(re)searching Gothenburg: A Comparison to Greifswald
As stated in the book (re)searching Gothenburg the aim was to show that “general social processes can also be studied in smaller and peripheral cities, together with their unique aspects” (Holgersson et al., p 26) and to take that idea even one step further into the periphery of the world this essay is going to analyse a small, rather unimportant and unknown city in north-eastern Germany: the University and Hanseatic City of Greifswald .
Greifswald is situated in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, close to where the Ryck River empties into the Bay of Greifswald on the Baltic Sea. These conditions remind of historic Gothenburg’s geographical dates: located close to the sea in an “excellent natural port position” (Peterson, p 30), but protected by an uninhibited coastline, a little upstream the river, which played an important role as an economy channel.
Even though Greifswald is with its 55.000 residents much smaller than Gothenburg, it is much older. First mentioned in 1209 as a settlement with a market for the monastery Eldena nearby, it grew quickly in importance, got granted town privileges in 1250 by the Duke of Pomerania Wartislaw III and joined the Hanseatic League in 1278. Its historic centre with narrow cobblestone streets and brick houses is still existent and conveys a much different, more organic image than Gothenburg’s planned inner city, even though a similar grid system was used to erect the city. This is not as apparent as in Gothenburg due to the crookedness of the old streets, most of them without a sidewalk. Especially the openness of the canals in Brunnsparken distributes a completely different image than Greifswald’s core. Characteristic for Greifswald are not only some rather vast 13th and 14th century churches, for example the St. Nicolai Dome, which is devoted to the patron of the merchants and the seamen, but also the merchants’ colourful townhouses around the market square and the maybe most impressive building the city has to offer: the vermilion town hall, which was erected in 1350.
Since the area was, and still is today, thinly populated, Greifswald served as a hub for all kind of goods and services, which finally led to the foundation of the National University of Pomerania in Greifswald in 1456 with the approval of the Holy Roman Empire and Pope Eugene IV. Due to the city’s membership in the Hansa there was a lively exchange, not only in goods, but also of knowledge, students and teachers between Greifswald and Scandinavia early on. This friendly bond to the university was significant for its survival when the city was conquered by the Swedes under Gustav Adolf II in 1631 and the region around Griefswald officially became Swedish-Pomerania in 1648.
During the Thirty Years’ War the city was heavily fortified with thick walls, an earth rampart and a trench which, yet again, reminds of Gothenburg in the 17th century with its still visible angled bastion around the historic city’s core. Under Swedish ruling the city of Greifswald did not expand by much, but was taken good care of. The highest court and church institutions of Swedish-Pomerania were in Greifswald, marking the city as the cultural, social and economic centre of the region. The inner city’s appearance remained largely unchanged for the next centuries, only a handful of distinct buildings were erected, for example the main building of the university in 1747, which still exists and serves its function until today.
In 1815 Pomerania was passed to Prussia in the aftermath of the Peace of Kiel, which ignited an industrial revolution in the area and foremost in the city of Greifswald: a highway was built nearby to connect Berlin and Stralsund in 1836 and only some decades later the railway reached the city and connected Prussia’s trade with the harbor of Greifswald, which was home to more than 50 trading ships at that time. Casting houses and train workshops were the biggest employees besides the university, so it is fair to say that Greifswald was a mostly industrial city. This development is very close to the one in Gothenburg in the same time, even though in a much smaller scale, of course.
Over the course of the next century the emerging wealthier bourgeoisie changed the face of the city. Bigger, broader streets were required and in vogue. The phase of industrialization triggered “more complex processes of urbanity [to] unfold” in contrast to the “very gradual and seemingly harmonious growth of the town” (Peterson, p 34) beforehand. This led to the city’s growth over its border, when the municipalities donated land to the university outside the old wall in 1925. Not only expanded the town, but it improved as well as a modern hospital was built on the newly acquired ground.
When the shipyards and docks had to close down in Gothenburg it resulted in a sharp rise in the unemployment rate. A phenomenon mirrored in Greifswald during the global economic crisis in 1931: train workshops had to close; the university was the only significant employer left. With the incorporation of the neighbouring villages Wieck and Eldena in 1939 the number of inhabitants rose to nearly 37.000. The following Second World War did not improve Greifswald’s economic situation, so the 1940s saw a run-down, poor city with nothing to offer but a university.
During the GDR reign in East Germany, especially the four decades between 1949 and 1989, everything old, historic and individual was regarded as dreadful and inferior. So coherently the government planned to tear down the complete medieval inner city of Greifswald with its old winding streets and houses and replace them by structures similar to the ones built for the Miljonprogrammet, called Plattenbauten in German:
Plattenbau (plural Plattenbauten) is the German word for a building whose structure is constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs. The word is a compound of Platte (in this context: panel) and Bau (building). Although Plattenbauten are often considered to be typical of East Germany, the prefabricated construction method was used extensively in West Germany and elsewhere, particularly in public housing. In English the building method is also called large-panel system building or LPS. (Wikipedia: “Plattenbau”. 20/03/2014).
