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Covid-19 pandemic reverses pied piper effect as Germans flee to towns like Hamelin

Lower Saxony lures Covid-weary workers to region with promise of better lifestyle

Hamelin, Lower Saxony: Its youth were taken away in the Brothers Grimm tale. Photograph: Getty

It may have taken 737 years and a global pandemic, but Hamelin hopes the moment has come to undo the work of the pied piper.

Like millions around Europe, young German families are trapped in an open-ended lockdown of home working and home schooling, many in small city apartments. For Hamelin, a small town in Lower Saxony, this is its chance to attract them with the promise of more space and lower costs.

Sebastian Reh is walking around a historic side hall of Hamelin’s train station. It’s named the Kaisersaal, he says on the phone, but no one remembers after which kaiser.

Abandoned and forgotten for decades, it was reborn in 2003 as a disco. Now it is an imposing space of gleaming white arches and a grey tiled floor that smells of fresh paint and promise.

Reh’s project, called ZediTA, is a partnership with Hamelin’s technical college and is financed by local government and EU regional funds. Reh describes the hall as a “third space” – a hybrid working environment midway between the classic office and the home office that rethinks for the regions the now familiar co-working spaces of bigger cities.

“We can’t copy Berlin, we’re not a start-up hub like Silicon Valley but we see considerable demand by companies here for a space like this,” says the 28 year old. “They’re looking for spaces for off-site meetings, places for people to come and brainstorm in workshops – and we have the large and small rooms for all needs.”

Daily commutes

At the very least, the Kaisersaal project may reduce local home office cabin fever and cut daily commutes to nearby cities like Hanover. All going well, though, it could reverse a trend that dates back to Hamelin’s most famous exodus.

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In 1284, the town was struggling with a rat infestation when, so the story goes, a travelling piper stepped up. He bewitched the rats with his pipe music – out of town and into a lake, where they drowned.

Afterwards the mayor refused to pay as agreed and the piper grabbed his pipe to perform his trick again, this time on the miserly townsfolk’s children. Some 130 children disappeared with him, according to the tale, never to be seen again.

Sebastian Reh, project manager of ZediTA: “We can’t copy Berlin... but we see considerable demand by companies here for a space like this.”

Seven centuries on, locals insist the story – included in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy-tale collection – has more than a grain of truth. One likely explanation is that the children left as migrant workers in Germany’s new eastern territories.

Times have changed but hundreds of Hamelin’s young people leave each year to study or work elsewhere, and most stay away.

Now, after months locked up with their small children, Hamelin hopes they have learned the limits of big city living and view their home town with new eyes.

Local schools and kindergartens have noticed a spike in demand for places. The town planning office has been been deluged with queries about sites and is struggling to process planning applications.

High-speed internet

Though it is too early for empirical proof, Hamelin’s lord mayor Claudio Griese says these indicators have focused minds in the region.

Together with local companies, he is more determined than ever to marry the new challenges of digitalisation – in particular high-speed internet – with the old German strength of small and medium-sized business, still the backbone of towns like Hamelin.

“We have a shortage of skilled workers and, while there’s no patented recipe to lure young people back, for us this is a huge chance,” says Griese. “As well as jobs, we notice people look for social and cultural infrastructure. They want family-friendliness and, in a city of 60,000 like Hamelin, know they won’t vanish into the cracks.”

The pandemic’s first anniversary in Germany has prompted a run of media reports about young families fleeing the big cities. One pioneer of co-working spaces in Berlin is now setting up entire co-working villages outside the capital, letting stressed city-dwellers sample rural life before taking the plunge.

A new survey by an urban research group in Hamburg shows one in five German city-dwellers could imagine leaving for the countryside. Another poll by commercial lender BerlinHyp found that 43 per cent of Germans seeking a new home would prefer to live in the country.

Seven centuries after a false economy cost Hamelin dear, mayor Griese is amused by the idea of one-upping the pied piper to lure in the city’s lost children. With a determined snort, he says: “Let’s get them back.”

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