Tuesday, October 19, Berlin & Leipzig: Transatlantic Conversations

Trip Journal by Grace Levin, Ian Lundy, Jamaal Glenn and Steffen Haake

In October 2021, the New Urban Progress fellows went on a delegation trip through three German cities. Here, four of our fellows reflect on the transatlantic conversations they had in Berlin and Leipzig.


Grace Levin: Okay, so for those who went to the embassy: did the visit add a new perspective to your understanding of American-German relations?

Steffen Haake: They showed us the Ronald Reagan terrace, which was very interesting.

Ian Lundy: It was a fun expression of American soft power, maybe explicit soft power. 

Steffen: We had a good talk with three people working there who were in charge of economic topics. 

Grace: How did your conversation relate to our meeting with the German-American Institute Saxony in Leipzig?

Ian: Our meeting at the embassy had a similar mission, but was much more formal. You could feel the emphasis on – power is maybe too strong a word, but you could feel the assertion of America in Germany. It was the only time since we got here that I really thought about how for a substantial period of time, Germany was like an American colony in a really weird way.

Steffen: They also stressed that Germany should, in their view, increase military spending for NATO. And so we talked a lot about the military, but also about China and economic topics. 

Grace: I remember Jamaal, you asked in the next meeting that we had with the German Senate Council for International Affairs if Germany was focusing more on China. Did the US embassy have a different take on that?

Steffen: They said that for them, especially now with the Biden administration, Germany and Europe are key players. And it would be important to work together to come up with a legacy, dealing with China.

Jamaal Glenn: To your question about what I asked in City Hall, the point wasn’t about absolute terms of focus, but more: do they see a subtle shift of focus to China? And what I really would have wanted to know was, is this reflected in their office. For instance, how many people in City Hall are working on Asia as a region versus the United States? And what has changed in recent years? What’s the staffing plan going forward? I don’t think it’s going to manifest itself in absolute terms right now, in stark terms; the  transatlantic relationship is still strong. But I’d be curious about subtle things. If you look at the trajectories over a few years – the amount of time and effort and the number of people focused on Asia – do you see an uptick? My thesis is that there’s a subtle shift, and you can see it reflected in such things. But not in the way of “forget America, let’s all focus on Asia.” So I think his answer was, “No, I don’t really see it,” because I think he was thinking more in absolute terms.

Steffen: Certainly, there is this tendency to focus on the Pacific rather than transatlantic relations. But especially when talking about city relations, there’s still a lot going on between German and American cities, and maybe not so much of an exchange between mega cities in China and large cities in the West. Maybe that’s still true.

Grace: It was interesting to hear that Berlin has a connection with Los Angeles as a Sister City. That makes a lot of sense to me, because I think they are both multi-nodal cities, but at the same time they are very different. What are your thoughts?

Ian: I always look to Berlin as a city that gives me hope for LA. Berlin is really broad and there are really long distances but the city manages to be more multimodal than LA is to cover those distances. In similar ways, Berlin is reliant on cultural capital and the service sector as a major component of the economy. It doesn’t have a lot of Fortune 500 large industries yet, but it still manages to be a dynamic, vibrant city. So I see a lot of similarities.

Grace: I thought Julian’s point in the meeting was interesting that LA as a city has more of a narrative than Berlin does in terms of branding. But I also see that as a draw for Berlin that there isn’t just one Hollywood, one major identity or industry that people think of.

Steffen: The guy at the City Hall also stressed that Berlin has a heritage of reaching out to other cities, going back to the former mayor Willy Brandt, who later on became German Chancellor. On this day 50 years ago, he got the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to other cities and bringing about change with the Soviet Union. Back in the day, John F. Kennedy came to visit him down at City Hall. They also talked about city partnerships. It’s very important that they keep up these city relationships.


Grace: And then we talked to the Fridays for Future leaders in Berlin. 

Ian: Grace, what were your reactions?

Grace: I thought it was really exciting, because I had heard of them before and had followed their movement. It was exciting to see that the leaders were so young and were carrying so much weight in the city. It was interesting to go from a very formal city hall meeting, a form more of top-down power, to these young people who are really shaking things up on the streets. And they’re planning a huge protest tomorrow right outside of City Hall.

Ian: I loved the structure of our meeting with them. I was sitting on the ground, right next to the Chancellor’s office, but not in any formal sense. It was cool.

Jamaal: Going in, I didn’t know that Greta Thunberg’s protest started formal organizations. I just thought she was like this amorphous climate activist who has gained global notoriety. I realized then that this is the Berlin chapter of a global organization.

