Squatters Take on the Creative Class Who Has the Right to Shape the City?

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Part 2: Unease about the Future


"The city actually belongs to everyone" is supposed to be the topic of discussion on this particular evening at the Jupi Bar. But the debate cannot begin because too many people have turned up for the event. Most of them don't know much about sociology or urban planning. Loudspeakers are set up on the sidewalk outside, so that the large crowd of people waiting to get in can at least hear the discussion.

The audience is surprisingly diverse. Young women with messy hair who look like they just returned from a gap year volunteering in Southeast Asia stand next to women in their 60s wearing beige jackets, their silver hair cut fashionably short. Some look affluent while others clearly have no money at all. Some come from the leftist subculture, while others are solidly middle-class. But they all share a sense of unease about their city, brought on by the fact that they have had no say in the changes in its appearance in recent years, as old buildings have had to make way for modern glass-and-steel office complexes, many of which are still empty today.

Photo Gallery

7  Photos
Photo Gallery: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

One of them is the celebrated young German painter Daniel Richter, who made himself and his high-profile media presence available as a sponsor of the Gängeviertel and who helped the protest movement penetrate deep into the heart of bourgeois Hamburg. Another is the bestselling German author, musician and theatre director Rocko Schamoni, who has temporarily put his career on hold to devote his time to the fight against the city's efforts to gentrify the gritty St. Pauli neighborhood. And then there are the young people who, until recently, lived in New York or South America, and are now painting the walls at night in the Gängeviertel. All of these people comprise a massive new protest movement, turning the city into a kind of social laboratory.

Visible Fault Lines

"The city has long been a strategic site for the exploration of many major subjects confronting society and sociology," writes US sociologist Saskia Sassen. In this sense, Hamburg currently functions as a focal lens of sorts, one in which the conflicts of the coming decades are already recognizable. These conflicts will pit change against preservation, private property against the community and, most of all, economic interests against social considerations.

These contradictions are visible everywhere. Anyone who looks closely enough will recognize the fault lines that run through the city. Billions have been invested in a new neighborhood dubbed HafenCity (Harbor City), a prestigious project that has gained worldwide attention. Construction is currently underway there on the Elbphilharmonie building, which is supposed to eventually be the world's most spectacular concert hall, but which is already three times over budget.

In St. Pauli, buildings in Hafenstraße which were formerly home to squats are now surrounded by new glass towers which stretch for several kilometers along the banks of the Elbe River. The development, known as the "Pearl Necklace," has been the focus of protests.

Stopping Ikea

The occupation of the Gängeviertel was followed by another effort by 130 artists, who squatted a run-down former department store in the city's Altona neighborhood which was due to be replaced by an Ikea store. Finally, there is the case of the Rote Flora, a cultural center that is squatted by members of the far-left scene. It belongs to an investor who has threatened to sell the building, which would lead to the forcible eviction of the squatters -- something that could trigger violent street fighting.

Cars are already being set on fire in Hamburg every week by anonymous perpetrators. Recently a police station was attacked with Molotov cocktails, a first in postwar German history, and even police cars were set on fire.

Tensions have been high in the city for months. One of the sources of conflict was an unexpected petition, signed by 184,500 Hamburg citizens, against educational reforms. All of this is happening in a city-state ruled by an unlikely coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Green Party, the first grouping of its kind in a German state-level government. Oddly enough, in a city fighting over its identity, it is the leftists who, in their struggle against gentrification, find themselves defending the status quo.

At the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed as if the major political battles would revolve around the global economy, with activists taking on globalization, climate change and the over-indebtedness of African countries. But, in Hamburg at least, this protest movement appears to have been eclipsed by a movement focusing on the opposite of globalization. It is not interested in the global perspective, in the question of how Africans can live in Africa, but in questions like: How do we intend to live in our smallest units, our cities and our neighborhoods?

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