This type of building was considered to be more advanced and modern, generally superior to pre-war houses and therefore more desirable to live in. Similar to Sweden’s Miljonprogrammet in the 1960s “to solve the ever more acute lack of housing” (H.Thörn, p 39) these buildings also provided a solution to the rising problem of migrants from the east who needed housing. Along with the new structures the plan was to build broader boulevards and get rid of the old streets.
Luckily Greifswald suffered almost no damage during the Second World War, so tearing down an entire city centre would have been an act of enormous financial proportion, so the proposition was not put into execution. Instead of demolishing all the old houses, some of them were simply neglected for the next decades, which led to the disappearance of almost half of the inner city until 1990, due to decay. Although some parts of the city were restructured, till example the neighbourhoods between Brüggstraße and Bachstraße, Altem Hafen (the old harbor) and the market place. They were altered according to a research project by the GDR Construction Academy, which was called angepasster Plattenbauweise (adapted large-panel system building) in the 1960s. Some historic objects, such as the City Library and the Kapitänshaus (Captain’s house) were restored. When this was completed, parts of the northern old town were treated in a similar manner in the 1970s.
Even closer resemblance to the Miljonprogrammet houses built between 1965 and 1988 show big residential areas in the city’s southern and eastern periphery, such as Schönwalde I/Südstadt and Schönwalde II. Altogether six of these large housing structures were erected just outside the city and provided more than 10.000 apartments in total, with Schönwalde II alone providing nearly half of the new accommodations. These numbers are even more striking if compared to the number of inhabitants in Greifswald, which was around 47.000 in the 1960s and early 1970s. The now available housing resulted in a sharp increase of the population figure and climaxed in 1988 with nearly 70.000 residents.
Since the unification of Germany in 1990 great efforts are made to upgrade and modify the Plattenbauten as well as the removal of them, because the demand for housing decreased in Greifswald due to the lack of blue collar jobs in the last decades. Since 1991 reconstruction and restoration of the historic city is going on, especially the market place with the distinctive town hall and the Hanseatic bourgeoisie’s characteristic brick houses.
“As the working-class families moved out to the suburbs, the old working-class neighbourhood received new residents. They were children of the welfare state, born after the Second World War. Many were university students […] (H. Thörn, p 39). Although this is a statement about Gothenburg and its transformation in the 1970s, this is equally true for Greifswald in this period. The run down, neglected, timeworn houses in the inner city were suddenly available for students looking for cheap accommodations with the flair of cultural heritage and authenticity, and one is tempted to say those were the pioneers of Richard Florida’s Creative Class. Similar to Haga being the “local and national centre for the alternative culture in the wake of the students and hippie revolts” (H.Thörn, p 39), parts of Greifswald represented the exact same movement in the totalitarian regime of the GDR. The city being too small to be closely monitored by the authorities and too dominated by students to be conservative it became an important location for independently thinking people in East Germany. This tradition is still visible and vivid in the city, for example in unconventional cultural associations like Polly Faber, which not only preserve spaces for artists and therefore art, but also keep the memory of the city alive. One can only hope that the gentrification of Haga that began at the end of the 1980s and resulted in “the social movements [having] moved out of Haga” (H.Thörn, p 42) is not a dark forecast of what Greifswald’s alternative culture has to face in the years to come.
Mats Widigson shows in his essay The Barriers of the Knowledge City that “globalisation is creating an ever more knowledge-intense society” even in areas “characterised by ethnic diversity and relative poverty” (Widigson, p 205). Similar to Gothenburg’s position as one of the largest and most popular university cities in Scandinavia, together with research-intense companies nearby, Greifswald serves this purpose in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northern Germany. Since the only other university in the state is the one in Rostock, which focuses on engineering, shipbuilding and other technical subjects, the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-University of Greifswald provides a wide variety of cultural subjects, languages, literature programs, a vast medicine faculty, as well as highly noted research programs in bio-technology and chemical engineering. Roughly one third of Greifswald’s population is associated with the university, nearly one quarter of them being enrolled as students in one of the faculties (13.000 students and 5.000 employees compared to 55.000 residents in 2013).
Widigson states, that even though the transition from an industrial city to a knowledge-centred one is undeniable in Gothenburg, the change is not homogenous, but varies between different areas within the city, the “knowledge city is surrounded by educational barriers” (Widigson, p 206). As Thomas Furusten’s study, published under the title Utvärdering av arbetet med breddad rekrytering till universitet och högskolor: en samlad bild shows that the parents’ academic background plays an immensely important role in the children’s path of education. It has in fact a greater impact than the ethnicity or the national origin. This phenomenon is mirrored in Germany, as recent studies show.
Interestingly enough the same research showed that only about 30 percent of the Chalmers/GU students grew up in Gothenburg and that those stem from very distinct places within the city, or as Widigson puts it “class and place coincide to a great degree” (Widigson, p 208). A comparable trend is seen in Greifswald, where almost two thirds of the students come from out of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, many of them from Germany’s two biggest cities Hamburg and Berlin, which are both about 250km away from Greifswald.
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- Göteborg Greifswald city development Städteentwicklung post-industrial Mecklenburg Stadt postindustriell