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.


Photo Gallery: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

Foto: A9999 Herzog & de Meuron/ dpa/dpaweb

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.

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: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

Foto: A9999 Herzog & de Meuron/ dpa/dpaweb

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?

'Not in Our Name!'

The people attending the meeting at the Jupi Bar in the Gängeviertel neighborhood agree that this is a question that has been of little interest to the city of Hamburg in the last few decades. Christoph Schäfer is one of the leaders of the Right to the City group and the founder of Park Fiction, a citizens' initiative against gentrification in St. Pauli.

Wearing a green tracksuit top under his corduroy sports jacket, he talks about the German thinkers Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel who, at the beginning of the 1900s, recognized that the city would serve as the nucleus of the great social struggles of the century. Later in his talk, he discusses the left-wing sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who in the 1960s developed the notion of the "right to the city," based on his observations of the Paris suburbs, and David Harvey, a Marxist geographer and social theorist who attributes the causes of the financial crisis to neoliberal urban planning.


Photo Gallery: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

Foto: A9999 Herzog & de Meuron/ dpa/dpaweb

It quickly becomes clear that Schäfer is repeatedly pointing to the same source of conflict: The city is the capitalist, hungry for profit, while the residents are the workers, exploited for the city's gain. According to this analysis, artists are the city's unwilling puppets. As members of the creative class, they move into poorer neighborhoods, inadvertently giving them a trendy image which allow them to be marketed more effectively by the city.

This is why the artists of Gängeviertel have penned their manifesto against the branding of the city, called "Not in Our Name!" The weekly newspaper Die Zeit and the daily Hamburger Abendblatt, owned by Axel Springer, have both printed the artists' manifesto.

There is only one problem: The city did not react the way the squatters had expected it to. This, in turn, has something to do with Richard Florida. For years, city officials had racked their brains about how they could attract the coveted creative class to Hamburg. And now members of that very creative class have come to Hamburg of their own accord, in the form of 200 artists right in the middle of the city. Rather than an inconvenience, the mass squatting was a stroke of luck for city officials.

And so the city, on Aug. 22, the first day of the occupation, did not send in the police to drive out the squatters, as it would have done in the past. Instead, it dispatched Dirk Petrat to talk to the artists.

Sympathetic to Squatters' Concerns

Petrat, a lawyer by profession, heads Hamburg's office of media, tourism and marketing. His children's drawings and paintings are taped to the cabinets in his office, and his screensaver shows postcard views of Hamburg. He has a penchant for colorful neckties. He also has very strong principles.

Petrat went from his office in the Hanseviertel shopping arcade to the Gängeviertel, a 10-minute walk. Standing in the courtyard of one of the buildings there, he asked the squatters if anyone had anything they wanted to talk about. He said that he was from the city administration and was there to negotiate, and that he also wanted to bring in inspectors to check the structures were safe. He didn't want anyone getting hurt, he said.

The squatters were speechless. Some of them had already gone to former radical squatters in the Hafenstrasse neighborhood for advice, and they had told them to be prepared for bitter house-to-house fighting. As a result, they were all the more surprised to be faced with a friendly man from the city who seemed to be so sympathetic to their concerns.

Petrat proposed that the squatters sign tenancy agreements with the city. He told them that they could stay where they were for the time being, but that the arrangement had to be regulated somehow. The department manager began to enjoy his new task. The city can depend on the squatters to uphold their end of the agreement, he says, sounding like the father of children who are sometimes somewhat boisterous but basically good-hearted.

Then Petrat and the Senate decided to buy back the buildings from the Dutch investors. It cost the city €2.8 million more than the Dutch had paid for the buildings in the first place. In a sense, the €2.8 million represent the cost the city incurred for listening to Richard Florida.

Change without Unrest

In Toronto, Florida, who prefers to be called Rich, is wearing a pale denim shirt and motorcycle boots. His face is still tanned from a recent visit to Miami. He makes double espressos in the large, open kitchen at the institute where he works, and gives a brief lecture on Karl Marx. The large windows offer a view of Toronto in the snow.

