Krems: A Town Without Angels

Since the fatal shooting in a supermarket, Austria puzzles at its own lost innocence

Florian’s memorial in Krems | Photo: Christian Wind

Thursday afternoon in the heart of Krems-Lerchenfeld. The first pints are being downed in s’Lercherl pub. Rain clouds are lifting. The Ö3 radio station’s announcer informs the diners on the terrace about the funeral of Florian P., the 14-year-old from Lerchenfeld shot by police during a robbery in a Merkur supermarket. A headline of a daily newspaper lying on the table reads “The Lerchenfelders,” the content covering its “ghetto” and “problem youth.”

The guests turn away from the outsiders in silence. Youth dressed in black march by in bulk towards the cemetery, where a dozen journalists await them. They respond to the cameras with their middle fingers.

An entire country is in intense discussion over the guilt and punishment of criminal youth and looks down self-righteously at those who sit at the bottom of the social ladder in the Krems suburb. What do the Lerchenfelders themselves have to say?

Susanne Spillauer knows both perspectives. The one from above, prevailing in the city center of Krems four kilometers away, where people talk about crime and violent kids from the East. And the one from below, the frustration after the seventh AMS (public employment service) course and the solidarity against the outside world.

“Am I not chic?” One of the boys dressed in black asks Spillauer. “I even took a shower today, here, smell!” She nods. “The people here,” she says later, “just need someone who listens.”

Spillauer has listened her whole life. For ten years she has been the district’s SPÖ –Austria’s Social Democratic Party – municipal councilor. The social worker was born in Lerchenfeld, lives here and wrote her diploma thesis about the social tensions in the district.

Spillauer heads through the town center, through lively residential streets and by houses which evoke those in Burgenland. Just last year they were renovated, the windows replaced, the facades painted in pastel tones. They were built in Nazi times for the employees of Voest, a steel manufacturer, then called the Hermann-Göring Mills. It was progressive, Spillauer explains, to have blue-collar apartments next to the factory, each with its own front garden.

In recent years, many of local Lerchenfeld industrial plants have shut down and relocated to the East. Globalization? Reform? Words from another world, which here mean longer hours (and more uncertainty) for less money. Since last October, the outside world has flushed new catchwords towards Lerchenfeld: Kurzarbeit (shorter work week) and Freisetzung (lay-offs).

A couple of hundred meters further west, where wide streets fray out over the Danube floodplains, four apartment towers soar above, relics from the time when it was necessary to create more space for workers. The employment office in the 70s used to send buses to the surrounding farms to win over the farmer’s children as apprentices.

With industrial breakdown and migration, subsidized cheap housing drew the unemployed, single parents and immigrants, the model suburban town of a proud proletariat degenerated to a social hotspot.

“One finds Lerchenfeld everywhere. The children and youth are a mirror of our community,” says Spillauer as a flock of jackdaws break the silence of the countryside and a small bus with the writing “See You” drives by. It is the town’s mobile youth mentoring station.

The social workers stop their bus here once a day for two to three hours, give out lemonade and chat with the kids. Next to the loud jackdaws, it is the so-called “problem youth” that preoccupies Lerchenfeld. Only the jackdaws have come coincidentally and will be easy to remove.

“A couple of years ago it was mainly rivaling immigrant groups,” says Spillauer. Today, it’s a shift to the right of many adolescents that causes problems.

“We don’t have any problems with the others,” says the amateur rapper Semir*, 22. “They have a problem with us.” His friend Mahmoud*, 24, adds, “There is always something happening on the streets of Lerchenfeld. There are no recreational activities here.”

Both native Bosnians are unemployed, both live at home with their parents. Semir worked at Voest until he was laid off in spring, the laborer Mahmoud is repeating his “matura”, the school leaving examination.

“I don’t get any support for it. That’s where the politicians should do something,” he says. “And they should build daycare centers so that seven year olds aren’t home alone while their parents work shifts,” adds Semir.

It comes across as surprising when these adolescents make such political claims, as they would most likely not be heard otherwise. When asked about their future, they joke around.

“I see myself in Cuba after winning the lottery,” Semir says. And seriously? A house, children, a garden, a car, they say. Where? In Krems-Lerchenfeld, naturally.

