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


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.

Once that happens, new construction will start, and he expects to get more work. Meanwhile, he's just trying to hold on.

His sister, Doris, 24, has already left for western Germany. She works as a cashier in a chain store and is taking a training course to become a saleswoman. She followed her boyfriend, a skilled bricklayer, who now makes good money building fireplaces for wealthy west Germans.

But even in tough times, people remember their ties to Philadelphia in America. In fact, it was in the toughest of times, 1947, right after the war, that people here decided to officially recognize their American counterpart.

That year, the town celebrated the 175th anniversary of its founding in 1772. Ms. Hoppe says nobody really knew when the town was founded, but they picked 1772 so they could have a big celebration in 1947.

They've had a celebration every year since then. People gather on the town square and listen to a speech filled with references to the American Philadelphia.

These are usually based on news gleaned from the newspapers, which was always negative under the communists.

One year, there was a story about how cobblestones were being stolen from the streets of Philadelphia. "That couldn't happen here," said Ms. Hoppe, "because our streets are so bad no one would take the stones."

Then there was the year a crane fell in the Philadelphia harbor. Another impossibility here, Ms. Hoppe said.

This Philadelphia did have a port once -- or what was jokingly called one. Where the Storkow canal, from Berlin to a nearby lake, passes through the village, there once was a little dock where passengers would stop off for refreshments at the pub. That stopped years ago, and only a few pilings from the dock remain.

But there have been some bizarre connections. From time to time, private letters mailed to people in Philadelphia, Germany, made their way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, Pa., and then back again. One of these letters, mailed in 1971, is preserved in the little Town Hall.

People here would like to establish some real ties with the folks in America. Mayor Germershausen says the German Philadelphia would love to host Mayor W. Wilson Goode or his successor on an official visit.

His Honor would have to pay his own plane fare, though.

Philadelphia couldn't afford that.

Neither Philadelphia could.

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