If abandoned buildings were food, East Germany would be the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Sundays would be the half-price special. See, despite restoration fees (people living in the west still send part of their tax money east to help fix shit up) and economic stimulus what- evers, East Germany still hasn’t transformed into the hyper-developed over- civilized beast that is the West. What this means is that there are abandoned buildings a plenty. And Sundays in Germany mean that everything is closed, leaving very few people out on the street to see you crawling under the fence outside of the empty building at the end of the block.
Sundays in Dresden were Empty Building, Full Dumpster Exploration Days. Dumpster scouting missions were executed by tandem mountain bike and led us to the usual vegetables and trinkets. Still the best booty was not edible, not dumpstered, but in the city’s crumbling edges, fenced off and forgotten. Abandoned buildings, but not empty; filled not with tangible treasure, but with goosebumps, whispered secrets, and half-forgotten stories.
One late-winter afternoon I choose the bike path along the Elbe as my guide and followed it until it disappeared into a small industrial suburb. I pedaled through town hoping to find my way back to the path. But I never did make it back to the river.
Instead I rounded a corner and saw a complex of about fifteen buildings with windows broken, paint chipping down to cracked doors, and carpets of leaves leading into horror-film-set innards. I locked my bike on a fence to walk between the fading facades. It was a crisply chill day in 2008.
With windows set too high to peer into, I eventually found myself standing hesitantly before a door. I often explore buildings alone, but this place was the stuff that horror film sets are made of. I imagined a couple sitting at home, yelling tensely at the screen—”Don’t do it you fucking idiot! Just walk away! The monster is in there! How could you be so stupid?”—warned by dramatically swelling music that I could not hear as they watched me peer into the building that would become my tomb.
You are not in a freakin’ horror film, I told myself, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. The first door led into a foyer. On the right a wide hallway led between rows of red doors on the one side and windows on the other. On the left a large stairwell led up to other hallways lined with more doors, leaves, and broken windows.
I went right, following the hallway past doors either locked or bricked over. The occasional graffiti tag told of other visitors, but there were no signs of current tenants. At the end of the hallway was a bathroom with peeling wood stalls. I tried every door in the hall and even- tually found several that opened into small bare rooms, each no bigger than a small wagon (approx. 3 meters by 2 meters).
Had this place been a school, or a prison? The hallways and stairwell said school, but the cell-like rooms said otherwise, and looking back remind me of the Sedel in Switzerland. (The Sedel is a concert venue that was formerly a prison. Today the cells serve as practice rooms for local musicians.) The rooms said prison, but the large unbarred windows said school. Then again, what’s the big difference between the two anyway?
Upstairs I found more of the same. The rows of locked doors were unsettling. What was behind them? Why had some of the doors been bricked over? The walls guarded the building’s secrets tightly, leaving no clues for the casual observer. I was somewhere on the third floor when the wind began to blow, opening and slamming a series of doors that drove me down the stairs and out the door in a rush of adrenaline and fright no late-night horror film could match.
I stood outside for a second, grinning stupidly at myself for being so easily frightened and at the house and the wind for the rush of adrenaline pumping in my throat. I took a quick walk over the rest of the grounds, snapping photos until my camera battery died, as it always seems to do at the first sight of something worth photographing. This place wasn’t far from the city, I thought, but might be far enough from the village that squatters might have a chance here if they remained quiet, under radar. Hundreds of people could have lived in those buildings, another few dozen in wagons in the sparsely tree-ed square between yellow facades.
I still wish I had gone back to explore on a less blustery day, or that I had written down the address and asked the almighty Internet what the place had once been. I’m sure she’s still there though, nestled quiet among the leaves and weeds, quietly chuckling to herself about the time she scared the small human who came on a bike.