It is night, though people still stroll the streets. But I am tired and cold, so I go home.
I have not seen my housemate Frank and his girlfriend Susan for a few days. I hear them in mornings as they bathroom clinks and the wood floors groan as they prepare for work. But I am trying to stay up later and get up later and as a result I just stay in bed.
When I arrive, Susan comes to the entryway to greet me, dressed in her pajamas and her hair tied behind her head.
“How have you been? We haven’t spoken for a couple of days?
“I am fine, really having fun. Berlin is a fascinating city. I keep my self busy finding cafes to sit in and write, as well as exploring Berlin’s streets.”
“Really? Hum. I guess that is the good part of having people come from other places to stay. You can see the city differently through their eyes.”
“Oh I know there is so much to know and I am just scratching the surface, but I really enjoy what I am seeing. Berlin is good for me. How do you see it?
“Yeah. I guess. But it is also a city that is filled with tension.”
We talked some more about other things, but that word tension just hung in the air.
Of course, I had to pose questions of if there may not have been more than what she said directly. It can be hard to have someone different living in your space. You know the saying about guests and how they are best when they have left. Do you think somehow I am creating problems for them?
Frank has been really sick. His eyes were red with the flu and its fever when I arrived. He coughs and coughs, even at night. His coughs seem to awake him because his snoring stops for a while.
Susan is afraid of catching Frank’s flu. I know that, and I am sure that it is not easy to deal with a stranger in the house when you are not feeling well.
There could always be tension there, but Susan said tension in the city. Maybe I am just being silly.
I have not really seen the tension yet. I read on an English bulletin board about an Irish playwright who was stabbed while resisting street thieves in a wealthy neighborhood last year. I also read about someone getting on the subway and finding a still steaming dump. But tension? Those seem normal things of large cities.
My housemate and his girlfriend both work with Berlin’s unemployed. I need to ask them more about their work, but have wanted to balance interest with inquisitiveness. As an anthropologist I am used to asking too many questions for polite company. And so, maybe I have erred on the side of politeness. But I do not know. I know that social service work of that nature can show you the tense side of the city.
I have seen people begging on the street in the wealthier part of town near the tourist and shopping draw of Kurfürstendam. I have seen groups of heavily tattooed and pierced young men hanging out on the streets in poorer areas, drinking beer. I see the young men, and occasionally women, get on the trains to peddle their paper, like the homeless do in San Francisco.
Susan said there are homeless here too, people who live on the street.
She said that when I had said that in Brazil I had seen entire families living full time on the street and making their beds at night in the doorways of banks and other businesses. “We have the same thing in Berlin”, she said.
So I looked up the homeless rate and the unemployment rate for Berlin on the internet and did not find a clean figure. I did find that the rate of homelessness in Berlin, despite the welfare state, is about the same as in Los Angeles, however the barriers here to finding work and returning to a “productive” life are greater than in the US.
The homeless and even the unemployed are further stigmatized by prominent politicians as a willful and potentially dangerous blight on society, especially now that Berlin is the new national capital. One author even talks about punitive public policies that are a result of these politics.
In all that I found a history.
With the “Wende”, the change, as people here call the collapse of The Wall and the union of the two Germanys, many factories closed their doors. East Germany had been an economic powerhouse in the world of socialism. Its people had a relatively high standard of living and were exporters of quality German goods to the East Bloc and to other countries. However the Wende was not just here. The entire communist world collapsed. Almost overnight.
Suddenly, East German factories lost their markets. And when it unified with the West, the exchange rate was unfavorable for them. They could not compete on the terms established by monetary policy with Western companies and so they closed their doors.
People who were used to having state guaranteed jobs and living in solid, durable communities, suddenly found themselves with with no work. Unemployment in the early nineties far surpassed the levels of the Great Depression in the US. The Wende was a disaster on those terms.
The unemployment rate has declined but it is still far higher than that of the rest of Germany. For many people there are just no jobs. And yet Turks and other immigrants from the Mediterranean come to find work, and many do, though many locals can’t.
Besides the dark haired people from the south, many Slavs have poured east looking for jobs, and many Germans have moved from the West for the Berlin experience and because of opportunities for them here.
So yeah. There is tension, and I imagine it is tension Frank and Susan know first hand as they listen to and counsel with people who are chronically unemployed, maybe even homeless, who suffer the underbelly of capitalism. They know the on-going effect this has on people and their lives.
But I gather there is more.
Yesterday, while roaming in a light rain, and taking pictures on a path that just developed as I went, I came to a street called Zionskirchstraße. I took it because down it a ways I saw a church tower that looked interesting.
And it was interesting. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous anti-fascist theologian, had preached there, according to a plaque on the external wall of the Church. A service was in session and so I went in and stood in the back. An organist was playing some Bach, seated in front of the congregation that was as sparse as hands in a classroom when you ask for volunteers to do a class presentation.
At least there was a congregation. The inside of the church, however, had been gutted and there were signs on a table at the entryway begging for donations to restore the building.
From there I kept walking, taking Veteranenstraße and then a major street that crossed it whose name escapes me, so I’ll look it up. It is Brunnenstraße.
My attention was on the large park that occupied the corner, and the graffiti that filled any available space. Two graffiti devils cavorting on a wall behind some bushes drew my eyes. After taking their picture, I looked around, and saw a whole building with lots of graffiti and a sign on front that said “All Stay Here” in very large letters. It also had a sign saying “The State is still Gekraakt”--which I think means cracked open or broken (It is a Dutch word and probably a Platt word that is especially vivid and even meaningful in its English form we used to shout at each other on the playground near the border with Mexico, cracked). The banner on the house then claimed solidarity with the lowland German squatters’ movement.