I don’t know if this was fair because I don’t know if they’re the official spokespeople for Fridays For Future Berlin, but I was trying to get a sense of what specific things they want to see at the Berlin level. My bias is that activists set themselves up – and I say this not having been a community organizer or activist or anything, but it feels to me like, you set yourself up for success when you can point to very specific things that you want to do. And so I asked if they could give examples of one or two things they’d love to see at the Berlin level. It sounded like maybe there are some things but that they were keeping it general. You can get stuff done easier if you can say: here’s this very specific thing that I want the city of Berlin to do. 

Ian: I think they said they were releasing demands

Grace: I know that they are pushing for more green jobs and that there’s a petition for a car-free Berlin.

Jamaal: Let’s take that for example. I would hope that a car-free Berlin is the headline. If I’m a policymaker in the city of Berlin, I need steps to follow to make that happen. And they probably are doing this, but I hope there are very specific demands under that broader goal.


Steffen: From there, we went to Leipzig.

Grace: What were everyone’s first impressions?

Ian: I’m a big fan. I think I’m going to move there.

Grace: I think I’m going to move there because rents are still very affordable.

I feel like the Americans came from the perspective that for us, this moment in Leipzig feels so fragile. Now it’s a hot city and many people are moving there because of the prices and because it’s very artsy. And the city is attracting tech companies. In the US, that story follows a very predictable pattern. I’m thinking of Austin, Texas. It’s hard to maintain that period where you still have affordable rents, where young people and artists can stay, and where there’s still space that’s undeveloped. But I guess it’s a bit different in Germany because the city already owns more land and has more power to keep it affordable. And it seems like there still is really so much undeveloped space because of the history of Eastern Germany.

Steffen: They didn’t make the mistake of selling their public housing companies. When we went to places like the really artistic former factory, I guess that’s something that there is a lot of in places like New York City. But here that’s really special.

Jamaal: My general characterizations of Leipzig are that it really is an amazing economic development story. It’s a pretty amazing story: a city that was essentially dead for all intents and purposes that has made a remarkable comeback over the last 30 years. But it actually feels like we’re in the midst of things continuing for Leipzig. It’s the eighth largest city in Germany. It feels like it’s going to continue marching up. And that we’re in this weird transition stage of Leipzig being even more of a success story. That’s just my general characterization. It feels quite vibrant and young. I do have this personal bias that when I see a lot of American brands in close proximity, it feels a little bit inauthentic to me, for example around the train station.

Steffen: That’s what happens everywhere. The same stores everywhere, basically.

Grace: Something that we haven’t talked about yet is the politics in Saxony. Leipzig is now a more liberal, progressive spot. But Saxony is more conservative and the AfD is growing in power there, which we learned about, which is really interesting. We also see that pattern in America. 

Jamaal: As we were on the train looking out on the German countryside, I kept thinking to myself, this is Saxony. Like the AfD is waiting to pop out behind the bushes and be racist. 

Steffen: What you see in Saxony, you see everywhere. These really conservative or right-wing majorities always produce radical right-wing minorities. And then the radical left is up against them in an antifascist struggle. 

Ian: We also got to talk with Leipzig’s Deputy Mayor Ulrich Hörning. What was everyone’s favorite thing from that dinner? 

Grace: I was so impressed with him and his nuanced understanding of the city and his charisma as a politician. He seemed to really capture some of the dynamics that Leipzig is grappling with, the dynamics of being a politician and trying to implement representative democracy in an effective way. He was really advocating for working with the democratic tools that we already have and making them better – and making sure that people understand how to use them to enact change within this system. 

Ian: The most interesting thing I took away was his really interesting response when he was asked about participatory processes and how citizens can be more involved. For him, the citizens can be involved through representative government. That is how the citizens have input. If you open up too many additional processes, it becomes a form of state capture – that, I think, is the way he put it: State capture by those who are time- and money-rich, who are able to back special movements. He said, if I’ve talked to someone more than twice, they’re now getting special attention and have a disproportionate impact on the governing system even though they are just a citizen along with the rest of the public. I thought that was an interesting response. One of the first times we have heard a curtailment at all on how much democracy is ideal for a process. 

Grace: But I do think that we need both formal and informal processes, because I think formal processes will always stifle creativity to an extent just based on their form. 

Steffen: He was talking about that especially in Germany – maybe it is the case in the US, too – the parties make all these plans about what they want to do and they come up with visions, which is great, but he said nobody talks about how the state can implement these things. And how we need to really modernize our administration. In terms of digitalization and the democratization of the administration, there’s really a problem in Germany that things don’t work. He’s trying to get on that and that’s crucial for Germany and probably democracy everywhere. 

Jamaal: My focus during our time in Leipzig has been really broad: How does Leipzig, which has done a tremendous job coming from nothing to something, continue its march upwards? And so I asked him a question, trying to get a sense of whether that is something that City Hall cares about. For example,  the fact that I looked up the list of the largest German cities and I had literally heard of every single city above, but never of Leipzig. I was actually expecting him to be somewhat dismissive of that. But he leaned in. He said that no, we absolutely care about it. It’s been in our strategic plan. Their old strategic plan basically said that we want to be known inside Germany. We checked that box. Now we want to be known internationally. That conforms with my view of what Leipzig needs to do to take that next step and so it was good to hear him say it. 

