Troubled Times for Tacheles Landmark Berlin Squat Battles Eviction

It is a classic Berlin faceoff: the squatters against the investors. Usually the latter win, but property at the landmark Berlin art squat Tacheles is under receivership and the fate of the site is uncertain.
Von Rachel Nolan

The artists at Tacheles, an iconic squat in central Berlin, have been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a decade.

"We knew the lease would be up. It was hardly a surprise," says Martin Reiter, the long-haired Austrian who heads the co-op that runs Tacheles. After all, the existence of the bombed-out warren of 31 ateliers, a cinema, theater, bar, restaurant and back garden, has always felt a bit tenuous. And with their current deal set to expire at the end of December, anxiety about the future of Tacheles, Yiddish for "straight talk," is growing.

Reiter and a group of fellow artists moved into the building, just down the street from Berlin's iconic New Synagogue, after the Berlin Wall came down 19 years ago and turned it into one of the best-known exhibition spaces in the city. An investment fund called Fundus Group bought the complex and neighboring properties in the early 1990s and negotiated a 10-year lease with the artists in 1998. Rent is a symbolic one deutsche mark, or 50 euro cents per year.

But in 2003, Fundus announced plans to monetize its valuable property. The idea was to invest €400 billion to construct five buildings on the lots surrounding Tacheles -- including apartments, restaurants and a five-star business hotel. The squat itself was to be converted into apartments, meeting the same fate as many of the city's post-reunification squats. But city ordinances say Fundus needs at least half of the money in hand before they can begin construction.

No construction has begun, but the halcyon days for Tacheles seem to be approaching their end. Fundus announced it would not renew the artists' lease when it expires at the end of 2008. At first glance, in fact, it looks like a typical Berlin storyline: dreamy squatters pitted against ruthless investors.

But all is not as it seems at Tacheles. The building is under receivership, and the future of the squat is uncertain.

“We are optimistic that the artists will be able to stay here,” said Linda Cerna, in charge of public relations for Tacheles. The squatters hired a PR person last year. And they have a raft of lawyers.

Travel books bill Tacheles as a final Berlin holdout against capitalism and the mainstream, helping the center draw over 300,000 visitors each year. Lonely Planet describes it as a place where “punk politics and squat aesthetics still rule." And it certainly looks -- and feels -- the part. The central stairwell smells of marijuana and urine. The structure is missing its back wall, and what remains of the building is covered in graffiti and peeling posters. But whatever their space may look like, the artists -- like other Berlin squatters -- are turning to mainstream tactics to save their building.

'People Love That Story'

The years after German reunification were squatters' paradise in Berlin. Counterculture was active in West Germany and squatting reached its apogee in a number of cities in the 1970s and 80s. When the Berlin Wall fell, thousands flooded out of East Berlin to look for jobs in the West, leaving behind empty buildings attractive to those unwilling or unable to pay rent. Attempts to clear out squats ended in clashes with police, cars ablaze, bottles aloft and all manner of urban warfare.

“People love that story,” said Reiter. “It has culture, violence, criminality.” But, he said, associating Tacheles with the tradition of leftist violence in Berlin is a "media invention."

Tacheles began life as a department store in 1906. The store later housed Nazi administrators and was bombed during World War II. East German officials never got around to fixing up or demolishing the building, and Reiter's group saved Tacheles from the wrecking ball by occupying it in 1990. There were never any barricades, never any police knocking on the door, said Reiter. Hopefully, he added, there never will be.

The squatters at Tacheles seem a little tired of squatter clichés. “I have long hair because my daughter loves it, not because I am a leftist,” Reiter said. “My 5-year-old always wins.”

Ludwig Eben, director of the music venue and bar Café Zapata on the ground floor of Tacheles, said visitors still ask him why the beer isn't free. Eben moved into Tacheles in 1990 and began managing Café Zapata the following year. He said artists, too, have always been mad about having to pay at Zapata. "They called us capitalist swine in the beginning," Eben laughed.

