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

Hamburg has been trying to woo the much-coveted "creative class" for years in a bid to secure its future. Now the city has become the front line in a bitter conflict over gentrification, with artists squatting buildings in protest against investment plans and members of the far-left scene attacking private property -- and even police.


The three pages, printed from the Internet, are lying on Richard Florida's desk in his Toronto office. He begins skimming the document, but by the first sentence he has already had enough. It is, once again, an attack on his theories.

The sentence in question reads: "A specter is haunting Europe, ever since US economist Richard Florida came to the conclusion that only those cities prosper in which the 'creative class' feels comfortable." The "creative class" is a term coined by Florida. He puts away the pages and smiles weakly.

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The sentence he just read comes from halfway around the world, from the northern German city of Hamburg, and it marks the beginning of a manifesto that Hamburg artists, musicians and social activists published in October 2009. In recent weeks, this manifesto has attracted a great deal of attention in Hamburg and throughout Germany. It is directed against an urban development policy that is based on a theory that Florida has developed over the past few years.

In his theory, Florida argues that cities must reinvent themselves. In contrast to the 1990s, they should no longer attempt to attract companies, but people. More specifically, the right people -- people who invent things, who promote change and who shape a city's image. He has classified these people as the "creative class." It's a theory that has had unintentional consequences -- including bitter conflicts in places like Hamburg.

Axiom of Urban Planning

The theory has also made Florida rich and famous. He is now one of the most popular speakers in North America and says he received a thousand requests for speaking engagements in 2009 alone. His books about the "creative class," and about why it is crucial to the survival of every city, are bestsellers, and his theory has been elevated to a virtually unchallenged axiom of modern urban development. Richard Florida has become a guru of sorts for city planners.

In Europe, hardly any other city has relied on Florida as heavily as the traditional trading city of Hamburg. A few years ago, Jörg Dräger, at the time Hamburg's science minister, showed up one day at the city-state's administration, the Hamburg Senate, with Florida's books under his arm. It was shortly before the summer recess, and Dräger distributed the books to his fellow Senate members. He asked them to read the books over the summer, saying that they offered a possible approach for the city's future.

Soon afterwards, the city of Hamburg hired the management consulting firm Roland Berger to examine how Florida's theory could be applied to Hamburg. "We didn't simply want to follow him blindly, but his ideas were the basis for the subsequent development of our strategy for the city," says Dräger today.

The result was called "Hamburg, City of Talent," and Florida, in his role as guru, even came to the city in person and gave presentations there.

And now all of this is coming back to haunt him? He is the one who supposedly unleashed the specter that is haunting Europe? Why is there a manifesto against him? What exactly is going on in Hamburg?

The Fight against Gentrification

Florida could have easily recognized that change on an evening a few weeks ago, when an alliance of activists called "Right to the City," met at the Jupi Bar, a scruffy alternative bar in the Gängeviertel neighborhood. "Right to the City" is an alliance of about 20 citizens' initiatives with widely divergent goals, and yet they are united in their fight against gentrification: in other words, the deliberate and politically expedient upgrading of poorer neighborhoods, which generally leads to the replacement of the existing population with more affluent new residents.

On this evening, local activists have already been squatting buildings in the Gängeviertel for about three months. The Gängeviertel was originally a residential neighborhood for artisans, blue-collar workers and day laborers that extended from the harbor deep into the downtown area. Its buildings were among the oldest in Hamburg. Many have already been torn down, but a few have remained standing in a particularly dead section of Hamburg's opulent and lifeless downtown area, in the shadow of high-rise buildings owned by the powerful Axel Springer publishing company.

The buildings, which belonged to the city, were mostly empty. The city had allowed them to become run-down, and it was pleased to have finally found a buyer a little over a year ago. Dutch investor Hanzevast, which acquired the buildings, planned to demolish all but a few facades and replace the buildings with glass-and-steel architecture, offices and luxury condominiums. Developments of this nature are part of the business of a company like Hanzevast, which is why the plan made sense for the Dutch company. But Hanzevast, hard-hit by the economic crisis, delayed the beginning of construction, and in August 2009 about 200 artists occupied the Gängeviertel buildings.


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