He mentioned during his answer something briefly about the Leipzig football team. And coincidentally, I was listening to a podcast yesterday with a former Sports Illustrated writer who covers soccer who mentioned that he took a trip to Leipzig to interview the American coach of the football team. Like a little bit of a Ted Lasso story. But apparently, Sinaida was telling me that the team was pretty good. And that’s probably their quickest ticket to international notoriety. It’s actually quite interesting, given everything we’ve talked about, that they have an American coach. 

Ian: To propose a counter-anecdote, I as an American had heard of Leipzig before this. My sister-in-law is an artist. When we came to Germany, this was a city she really wanted to visit. 

Grace: Well again, going back to their push for an international appeal, I feel there is always a tension: can you continue to make it a livable place for the people who are there now and continue to make it feel authentic, lively, and artistic, if there are all these new international players? 

Jamaal: We haven’t talked as much about the German-American Institute. What were people’s thoughts? 

Ian: At first, I thought it was a little artificially constrained or limited in focus. I had a conversation with the institute’s representative in which I asked how he interacts with the rest of Europe? Is it important to engage the rest of Europe in these conversations? When I think of transatlanticism from an American context, I usually think about all of Europe. It’s been really interesting to have this trip be just Germany and America. His response was that they do have a lot of international outreach and that this is really an international organization. It’s just founded in the American-German relationship and builds from there rather than being limited to there. I thought that was a nice response to the first reaction I’d had.

Grace: It’s funny that on the same day we talked to Fridays For Future, which is a youth-led movement. It isn’t a movement where the adults invited them to participate. They were participating on their own and setting their own agenda. By contrast, the German-American Institute is trying to find more formal processes for reaching out to German youth and inviting them to participate. They feel very different to me. 

Steffen: It was Leipzig where the first US embassy in Germany was founded and set up many, many years ago. Leipzig was also where the Social Democrats were founded, and now they are struggling there. Leipzig has always been this really progressive transatlantic city. And so I think it’s great that they set up the institute there. 

Jamaal: I couldn’t help but feel like it was German-American propaganda, for lack of a better word. We were having a discussion later that night and Sanjay brought up the point that state craft is propaganda. They had things like Ask An American, where students could pose questions to an American. It felt like a lot. And then the other thing that stood out to me was that they seemed to – at least as reflected on their Instagram page – have a lot of focus on race in the United States. It looked like one of their posts was on the Black experience in entrepreneurship. They talked about hosting the family of Henrietta Lacks. 

I was so curious about that. This was a point Grace made, and I think I agree, that it felt like they were trying to capture the moment in the United States. They felt that this was a conversation happening in the United States and they were trying to reflect that. But I didn’t see any black people in their offices. I don’t think there’s a lot of black people in Leipzig. Like we’re going to talk about race in the United States, but we’re in Germany, there’s no black people here, there’s no Americans here. Maybe I’m wrong about that, I don’t know. I just wanted to know more, but didn’t have the chance to ask. 

Ian: I remember that conversation with Sanjay and I heard a quote recently that I liked, which was that all propaganda isn’t nefarious. Propaganda is a tool. It’s the end to which it is pushing that can be nefarious. So I think it’s really a question of, does it feel positive or nefarious? And I think you bring up some really interesting points about what they are focusing on. Why are they focusing on it? And I wasn’t totally clear on that. 

Jamaal: Yeah, I think the thing for me – and again, we didn’t get deep into it – that makes something feel more authentic, more complete, and less like what the connotations in my mind are of propaganda, is that you share the full nuances of it. So if you talk about the Black entrepreneurship experience, I’m curious, what are they talking about? If you tell the complete story, then I feel okay. But if it’s just pro America, pro America, pro America and you are not talking about any of America’s faults or critiques, that to me is inauthentic. 

Grace: America doesn’t inherently equal progress or democracy. We are very much grappling with those issues in America. Those are not to be taken for granted, and maybe there’s actually a lot to learn from places like Berlin or Leipzig.

Ian: Cities of the future are not to be taken for granted.

About the authors

  • Grace Levin is a Master in Urban Planning Candidate, at the Harvard University Graduate School for Design.  
  • Ian Lundy is Director of public-private partnerships at the New York City Housing Authority.
  • Jamaal Glenn is Director at Schmidt Futures and Adjunct Professor at New York University.
  • Steffen Haake is Consultant for PD and a member of the City Council in Aurich.

New Urban Progress is the joint metro initiative of Das Progressive Zentrum, the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and the Progressive Policy Institute.
The project is supported by the Transatlantic Program of the Federal Republic of Germany and funded by the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi).