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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
East Germany's ghost towns
Abandoned building in Leipzig
About one million homes stand empty in East Germany
By Rob Broomby in Berlin

Time is ticking away for the Junghaenel family clockmakers in Leipzig.

A few years ago, the business supported seven people. Now there is hardly enough work to keep the owner.

Since the collapse of communism in East Germany, many of Bernd Junghaenel's customers have drifted away to the West.

Leipzig watchmaker
Mr Junghaenel: Every empty shop window is a blind eye in the city
Now, with prospects bleak, his son Ralph has joined the exodus: he has found a job in the west.

"It's very sad, I always thought I'd take on the firm but it's not possible. Out of my school class, about half have already gone to the West to work. It's shocking," said Ralph Junghaenel.

The trams continue to drop passengers off at the clockmaker's door. But this is the last shop left in this once bustling street.

"Every empty shop window", says the father, "is a blind eye in the city".

Massive investment

Over a decade has gone by since the collapse of communism in the East. Yet despite a massive investment of $13bn every year, East Germany continues to lose its people, especially the young and highly qualified.

With the capital moving back to Berlin, there has been a certain flow back to the East. But about one million people have left East Germany every year since the wall collapsed in 1989.

Add to that a declining birth rate and a natural drift to the suburbs and the result is dereliction and decay.

Trees sprout from collapsing walls and boarded-up windows are the norm. Across East Germany, about one million homes stand empty, mostly the older properties that once gave the cities their character.

Empty homes

Although Leipzig is considered a media and service centre, it is more like a ghost town, with about 60,000 empty homes and neglected communities.

But the baker Konrad Riedel refuses to go. Pulling bread from the oven, Mr Riedel says he is the last tenant in his block.

To keep the family business afloat he has bought three shops, but he still sells less bread than he used to with one.

Leipzig baker Conrad Riedel
Mr Riedel: The people left behind still have to eat
"This has been a family business for over 127 years. Many people have gone to the West to get higher wages, but I think we have a duty to stay. The people left behind still have to eat," Mr Riedel said.

Ironically, the urban decay is also a product of investment.

With the collapse of communism, speculators began building in the countryside, and gleaming new homes appeared in the green belt.

The old city centres were left with too much sub-standard housing.

Bulldozers

According to the former Leipzig Mayor, Hinrich Lehmann-Grube, a high-level committee has recommended a drastic solution for the city: up to 400,000 homes should be bulldozed.

The government has in the meantime decided to extend the massive financial support for Eastern Germany until 2015. But this may not stop the brain drain to the West.

The fear is that the same exodus will repeat itself when the EU expands to include other former communist countries.

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See also:

02 Apr 01 | Europe
Timeline: Germany
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Germany
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