“If the media are gone next week,” says Mahmoud before they get into a BMW, “everything will be the same as before.”

Previously, there were twelve-year-old students injecting heroin into their veins, explains a former school doctor. Fourteen-year-old repeat offenders were the norm, describes a judge of the juvenile court in Krems. There were political arguments over what the “Streetwork” programs should really look like and how much they should cost. Then came the shot in Merkur, without which the break-in would have taken up three lines in the local newspaper.

Will the shooting change anything? Probably not, says the social worker Manuela Leoni, 33, in her office in the center of Krems. Her kids’ idols today are gangster-rappers like Eminem and 50 Cent. Many see them as affirming themselves as heroic losers.

“The media hastens the phenomenon,” she says.

Leoni runs Impulse Krems, the youth workplace. “Many youth today no longer know limits and norms,” she says. “In Lerchenfeld, where many socially disadvantaged families live, this phenomenon is especially strong.”

Previously, mothers were still at home and responsible for bringing up their children. Today, they sit until late in the evening behind the supermarket cash register, work shifts or are unemployed. The TV and the neighbor’s children assume the role of parents and extended family, Leoni explains. Alcoholism, violence, sexual abuse all belong to the daily life of the kids.

“In the long run, they replicate their situation,” says the social worker.

There aren’t shootings on the streets in Lerchenfeld, or weekly attacks on supermarkets. The delinquency rate is not particularly higher than in other parts of Krems. At the core of it in Lerchenfeld is the silent violence forced upon the kids by their surroundings and themselves, in which they lose sight of their future so early.

Leoni’s job is to build a bridge between the edges and the middle of the community. Twelve half-day jobs, a youth center and a bus are available for her and more than a thousand adolescents. “Many of our plans collapse due to finances,” says Leoni. “For example, the youth center for Lerchenfeld that we have been asking for, for so long.”

On the other side of the bridge the social worker is trying to build, sits Wolfgang Derler in his small office in Krems’ city hall. The vice-mayor and cultural city councilor from the ÖVP (Austria’s people party) has a clear message: Krems is good, Lerchenfeld is not a ghetto and the media excitement is due to the summer slump. A study by the Technical University has chosen Krems 2007 as Austria’s city with the highest quality of life, for festivals such as the Danube Festival and Glatt & Verkehrt, which attract even Viennese culture tourists to the Wachau.

Derler emphasizes the current initiatives: the youth center in downtown, the social workers in the schools and on the streets. “Lerchenfeld is located in the immediate vicinity of the city center and at the same time in nature. Actually, an ideal neighborhood,” he raves. With someone like Semir, the rapper, he couldn’t have spoken any further. He seems to not understand why kids no longer go to music school or to the volunteer fire department.

“We will never reach everyone,” says the trained teacher resignedly.

And if the Lerchenfelder youth need other attractions, for example a youth center? “We don’t have money for a youth center,” Derler says, “but I invite young people and social workers, together with us, to find a creative solution.” The ÖVP-governed city sits on a debt of €100 million. The acquisition of a facility would cost around €150,000, approximately the amount the city hall spends yearly on subsidizing city festivals. From Derler’s perspective, the comparison is cynical.

From Manuel’s perspective, however, these priorities are cynical. The sixteen-year-old roofing apprentice grew up with Florian P., the young man shot by police. He didn’t go to the funeral. All of the media, all of those sad friends…

Lerchenfeld’s proximity to the old town? Manuel’s last bus home leaves at 18:30. The nearby marshes? The cabin the boy and his friends built was immediately torn down. And the open areas? Where Manuel used to play football with Florian, the goal was one day taken away and the field no longer mowed. “We just don’t have any place where we can go,” says Manuel.

He also dreams of a house, children and a car. Until then, he will live with his single mother, who cleans for €600 a month and receives no alimony.

Should one wonder that Manuel listens to rap from H.C. Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ)? That amateur rappers like Semir act like a Wachauer Eminem? Or should the other Austria outside of Lerchenfeld wonder why a fourteen-year-old special needs student breaks into a supermarket out of boredom?

“You need a job in order to have fun here,” says Manuel before he moves on. “It’s boring without a job. And then you just cause trouble.”

“That’s why you won’t find angels in Lerchenfeld.”

*The names of the people have been changed

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