(MENAFN - AFP) Magdeburg was once the go-to city for tales of former communist east Germany's woes, a bastion of joblessness, neo-Nazis and despair that belied the joyful hopes of the country's 1990 reunification.
Fast-forward to 2013 amid a campaign for September 22 elections and a robust economic upswing under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the east, and the picture looks very different.
Magdeburg, a 1,200-year-old city founded by Charlemagne, has made a remarkable comeback underlining a raft of eastern success stories.
Business magazine Wirtschaftswoche named Magdeburg the most dynamic city in Germany, Europe's top economy, last November, citing heavy investment in infrastructure and education.
Its development points to a recovery of the east that goes deeper than standouts such as Dresden and Leipzig, bolstering a sense of optimism that has given Merkel a strong lead in the polls.
"If you look at the raw numbers, then we're not nearly as well-placed as big (western) cities like Duesseldorf or Munich that have been going strong for 40 or 50 years," Mayor Lutz Truemper told AFP.
"But things have moved in the right direction and we're very happy about that."
The city of 230,000 saw unemployment fall by more than seven points between 2006 and 2011 to 10.4 percent, with a particularly steep drop among the young.
While still far higher than the national rate of 6.8 percent, the decline has changed the face of Magdeburg in countless ways.
"Things are growing and blossoming in Magdeburg," said doctor Annika Grundfeld, 32, as she decorated her small garden with balloons for a party.
A mother of six-month-old twins Anna and Amalia and four-year-old Jonathan, Grundfeld said the east still had better child care options than the west -- a big advantage left over from communism.
"The mood here has also really improved as the job market's gotten better -- there are a few cool cafes and more cultural events."
She lives in a new development of neat, sunflower-studded plots in a former industrial area, as relatively cheap property prices give more Magdeburgers a shot at the dream of home ownership.
Former chancellor Helmut Kohl, the father of reunification, prematurely promised the east "blooming landscapes" after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
But it has taken two decades to reverse the effects of central planning and citizen repression in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Mayor Truemper, from Merkel's main rivals the Social Democrats, says he worked closely with the conservative-led state and federal governments as well as the EU, investing 30 to 40 million euros (40 to 53 million) in subsidies over three years to link up to major autobahn and rail lines and make the most of Magdeburg's location on the mighty Elbe River.
One of Germany's oldest industrial centres, Magdeburg employed 46,000 in the machine-tools sector under communism.
That number plummeted to 2,000 after 1990, devastating the city.
Abandoned brick factories with smashed windows still mar the landscape, recalling the rust belt cities of the western Ruhr Valley or even faraway Detroit.
But as just one example, Magdeburg has transformed the old conglomerate SKET into a 21st century engineering hub, also capitalising on the renewable energy boom.
Arriving for his shift building wind turbines, Sven-Eric Adamietz, 21, says he and his friends had had several jobs to choose from.
"The companies here are desperately looking for apprentices and almost all of them will be taken on afterwards," he said.
"A lot of our grandparents and parents worked at SKET and now it's our turn."
Magdeburg also has one of Germany's youngest universities, founded in 1993 with a national reputation in neuroscience research, and now draws more than 10 percent of its students from abroad.
"It may not be as big and exciting as Berlin but people are friendly and the education level is excellent," said Azis Abdul Aziz, 35, from West Java in Indonesia who is on a six-month fellowship to study climate change.
It is a statement that would have been unthinkable for a foreign student in the 1990s, when Magdeburg made international headlines for a series of vicious neo-Nazi attacks including three murders.
Pascal Begrich, director of anti-extremist group Miteinander, said the situation had vastly improved after activists and public officials worked together on intensive community outreach.
"The society was almost all-German in the GDR," he said, noting that Vietnamese workers were the only outsiders in their midst.
"Teaching people that diversity is an opportunity and not a problem has been the focus of our work, and the economic improvement has also helped."
Truemper says eastern cities are now racing against time to lift salaries to western levels to retain a well-qualified young workforce.
"In 2019, the solidarity pact (for aid to poorer eastern regions) runs out -- then we're going to need to stand on our own two feet."