A different Erfurt. City Walk, 5th edition

— Sara Keller

On 20 October 2020, in the midst of a second coronavirus surge and unfavourable autumnal rains, our fifth City Walk was doubly compromised. Luckily, the weather indulged us, so that we could venture out of our tower, respecting the social distancing, and turn at the restaurant “ Johannes Lünette”, from our own research project towards our immediate environment: the Johannesvorstadt.

A View of the Johannesvorstadt from the Max-Weber-Kolleg

Like our previous Walk, this event was part of the “Für das Wissen entscheiden 2020” programme of the DFG (“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft” or German Research Foundation). We invite you to explore the “Für das Wissen entscheiden 2020” programme here: https://dfg2020.de/.

This Walk was called “A different Erfurt”, after we agreed upon the urgency to consider other urban areas than the famous and charming medieval Altstadt (or city centre). Erfurt’s urbanity cannot be reduced to its picturesque medieval churches, its enchanting Fachwerkhaüser (timbered houses) and charming little streets. Other urban areas indeed participated and continue to participate in the making of Erfurt’s urbanity, making it necessary to consider suburbs, commercial and industrial areas, parks and gardens, residential zones, and so on. Today, places of consumption and entertainment like malls and commercial centres, stadiums and parks, and communication pivotal points such as train stations, airports, TV and radio offices equally shape urban life. As does religion, of course.

The stations of “A different Erfurt” took us to the northeast suburbs of the old city, the Johannesvorstadt and the eastern part of the Andreasvorstadt. This part of the city narrates a significant piece of the post-industrial history of Erfurt. Here, the presentations and discussions showed us how much religion and urbanity are entangled.

The Johannesvorstadt, or Johannes suburb, is located outside the Johannes city gate, downstream from the old city. Like other suburbs located around the outer city wall, the Johannesvorstadt was occupied by suburban settlements since the medieval period. Yet the city area started its significant development only from the late 19th century onwards, after the Bannmeile was cancelled in 1873. With the removal of the Bannmeile restrictions, commercial and industrial activities were permitted outside the old city, which encouraged the settlement of small enterprises and larger factories. Consequently, the Johannesvorstadt developed into a planned city area with grid patterns and occupied by industries and housing fro workers. The closest areas to the city wall, like the south-west part of the Johannesvorstadt, or the Mühlenviertel (or mill quarter near the streams of the Gera river) are representative of the construction phase between 1880 und 1910. Other areas were occupied by industry, city services (Stadtwerk) and lately shaped by gardens and large buildings (Altneubauten and Plattenbau) answering to the post Second World War housing shortage.

These areas are now inhabited by an increasingly young (36,5 years old on average, i.e. about 7,5 years less than the Erfurt average) and multi-ethnic population, partly as a result of Germany welcoming asylum seekers since 2015. Erfurt counted about 19.000 foreign citizens on the 31.12.2019 for a general population of 214.417 inhabitants (source: Erfurt.de – das offizielle Stadtportal der Landeshauptstadt Thüringens).

Against this historical backdrop focused on industry and demographical growth, religion seems rather absent, at least invisible. No old churches and high bell towers. Yet our discussion demonstrated that religion is much more significant than it seems.

Our first stop at the Dahlie garden was the occasion to discuss the garden city movement (“Gartenstadtbewegung”) of the first decades of the 20th century. This movement, encouraged by the engagement of reformers and garden enthusiasts such as Hans and Bernhard Kampffmeyer aimed at answering the societal issues of the industrialisation. It targeted a transformation of urban form and urban life, on the basis of ideas borrowed from turn-of-the-century reform efforts, such as land reform, housing reform, women’s rights, shared ownership of land, body freedom and experience of nature. Away from the traditional religious dogmas, the Gartenstadtbewegung proposed new ideas of societal, spiritual and personal development.

One of the gardens in the “Kleingartenverein”

We then moved further on the Friedrich-Engels-Strasse where we encountered some blocks of flats (Altneubauten and Plattenbau) built in the 50s and 60s. These blocks are iconic structures of the GDR period and are part of the post-war answer to housing shortages. They are found in the suburbs as well as in the heart of the city, where, at the time, they offered a modern and comfortable alternative to the decaying traditional housing. Parallel to the the post-unification gentrification of the walled city, Plattenbau are now increasingly occupied by students and foreign citizens. The small multi-ethnic shops and restaurants of the Magdeburger Allee are the visible counterpart to the demographic changes of such areas. Here again, religion is a discreet element of the landscape, while most citizens experience their religious life at home or in private shared spaces that have few architectural expressions. Just as important are the small barbershops and grocery shops that act as places of sociability and community bonding platforms.

Plattenbau in the Friedrich-Engels-Strasse

Devotional objects in a Russian grocery shop on the Magdeburger Allee.

Besides this timid religious visibility, the city and other groups, most notably local NGOs and church organisations, are encouraging initiatives that support interreligious dialogue and aim to recruit new members. New associations but also established organisations such as the YMCA (or CVJM for “Christlicher Verein Junger Menschen”) are active in the Johannesvorstadt, in particular around the Luther church (Lutherkirche), compleetd in 1927. Started in 1905, the church could only be inaugurated after the First World War. Built in a style with elements of expressionism and art deco style, the building conserved some of its furniture including the stained glass in the northern façade and the organ despite serious damage sustained during world War II. The church illustrates the strength of the Lutheran community in the northern city area at the turn of the century, a strength that is reflected in its ongoing engagement for the urban youth.

YMCA next to the Lutherkirche

The last station of our Walk took us to the mill quarter (Mühleviertel), where the name reflects on the mill activities in this suburb crossed by several streams of the river. This was the occasion to discuss the multiple meanings of water, in a city that owes its name to its river. We invite you here to refer to our previous city walks where we discussed the religious dimension of water, place making and woad industry in Erfurt.

Part of our “City Walk” group outside the Max Weber Centre.

Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.


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