Philadelphia, Germany, in a predicament similar to that of its namesake

March 24, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA, Germany -- On a flat, sandy stretch of land 30 miles east of Berlin sits a poor little farm village with the very un-German-sounding name of Philadelphia.

It's a rundown place with one rutted main street, 294 residents, 95 brownish-gray houses, a three-room Town Hall and a two-room schoolhouse that had to close because it was too expensive to keep open. There is no hotel and just one Kneipe, or pub, where the locals go to drink.

The place has a lot in common with its namesake across the sea.

Its economy is collapsing. Unemployment is on the rise. Skilled and able-bodied people are moving out. The community is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and it's having trouble balancing its budget and getting credit from banks.

The village of Philadelphia is also typical of many tiny communities in what was, until last year, communist East Germany.

The surrounding fields lie fallow and may never be tilled again. The one little factory, which used to repair farm machinery, is quiet. The barns at the farm cooperative still hold cows and pigs, but no one knows for how long.

"A lot of people here are like the poor birds in the oily water of the Persian Gulf," said Jutta Hoppe, 61, a retired schoolteacher and resident expert on local history. "There is no hope; there are no prospects for the future."

Usually, when a place in the Old World has the same name as a place in the New World, it's safe to assume that the Old World place came first. Here, the opposite is true. This village was named after the U.S. city once viewed as a promised land, a place to which German peasants wanted to immigrate. The people here love to tell the story of their village, although some concede it may be as much legend as fact.

This region was first settled by Slavic tribes and later conquered by Germans and Austrians. It finally came under the control of the Prussian kings, who encouraged settlement, bringing in Germans from the Palatinate, Saxony and Wuerttemberg.

Several of the families lured to the area were disappointed because the soil was fine sand, not much good for farming. So they decided to do what many Germans had done before -- head for Philadelphia in America.

The trouble was, the Prussian King Frederick, later dubbed "the Great," wouldn't let them. He needed all the able-bodied men for his army. So he told them: "What you want in America you can have right here. You can make your own Philadelphia."

About a dozen families got land grants from the king's own estate, and the area was called Neu, or New, Philadelphia. The "new" was later dropped; no one knows when or why.

Now, once more, there is talk of emigration -- not to the banks of the Delaware, as 200 years ago, but to western Germany, where the jobs are.

So far, only a few young men have left, but many more are thinking about it. Those who have gone so far are skilled workers, masons and bricklayers.

Migration was the main subject of a village meeting last month, but civic maintenance also came up.

"There is snow on the main street now, so you can't see it, but the street is really in miserable condition," said Mayor Edith Germershausen. "We need a new drainage system, and we've got to have sewers."

The city has only enough money for essentials. There is a $60,000 deficit in the current-year budget of $200,000.

And there are nascent social problems here similar to those in America -- not drugs, but an increasing degree of heavy drinking.

When the Berlin Wall went down in November 1989, Philadelphia had 305 residents, 11 more than now. It doesn't seem like much of a drop, but percentage-wise it's significant, and the worst is yet to come.

"These are young men of the best working age," Ms. Hoppe said. XTC "If this development continues, then all we will have here will be women with children and the elderly."

Under communism, there were four principal places of employment: the shoe factory in nearby Storkow, which is closing; the tractor repair plant in town, now idle; a grain cooperative that went out of business; and an animal-raising cooperative that's trying to reorganize and make a go of it but employs only 13 people, down from 24.

One of those who left the animal co-op was Bernd Kiesewetter, 28. His family had farmed for generations, but he says agriculture here has no future now.

Under the communists, the cooperatives got about $600 for a fattened pig. Now, on the free market, they're lucky if the same pig brings $120. They can't even pay for feed with that kind of a return.

Mr. Kiesewetter has been self-employed since Jan. 1. With family savings, he bought a dump truck and a crane. He scrambles for work, hauling debris and moving earth whenever he can. But he thinks things will have to get a lot worse in eastern Germany before they get better.

"I am of the opinion that more or less all of the businesses will go bankrupt first, and then investors from 'over there' will buy them up cheaply," he said.

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