SCHWERIN, EAST GERMANY — HIGH over intersections along a broad east-west thoroughfare, city workers perched on rickety ladders pry loose street signs from grimy buildings. One by one, the faded blue signs bearing the name of former German Communist leader Ernst Th"almann hit the sidewalk with a hollow, tinny whack.
``It's about time,'' says a middle-aged woman, hanging laundry on a balcony that now faces the renamed L"ubeckerstrasse.
Schwerin, along with hundreds of other communities across the country, has begun to dismantle the trappings of more than four decades of communist rule.
Hardly a town in East Germany lacks a street named after Th"almann, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944.
But as German unity approaches, many towns are still wondering what to do with such legacies of communist rule - and not only the streets, but also the statues, bridges, squares, and schools dedicated to socialist stalwarts. Many of the communities have set up commissions to decide the question.
``We have a list of about 30 [street] names in Schwerin that will likely disappear,'' says Nils R"uhberg, a commission member in the northern provincial capital.
In Leipzig, the heart of the peaceful pro-democracy movement that toppled the communists last year, city officials have received more than 100 suggestions on how to rename its monuments, including 30 alternatives for Karl Marx Platz, scene of the October 1989 protests.
``What we do not want to do is merely get rid of everything,'' says Richard Dahlheim, deputy chairman of Leipzig's cultural affairs department. ``Too many historical remnants are lost to the emotions of the moment.''
In East Berlin, a committee of artists and historians has begun a monument-by-monument appraisal. Committee members say many monuments could be easily altered by adding plaques that put them in historical perspective. Others could be landscaped with gardens to soften their impact. Still others could be carted away to a future museum of Communist artifacts.
Officials estimate that there are more than 800 postwar monuments to communist heroes and martyrs in East Berlin alone. Many are the centerpieces of major squares and intersections.
At Lenin Platz, for example, a scowling Vladimir Lenin towers 60 feet over passersby, one hand on his red granite lapel, the other clenched at his side. At Marx-Engels Platz, Friedrich Engels stands erect while Karl Marx sits at his side, his huge bronze lap a favorite place for tourists to pose for souvenir photographs.
Cost will be a major factor in decisions around the country, officials say. Most East German cities and towns are too strapped for cash to finance the expensive, and largely cosmetic, removal operations.
Frugal city officials in the city of Chemnitz recently decided simply to rededicate the huge glowering bust of Marx in the heart of town as a reminder of the horrors of Communist tyranny. (Residents wasted little time earlier this year in changing the city's name from Karl-Marx-Stadt back to Chemnitz.)
In East Berlin, a 40-foot high, 55-ton bronze statue of Th"almann looms over the entrance to a sprawling park named after him in the Prenzlauer Berg residential district. Officials estimate it would cost at least 2 million deutsche marks ($1.3 million) to haul away and melt down the Th"almann statue.
Irina Rusta, a cultural affairs adviser to the East Berlin city government, says her office has been overwhelmed with letters on what to do with socialist monuments.
``The suggestions range from angry demands for their wholesale removal and destruction to pleas for their loving care and upkeep.''
But some of the monuments may also pose tricky diplomatic problems, Ms. Rusta says.
``Many of these statues and monuments are the work of Soviet artists, gifts from the Soviet Union,'' she says.