Florida set up the institute, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, three years ago, calling it the Prosperity Institute. One of its goals is to examine the issues that relate to how people live together, questions like: "What can we do to enable cities to change without triggering unrest?"


Photo Gallery: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

Foto: A9999 Herzog & de Meuron/ dpa/dpaweb

His staff of 20, which includes geologists, economists and social scientists, study capitalism and how the conditions under which it exists have changed at a time when the Western economy is no longer sustained by physical labor in factories, but by intellectual and creative work.

Florida has devised a number of tools for cities, including the "three Ts formula," which he insists cities should never forget: technology, talent and tolerance. He has developed a "creativity index," a "gay index" and a "Bohemian index," which he says should be used to evaluate cities.

"But the point is not to simulate these values," he says. "The point is to have them. You can't put a T-shirt with a catchy slogan on a fat man and suddenly claim that he's cool. I've never talked about marketing in any of my books. And I don't want to provide any recipes for gentrification."

Blurred Distinctions

But it is precisely the fact that Florida does not provide precise instructions on how to transform cities that troubled Björn Bloching, the head of the Hamburg office of Roland Berger, from the start. These concerns prompted him to sit down with his team of management consultants and try to figure out how to make the Toronto guru's principles applicable to Hamburg. In the end, not much came of their efforts.

In the meantime, Hamburg has given up its "City of Talent" slogan. Trends, it seems, are quick to come and go in the city's administration. "That was the last government's slogan," says one city official. The guiding principle of the current CDU/Green coalition is "Growth with Foresight," with growth being the CDU's goal and foresight the Greens'.

Bloching was disappointed, because he had believed that he could help Hamburg turn itself into a city of talent. But then he had another new idea.

He meets SPIEGEL for an 8 a.m. breakfast in a hideous Hamburg designer hotel. He parks his bike outside the hotel, and his casual black wool sweater makes him look like someone who has just cycled over from the Gängeviertel. He is living proof that the distinctions between members of the protest movement and the establishment have become blurred, more than 40 years after the late 1960s, when the leftist protest culture first became an identifiable presence in Germany.

Christine Ebeling, the spokeswoman of the Gängeviertel squatters, reveals the same blurred distinctions between the groups. With her high heels, black nylons and business skirt, she looks more like someone who might be working for Roland Berger.

Bloching says that he met her recently at a spaghetti dinner that takes place regularly and is an institution among Hamburg's cultural elite. Bloching and Ebeling are officially adversaries: he, the management consultant and turbo-capitalist, advising the city on how upgrade its neighborhoods, she, the artist and squatter who helped force the city to change its plans for the Gängeviertel.

High Horse

"But she seems completely reasonable," says Bloching, recalling the time when he suggested to her that Roland Berger, the consulting firm, open an office in the Gängeviertel. Now that would be something. It was nothing but an idea, one which he has since discarded, but it shows how blurred the boundaries have become between super-capitalism and squatting.

"It would have been brilliant in the Gängeviertel," says Bloching. "We would have set up an open space, handed out grants to artists and had artists-in-residence. Our clients would have served as a market for the artists to sell their work, and they in turn would have inspired our consultants." Besides, he adds, it's a short trip from the Gängeviertel to the airport.

But somehow his proposal didn't quite hit the mark, not with the city official in charge of cultural affairs, and certainly not with Christine Ebeling -- something which is hardly surprising.

"Perhaps they don't find it worth discussing," says Bloching. "But morally speaking they should come off their high horse."

Indeed, some might ask what exactly gives the artists the right to demand studios more or less for free in a prime downtown location. After all, those who care about social issues -- and that describes the core of the anti-gentrification movement -- might also argue that the buildings could be put to better use accommodating other, needier people than middle class artists for whom squatting is little more than a lifestyle choice.

"At the dinner, I said: Why don't the artists go to Dulsberg, where it's cheap?" Dulsberg is a gray neighborhood in the east of Hamburg that sustained a lot of damage during World War II.

One of the squatters apparently replied that they couldn't be creative in Dulsberg.

"That's naturally something of a problematic argument," says Bloching.

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: Hamburg's Polemic Makeover

Foto: A9999 Herzog & de Meuron/ dpa/dpaweb

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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