A blackboard outside the squat's restaurant advertises a lunch special of veal, potatoes and salad for €8.50 -- consistent with other restaurant prices along the touristy central Berlin strip. "People are surprised when it isn't a two euro bean stew," said Eben. The artists are making money, too, selling prints and postcards upstairs.

Reiter and Eben are no longer the close friends they were during early days at Tacheles. Zapata is technically a subtenant. "They haven't paid for gas or water for years," complains Reiter. As the Berlin press has delightedly reported, the two have been to court over a hundred times.

But the internal fight is "kiddie doo-doo" according to Eben, when it comes to protecting the Tacheles building. All those court dates may be good practice for the coming legal battle. If, indeed, it materializes at all.

The Investors are Coming

Squatter graffiti, an arrow zigzagging through a circle, is scrawled on buildings all over Berlin. Many, though, mark where squats used to be before police cleared them out. The last high-profile case was in 2005 when police stormed barricades at "Yorck 59," a political collective, and turned out 70 odd residents. The building has since become luxury lofts and residents have moved on to other squats -- a nightmare scenario for those at Tacheles.

But a more recent battle ended differently. When investors threatened the city's most famous far-left squat, Köpi , with eviction last spring the squatters turned to lawyers rather than barricades.

Köpi is the best place to find heirs to Berlin's militant left and anti-capitalist tradition, such as they are. "Attention, you are leaving the capitalist sector" reads a sign in the courtyard. Nearby, an effigy of the Statue of Liberty hangs from a noose. In the run up to their eviction date last March, the squatters hung signs threatening "It'll be a hot winter" and "Köpi remains a risky investment."

In the end, there were no clashes with the police. Köpi celebrated 18 rent-free years in March with a three-day festival of anarchist bands, makeshift fires in the courtyard and people sprawled sleeping all over the squat. The squatters charged a €5 cover charge to the party to help pay for legal fees. Beer also costs money in Köpi's bar. The question was how to institutionalize the squat, not how to radicalize society.

An enormous banner reading Köpi Bleibt ("Köpi stays") fluttered on Tacheles's facade while their fellow squatters faced eviction. Later that March, Köpi's lawyer reached a surprise settlement with the investors, who signed a contract allowing the squatters to occupy the building for 30 more years. Now Tacheles is using the same methods to try to hold onto their own building.

Fighting Eviction

Upstairs at the art squat, Reiter is leading an initiative called "Tacheles 2020" to turn the group into a limited company funded by a revamped Café Zapata and restaurant. He has gathered over 20,000 signatures so far. If Reiter gets his way, Tacheles will become a foundation eligible for tax breaks from the government.

Downstairs in a tiny office tucked behind the stage at Café Zapata, Eben is launching a legal battle against Fundus. "They are crooks, it's a scandal," Eben said, flipping through a notebook of photocopied bank statements that he obtained using Germany's freedom of information laws, which went into effect in 2006. Eben claims Fundus never had enough capital gathered to legally buy the Tacheles lot in the first place. The first court date is in early November, said Eben.

But there may be an easier resolution. Buildings are placed under receivership for a number of reasons, among the most common being bankruptcy.

Fundus Group's currently has no spokesperson and numerous requests for comment went unanswered. Cerna, Tacheles' PR person, said the squat has likewise had trouble communicating with Fundus -- and has not heard from the group in writing, by phone or by e-mail in more than a year. Tacheles gathers what information they can on Fundus -- usually in the form of lavish construction plans or bankruptcy rumors -- from local papers.

Before he left the company, Fundus's former spokesperson told German tabloid Bild that Tacheles was under forced management "not because of financial difficulties but rather open legal questions." Local court spokesperson Katrin-Elena Schönberg confirmed that Tacheles is under receivership, but said "the how and why has not yet been made public."

If, though, Fundus does have money problems and can't raise enough capital to build on the site and the receivership ends in a forced sale, the squatters will have to negotiate with whoever the buyer may be. Even if Fundus does not bow out, the fund still may face huge obstacles. And not just in the form of squatters.

“Who has the money to construct something huge here now?” said Reiter. “The financial crisis may be good for us.”

He doesn’t even have to be an anti-capitalist to benefit.

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