Counterculture Vs. Capitalism: Iconic Berlin Squat Fights Its Last Battle
Twenty years after it was squatted by a group of artists, Berlin's legendary Tacheles arts center faces the threat of closure. The building, which became famous as part of the city's heady 1990s counterculture, has become the symbol of a new struggle against gentrification in Berlin.
Martin Reiter is thinking about locking himself into a cage and having it suspended in front of Tacheles, the way criminals were treated in the Middle Ages. It's not a bad idea, he says. Reiter is 47, his curly hair is slowing turning gray, but it's still shoulder-length and his eyes sparkle.
The Berlin arts center Kunsthaus Tacheles, which has been an iconic symbol of the city's rebellious, post-reunification counter-culture for two decades, is on its last legs. The artists are about to be evicted, and bankruptcy proceedings have begun against Reiter's association, Tacheles e.V. The evictions could start at any moment.
Reiter is an artist, and the situation puts him in a creative mood. He snaps shut the knife he's been using to clean his fingernails and jumps up from the sofa in the association office. A demonstration is about to begin. "At some point you head into your last battle," he says.
Ludwig Eben, 46, is standing in front of Café Zapata, next to a table with coffee and open-faced sandwiches. The café, which is on the ground floor of the Tacheles building, also has to go. On this morning, his weapon in the fight against an eviction attempt is a breakfast buffet. It's 7:45 a.m., and a group of his friends and an attorney with an attack dog have come together to greet the bailiff.
The bailiff is standing in front of the café, looking at the mail box, which says "Zapata UG." But the letter he has come to deliver is addressed to "Zapata GbR." The names don't match -- "GbR" and "UG" represent different company forms -- so the bailiff leaves.
Eben leans against the buffet, a soft drink in his hand. He has been in the building for 20 years. For much of that time he didn't pay any rent. He knows plenty of tricks to avoid eviction. "After everything we've experienced, we're entitled to stay here," he says.
Reiter and Eben were once friends, and then they became enemies. But now they face a powerful common adversary. The Hamburg-based bank HSH Nordbank wants to throw them and all of the other artists out of the building. The bank plans to auction off Tacheles, together with the large undeveloped lot where the building stands on the corner of Oranienburger Strasse and Friedrichstrasse in Berlin's historic Mitte district.
The controversy over the future of Tacheles has reignited a long-running debate in Berlin about the future of the city and who has the right to shape the urban environment. It's a conflict which pits the city's vibrant cultural scene against the interests of capital and which influences the public debate in Berlin. And Tacheles is one of the focal points of the discussion.
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a prominent member of the center-left Social Democrats who is known for his sympathy toward the city's alternative scene, says that Tacheles should not be "flattened." The senate, Berlin's executive body, wants to save Tacheles and its artists. "It's a huge icon," says André Schmitz, the city-state's culture secretary, who describes the arts center as "a symbol of the developments of the last 20 years." Schmitz is talking about the growing number of tourists in his city, not the art scene.
Part of Berlin's Wild Image
Tacheles began life as a department store in 1906. Later, it played host to Nazi administrators and was bombed during World War II. Much of the building was destroyed, but East German officials never demolished or fixed up the parts that remained standing, resulting in the structure's decrepit appearance.
In 1990, artists from both East and West Germany occupied the building. They held parties and set up workshops and studios. Tacheles -- the name means "straight talk" in Yiddish -- helped create Berlin's image as a wild city where everything was possible.
Then the property was sold to Anno August Jagdfeld, a real estate developer from the Rhineland, who had restored Berlin's iconic Hotel Adlon. Jagdfeld also wanted to put his stamp on the new Berlin and develop a new neighborhood around Tacheles. But his vision was more sedate than wild.
When Jagdfeld's plans failed, HSH Nordbank, which had made a loan to Jagdfeld's company so it could buy the property, took Tacheles into receivership. The bank, which faces financial difficulties of its own, could use the millions the building and land are likely to fetch. There are 10 potential buyers, says a bank spokesman. All of them want to keep the Tacheles building -- but no one wants the artists.
Many counter-culture projects in Berlin are about to fold because new investors have purchased the buildings or land, or the existing owners are finally ready to develop the properties. This has given rise to a new protest movement against the investors.
For both sides, it is a time of radical change. Tacheles has become a symbol of the struggle for the soul of the city, one with seemingly clear divisions between artists and investors, between good and evil.
- Part 1: Iconic Berlin Squat Fights Its Last Battle
- Part 2: 'Commerce Kills'
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Nearly two decades later, only a handful of squats remain, most of them operating as activist meeting houses. Some squatters have become legitimate rent-paying tenants, while others continue to battle with their owners.