A recent article in Die Zeit about portraits of abandoned buildings in Leipzig prompted me to unearth some photos I took on Leipzig’s Shakespearestraße when I was studying at the Karl Marx University Leipzig back in 1986. The apartment buildings on Shakespearestraße were not abandoned exactly, but I was impressed by their advanced state of dilapidation.
There was something exhilarating about all that prime real estate being rented out at a pittance to old ladies and undesirable artists
For many years, I had several photos of Shakespearestraße pinned to the noticeboard by my desk. To me, they captured the romance of East Germany at that time. Beautiful, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings left gently to rot.
You could argue that was wrong. And it probably was. But to someone from Thatcher’s Britain there was something exhilarating about all that prime real estate being rented out at a pittance to old ladies and undesirable artists.
I discovered the area around Shakespearestraße by chance when I was wandering one day near Tarostraße (named after war photographer Gerda Taro) where I lived in a student residence in a modern building. I had taken a rough path by the railway tracks that led to the Bayerischer Bahnhof. After a couple of hundred yards, I spotted a tunnel under the railway line.
The entrance was half obscured by bushes, and – feeling like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to – I pushed through them. The tunnel was dark and stank of piss. I sprinted through it, hoping there would be away out at the other end.
There was. I found myself on Shakespearestraße. It was a different world from the development of prefabricated apartment blocks known as Plattenbauten where I lived – not one we foreign guests were encouraged to visit.
I could see why. Soot-encrusted, desolate and crumbling: these streets were not the image of the GDR the authorities wanted to convey.
In the Südvorstadt, there flourished an underground arts scene that had all the excitement and creativity that official East German culture lacked
But in the area south of Shakespearestraße, known as the Südvorstadt, there flourished an underground arts scene that had all the excitement and creativity that official East German culture lacked. This was where Gerd Harry Lybke, nicknamed Judy, started the now famous Galerie Eigen + Art by mounting independent art exhibitions in his apartment on Körnerplatz.
It was an activity that landed him at the top of the Stasi’s hit list of hostile elements to be eliminated in the event of unrest. “I didn’t know that,” he says in the 2009 documentary film Behauptung des Raumes about independent culture in East Germany. “If I’d known I’d have stopped immediately. I’m not crazy.”
When I came to write my novel, The Leipzig Affair, it seemed natural to use Shakespearestraße as one of the settings. In a tiny, tumbledown apartment on the top floor of 14 Shakespeare Street, the main female character, Magda, has a secret hideaway that she shares with her best friend, Kerstin. There trysts and underground meetings take place in a room hung with subversive photographs and lined with bookcases crammed with ‘West literature’, underground Samizdat magazines and books by banned East German writers.
That world is gone now. The last time I visited Shakespearestraße a couple of years ago, most of the apartment buildings had been ‘saniert’ – the slightly medical sounding German term for refurbished. The tunnel had been blocked up and a modern footbridge spanned the railway tracks.
Times change, and so they should. But I hope a little bit of the atmosphere – and romance – of Shakespeare Street in the 1980s may live on in The Leipzig Affair.