Try before you buy: German city offers workers a free one-month stay

The Guardian 1 month ago

Last year Eva Bodenmüller read about a city in eastern Germany inviting people to live there for a month for free. She and her partner Carsten Borck, an artist, knew they had to leave their residence in Italy soon and weren’t looking forward to moving back to their native Berlin.

“I thought: ‘Why not Görlitz?’” said Bodenmüller, a freelance journalist .

Görlitz, Germany’s easternmost city, is a well-preserved gem that has played the part of quaint Mitteleuropean burg in Hollywood films from The Grand Budapest Hotel to Inglourious Basterds to The Reader. But its pastel-coloured old town, which draws 140,000 tourists a year, hides a darker reality.

The city has Germany’s lowest wages and one of the country’s highest shares of far-right voters. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, easterners fled west in droves, driving Görlitz’s population down more than 25% to 54,000 in 2013.

City officials decided they needed to do something to reverse this trend, and hit upon the idea of offering a free one-month stay, no strings attached.

Other cities had already been experimenting with the idea of luring new residents by offering to cover their housing. Detroit was the first big city to try it, launching an innovative programme of paying promising young professionals to live and work in the city for a year, and today the idea is being used everywhere from the Greek island of Antikythera to Candela, Italy, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, which offers $10,000 to digital workers to move there for a year.

The proportion of workers who conduct their business remotely is growing. Already, millions of people spend much of their adult lives hopscotching from one place to another, perhaps including the occasional work-tourism visit to Medellín or Tokyo. The officials behind Görlitz’s programme figured it could both attract some of those nomadic workers and give them the chance to learn some lessons on how to reverse its population decline.

Disused buildings in Görlitz, eastern Germany. The city has over 7,000 vacant apartments. Photograph: Christian Jungeblodt/The Guardian

“When we applied we thought the project was about convincing people to move to Görlitz,” Borck said over borscht at a restaurant overlooking the Neisse River. “But now we have the feeling it doesn’t matter whether we stay here after these four weeks or not. We’re just the laboratory mice for this science experiment.”

The Görlitz-based Interdisciplinary Centre for Ecological and Revitalising Urban Transformation (IZS), which is overseeing Testing the City, as the federally funded project is known, received more than 150 applications. Two-thirds were from larger cities, and several came from outside Germany, including from Hungary, the Czech Republic, the US and the UK.

The 54 individuals and groups participating are singles, couples and families ranging from their 20s to 60s, including digital entrepreneurs, a film-maker, a model, visual artists and musicians. Each is assigned to one of three project-maintained apartments and offered free use of one of three spaces for work.

Though the municipality hopes that some will permanently relocate to Görlitz, the main intention is for ISZ to use participant interviews and questionnaires to inform a national urban development policy to help revive Germany’s smaller cities. “Our aim is to learn more about what people need, and if they move, what is their motivation,” said IZS head Robert Knippschild.

Görlitz is a fascinating place to test these theories. The city has around 7,000 vacant apartments, and unemployment is a third higher than the national average. This, in part, is why Görlitz has taken in 1,200 refugees. But surveys have shown immigration to be the most urgent issue for residents of eastern Germany, where the far right has taken hold.

Görlitz has not seen the sort of xenophobic violence that has struck Chemnitz and Dresden, but has been called “the living room” of the nativist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. This year the AfD came out on top in Görlitz in the European parliament elections and the state election on 1 September, polling at more than 37%, and also won the first round of the mayoral election, though the Christian Democratic Union candidate, Octavian Ursu, won the runoff in June.

Görlitz mayor Octavian Ursu believes the key to creating more jobs is a more welcoming society. Photograph: Sebastian Kahnert/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a tough campaign,” said Ursu, a Romanian immigrant who played lead trumpet in the local philharmonic orchestra before turning to politics. He says he wants to put the animosity of the election in the past, and sees Testing the City as part of a budding revival which includes a new data analysis centre employing 120 scientists and engineers, a Siemens hydrogen technologies innovation campus that will employ another 100, and a €36m (£32m) facelift for the art nouveau municipal hall.

Ursu believes the key to creating jobs is a more welcoming society. “I’ve said to the people, you must think about whether you want to have an open city, a European city, or a closed city,” he said.

This is not a settled question in Görlitz. A July report on the project by the German news outlet Deutsche Welle attracted sharp comments online. “The incentive to lure you here is just the desperate attempt of our city to fight the shrinking population,” said YouTube user Polter Geist. “They hope your leftwing alternative garbage will appeal to the youth.”

During their stay, Bodenmüller and Borck have sought to engage with these issues directly. Borck staged a show of his work at the Europa Haus gallery, with posters asking passersby questions such as “Am I welcome here?” and “How do I know you are not a Nazi?”.

The couple said they spent a lot of time talking to locals and found a city of extremes. “In other places you generally have people from different groups talking to each other,” said Bodenmüller, who has lived in Berlin, Munich and several smaller towns. “But here there is no centre – there are just the two sides.”

Another project participant, Nikolas Kammerer, 34, a photographer from Leipzig, sees the locals as one of the city’s main draws. He found it refreshing that artists and creative workers in Görlitz are not looking to become YouTube stars or Instagram influencers, but instead are laser-focused on producing and collaborating. He credits his month in the city for his first successful commission for the German news outlet Die Zeit: a portrait series of local voters on election day. “In Leipzig I probably wouldn’t have done this,” he said.

Görlitz has played the part of quaint Mitteleuropean burg in several Hollywood films, but in reality has Germany’s lowest wages and one of the highest proportions of far-right voters. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

He also saw the other perspective, at a far-right election rally where the AfD candidate denounced foreigners as criminals and the crowd chanted “Lugen Presse!” (“lying press!”). “It was horrible,” said Kammerer, whose grandmother is from Görlitz. “Most of these far-right people don’t want to talk to the media, which is a problem because I want to have them represented in my work.”

With the project about halfway through, four participants have committed to move to Görlitz, including German-Finnish poet Mark Mallon and his wife, Finnish artist Venla Saalo. The couple decided to leave Berlin because of its traffic, pollution and high rents, and settled in Görlitz in April. “Görlitz feels like a lively town with a lot of young people, students, opportunities, empty spaces, and on the other hand peace and remoteness,” they said. “It is a great combination for creative work.”

Borck and Bodenmüller like the cheap rents and high density of organic grocery stores and vegetarian restaurants but wish Görlitz had better regional transport and more open-mindedness. They also wished they had more time there.

“It’s very intense, to try to meet people, learn the city and do our work in just four weeks,” said Bodenmüller. “If we could stay here longer, we could leave and come back and have a better chance to understand the city.”

Knippschild’s early conclusions from the pilot project suggest that cultural offerings and leisure activities are crucial to attracting nomadic workers, as are reliable travel connections and good housing.

“People are taking the project seriously, thinking about which phase of life they are in and what they need in terms of housing and living,” he said of the participants. “This is giving us a great deal of insight into the strengths and weaknesses of Görlitz.”


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