Urban and Urbanization

Street lighting and the uneasy coexistence of socialist and capitalist urban imaginaries

This essay examines the partial privatization of street lamps in Eisenhüttenstadt, Germany. Founded in 1950 as Stalinstadt, East Germany’s steel manufacturing hub and socialist utopia, today the city suffers from economic shrinkage and depopulation. In 2014, Eisenhüttenstadt’s government privatized approximately 10% of the city’s street lamps, a response to both the city’s shrunken tax base and to the Energiewende, Germany’s national push toward renewable energy, which has led to the precipitous rise of consumer energy costs. I examine privatized street lamps within the broader context of Eisenhüttenstadt’s technological and sociopolitical development. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, I show how, during the socialist era, street lamps were an essential instrument in the construction and conceptualization of socialist urban space. Since privatization, they have come to signify the fractured and radically individualized nature of capitalist urban space. As such, I reveal how socialism—and the rupture caused by its abrupt replacement with capitalism—remains present and perceptible in the urban landscape, and how that presence poses challenges for urban planners and municipal officials working in Eisenhüttenstadt today, 30 years after East Germany’s dissolution.

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Volume 38 Issue 4

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