“Say Yes to Schwedt”
With 130 bpm Against the Rural Exodus

Most people who left Schwedt went because of the lack of cultural activities.
Most people who left Schwedt went because of the lack of cultural activities. | Photo (detail): artono9 © 123RF

Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Tresor, the Berlin techno club, has launched a special initiative in the small town of Schwedt in Brandenburg to stem the exodus from rural to urban districts. It is soon to be applied to other East German regions as well.

During the GDR era, the name Schwedt was considered a threat. There was a military prison in Schwedt and National People’s Army recruits were kept in check by being told. “If you don’t do what you are told, you will end up in Schwedt!” This industrial city, which featured the largest refinery and the largest proportion of ready-made concrete slab buildings of any East German city, was also located in the misty expanses of the Uckermark, a thinly populated region of north-eastern Germany.

Too little understanding of the needs of the younger generation

After the political turnaround in 1989, young people left the city in droves, and it lost nearly a third of its 52,000 inhabitants. Yet it was not the lack of jobs that drove most of them away. The local job centre has more than 500 vacancies. The large refinery PCK Schwedt, which refines crude oil from the Druzhba pipeline from Russia, is desperately seeking skilled labour. Most people who left went because of the lack of cultural activities and opportunities to get involved in the life of the city. Culture officials in Schwedt, noted the participants in a biography workshop held at the city’s grammar school, showed insufficient understanding of the needs of the younger generation.

That is why the city has now taken on a man from Berlin who has had a major influence on the image of the capital as a creative laboratory and haven of alternative culture - Dimitri Hegemann. Now aged 57, he founded the legendary Tresor techno club, and said of his early days in Berlin in Rolling Stone, a music magazine: “When the Wall came down, there were amazing spaces and empty buildings all over the city. The authorities were busy with more important things, and so were the police. For us, that was paradise and for Berlin it was a historic opportunity.”

“Say Yes to Schwedt”

Tresor was located in the vaults of the former Wertheim department store. It was there, from 1991 onwards, that the children of the East discovered a new culture, techno, which they helped to shape right from the start. This was an underground culture with the motto “It’s all about sharing”. At techno parties, your clothes, origin and social status were irrelevant. There was an influx of young people from all around the world and the tourist industry boomed.

Now, the Say Yes to Schwedt initiative is also intended to bring about a similar change of image on a smaller scale. Hegemann shares responsibility for the initiative with “sally below cultural affairs”, the Municipal Development Office, and it is being financed by the “regional budget to improve the economic structure”. The Berliner believes that “if you don’t simply enjoy art as entertainment, but use it in a targeted way to get people to come, a city becomes attractive.”

Breathing life into the city

Their aim is to act as a catalyst and intermediary for the ideas for cultural initiatives developed in the so-called “Schwedt Lab” by young people themselves. Of course, there has been funding for culture in Schwedt in the past, too, but it mainly benefitted high-brown cultural institutions such as the Uckermark theatres. The city lacks an alternative cultural scene reflecting young people’s interests and with which they can identify. That is why there should be a discussion on redistributing the budget for culture in which reductions in theatre funding should not be a taboo.

What the mayor praised as the city’s attractive features – enough jobs, short journeys and beautiful countryside – is not enough for young people, believes Dimitri Hegemann. “Give me a building and I’ll set up a club here,” he announced at a round-table discussion held at said theatre. “The kids will do things that you may not like, they’ll listen to loud music, and they’ll drink. But in the long run, leisure spaces need to be created that breathe life into the city.”

It is envisaged that the concept will soon also be applied to other East German cities suffering depopulation. A club has not yet been established in Schwedt, however, let alone one run by the young people themselves, but the project is continuing.