunification”.
Following the collapse of East Germany, many of Anklam’s residents wanted to take advantage of the political situation and try their luck in the big cities, says Sven, while the town, like many in the east, struggled to adapt to the laws of open market capitalism.
While Germany’s general economic gains have since helped Anklam to recover, Sven also believes that “the generation of children whose parents remained in the town have grown up and decided to take things in hand”, helping to make Anklam an attractive place to live once again.
There is, however, still some way to go before Anklam finally rids itself of its black sheep reputation.
“The main obstacle now is in the minds of the people here,” says Matthias. “Some of them have still not yet grabbed all the opportunities that exist in Anklam.”
In particular, he would like to see more people become involved in the local community, creating an environment which, he believes, "would encourage more educated people to come and see what’s happening here -- and stick around rather than leave again quickly, as was the case a few years ago”.
Anklam's sugar plant is one of just a handful of companies that pay wages comparable to those in the former West Germany, which are on average 40% higher than in the east.
A typical Anklam view: a freshly renovated home stands alongside a decrepit one.
A poster by far-right party NPD bearing an anti-immigrant slogan greets newcomers at Anklam train station.
Anklam's popular secondary school welcomes some 1,200 pupils from around the region.
This year is the 750th anniversary of the foundation of Anklam, a former member of the Hanseatic League of northern European merchant towns.
Some of Anklam's run-down homes, like this one, are still inhabited.
A symbol of changing times: this Communist-era building on the town's main square is undergoing major renovation.
Date created : 2013-09-21