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

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Part 5: A Dangerous Copycat Effect


In reality, this has always been the way art works. Artists do go and live in places like Dulsberg, just as artists in New York are now moving to Queens, because the prospects of moving into a studio in SoHo are slim to nonexistent today.

But Hamburg's artists aren't going to Dulsberg. They prefer the central neighborhood of Altona. In that district's pedestrian zone, which looks the way people in the 1970s imagined the modern age would like, complete with all the concrete mania of that era, the next occupation has been going on for several weeks. Artists there, inspired by the successes of their comrades in the Gängeviertel, have occupied an old Karstadt department store that has been vacant for six years.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

This worries Dirk Petrat from the city's cultural affairs office. "The Gängeviertel copycat effect is dangerous," he says. The city wants to offer the Altona artists a former police barracks for a year, with a bunker available to them after that, but the artists' reactions have been reserved. Somehow these squatters are not as open to discussion as those in the Gängeviertel, says Petrat, sounding a little disappointed.

Many people in the Altona district approve of plans to tear down the boxy old Karstadt building and erect a blue-green Ikea cuboid in its place. They have even presented a petition in favor of building the Ikea store. As it happens, there is also a second petition, against Ikea, but it isn't nearly as long as the pro-Ikea list: The pro-Ikea petition has 9,380 signatures, while the anti-Ikea list only has 1,800 so far, according to the latest figure from the Ikea opponents. (The anti-Ikea camp can continue to collect signatures until February, however.)

The district of Altona has its fair share of social problems, with high unemployment and a large immigrant population, but gentrification has been underway for some time in the picturesque streets of Altona's Ottensen neighborhood.

The fronts are blurred in the battle of arguments. Nothing in the 1970s pedestrian zone seems worth preserving, but local residents fear that Ikea, despite bringing a few jobs to Altona, will cause an increase in car traffic on the streets. Ironically, most of the people who attend these discussion events have Ikea furniture at home.

Are the Squatters Too Nice?

On this evening, the topic of the discussion is: "Problems and prospects for squatting in the past and today." A man named Frank is the moderator. Frank, a former radical squatter from Hamburg's Hafenstrasse scene, is wearing a charcoal-colored turtleneck sweater and a clean pair of jeans, and there is a touch of gray in his hair.

Three women from the Gängeviertel have been invited, including spokeswoman Christine Ebeling. The other two are significantly younger and seem confused, more than anything. They are constantly correcting and interrupting each other. They look exhausted. "Squatting is a fulltime job," says one of the two women.

The groups have come together to share their experiences with squatting. Perhaps the Gängeviertel representatives will be able to learn something new. But they already seem to be doing pretty well by themselves: The Gängeviertel squatters, who Frank dubs the "shooting stars" of the squatting movement, managed to occupy 12 buildings and get permission to stay there after just four months. To achieve the same results, it took the Hafenstrasse squatters 10 years and countless street clashes in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Admittedly, things are a little easier for you," says Frank. "You don't have to deal with people linked to (notorious far-left German terrorist group) the RAF or with junkies."

He has hit the nail on the head. The problem with the Gängeviertel squatters is that they are too well behaved.

Is it acceptable to cooperate so closely with the city authorities? Is it ok to become part of the system? Shouldn't there at least be a police raid at some point?

"If you are too nice, sooner or later people will take advantage of you," says Frank.

But times have changed. Nowadays, squatters look like management consultants, and vice-versa. Conservative newspapers print manifestos from the leftist subculture, while a guru from Toronto quotes Marx to deflect suspicions that he is providing recipes for gentrification. The city's negotiator talks about artists as if they were his children, while the city unofficially aligns itself with the squatters. Its former ally, a financial investor of the kind that cities would previously never have turned away, has now become the enemy.

Urban Resistance

All of these contradictions suddenly become clear in a situation that transpires one late afternoon in the Gängeviertel. Marc, an artist with a studio there, is feeling stressed. Saga, one of the city's building maintenance organizations, recently visited his building. The Saga team threatened to block off the top floor of one building, arguing that there was too much debris there, creating the risk of collapse. Marc quickly calls up several people on his mobile phone and gets them to come over to clear up. But then he has to go. He's supposed to be giving a tour to a group from a community college. "They just keep coming," he says.

And so Marc ends up giving nine Hamburg women wearing colorful jackets a tour of the squatted buildings. He shows them the studios, courtyards and galleries. The women are enthusiastic. Some of them feel reminded of Hamburg after the war, of the spirit of optimism that prevailed at the time. "I have been living in Hamburg for 60 years," says another woman. "This is the first time that resistance is forming against the kind of city policy that was always the case here and where we were not given a say."

The women receive a copy of the manifesto -- the same manifesto that Richard Florida has on his desk in Toronto. They read it out loud. They agree with everything it says.

Perhaps the city does have a problem, after all.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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