This latter extends beyond Berlin and into Hamburg, according to what i found online.
I took pictures of the outside and of signs in a doorway. One in particular said in multicolored words. “We want to be able to live free. We want to be creative. without any Gewalt,” which I take to mean control. “If our last free space is taken, our last dream destroyed, if we can’t live in freedom and solidarity, then there will be nothing left to believe in. Don’t take our hope. Don’t destroy our dreams. The houses we live in, we all will never leave!”
The “all” had the A drawn with a circle around it in the Anarchist’s sign.”
I was reading a flyer posted to the side which said “Fight White Pride” when the door opened and two guys came out, a tense look in their face. I nodded at them and said hello. They looked at me sternly, and said firmly in English “No Photos!”. All I could say, was “OK”.
I had already taken my photos anyway. I really wanted to follow them and talk with them, but they did not want what they perceived me to be. So I kept walking down the street taking pictures of other things, but thinking about that experience.
I live near the place where the famous anarchist Joe Hill was shot, well I did before I put everything in storage to begin this trip. In Bolivia I have known many people who are part of the anarcho-syndicalist labor union movement, related to the famous wobblies in the US. I also know young returned missionaries in Utah who are fascinated with anarchism for religious reasons and are working on building an acephalous collective.
I felt, perhaps wrongly, that I could understand the two men’s suspicion and seeming rejection.
I turned a street called Rosenthaler following some interesting graffiti and found the oldest cemetery in Berlin. Above it, a building wore a powerful slogan in black and white. “ The Soldiers are Murderers” “and suggesting people f*** the police. On its front it had banner that read: in German “We are not buyable” and in English “Not for Sale.” The building was covered with fascinating graffiti.
Even though it was drizzling, a photographer with a big lens and a tripod was taking pictures of the building.
The one next to it was being remodeled, and most of the rest of the buildings of the street had already been remodeled.
Here was tension. A fight, a struggle, politics.
So I did some research on line, using the link to the Platdüütsch Squatters’ Movement.
I found out that before the Wende, Prenzlauer Berg had many abandoned buildings that had not been modernized. The East Germans had moved people to planned housing high-rises on the Eastern edges of the city, leaving this area somewhat abandoned. As a result, it had become occupied by artists and intellectuals who colonized these “vacant” urban spaces and made them vibrant. These groups were some of the main opponents to the wall pressuring against it and created some of the coolest spaces in East Berlin in a hotbed of creativity.
After the Wende, many Easterners left, leaving even more buildings vacant in P. Berg, as well as elsewhere. People who lost their jobs, and then places to live moved in and squatted. Then many Westerners who already had a movement squatting in other parts of Germany moved in. They came in part because of youthful exuberance for something contrary, in part politics, in part the struggle of young artists to find places they could afford, in part because of the shortage of housing, and finally because of police pressure in the West.
Berlin quickly became a center for squatters. Many of them formed collectives and began to manage the abandoned buildings, including modernizing their facilities and improving them.
However, then former property owners started trying to recover property and many to sell it. Developers moved in sensing an opportunity to make money in the cool and newness that was Berlin, so they came too. Property rights tended to win over occupancy, despite strong collective and popular mobilizations and conflict.
The Platt-D movement claims there is a Low German historical norm that abandoned land can be occupied by people who will use it. In this they are claiming something that movements of people without land claim in Bolivia and elsewhere. That is to say that despite private property rights land and housing should be used in socially productive ways.
Despite some successes in writing this idea into law, it generally has failed because of strong international and elite support for private property rights over almost every other claim.
As a result, over the last two decades most of the squatters’ colonies have been closed--often with force and sometimes violence. Only a small percentage now remain and they have their wagons circled to fight.
Since literally stumbling on this movement, I have seen maybe half a dozen squatters’ colonies, some near me. But squatters’ chic is widespread.
I did read about perhaps the most famous of the remaining collectives called Tacheles, which in Yiddish means something like “straight talk”. It is an artists collective occupying what remains of a bombed out building, remaining from the bombing raids of WW II, that was once a major department store, when such were the cutting edge of social progress. The East German government had left it a hulking ruin.
Now, decades later, it has been sold to developers. The collective is ready to fight. They have gotten international press attention, including from the New York Times and National Public radio, and they have made themselves into a tourist draw. People come to see what is left of the Berlin underground and its rebellious self.
As a result, Tacheles has political support. The hundreds of thousands of tourists and their dollars are far from insignificant.
I went there. I had to, after seeing other collectives and reading about Tacheles, not them. So I boarded the subway and got off at the Oranienburgerstraße stop. Tacheles is close to the gleaming and elegant Unter den Lindens Avenue, the capitalist star of what was East Berlin. Right by it the area is bedraggled and poor-looking, although near it redevelopment has struck. Tacheles is about a block from the beautiful, restored synagogue that was doubly destroyed, by the bombing and by the holocaust. Its gold dome shines in the sky nearby.
The residents, or members (?), of Tacheles have cleared out the rubbish and made galleries of what could be called post industrial waste art and graffiti influenced paintings in the open space that resulted. They also run a cafe, a radical movie theatre and so on.
They ask tourists to leave a suggested donation of one Euro for their visit, and of course hope they will buy something.
The feel of Tacheles, with its tourist draw and commercialization of the counterculture, although a useful tool in their struggle, gives them a very different feel than the first house I noticed, where I was sternly told not to take pictures.
In both cases, and in many others, the collectives have become not only residences but centers for political and artistic activity. Despite the decline in numbers, they keep the idea of the Berlin underground and its politics alive.
So, I think I begin to see some of what Susan means. Berlin is cool. Berlin has amazing new buildings and monuments to the reunified German state and to capitalism. It also still has its counterculture, its economic problems, and its radical politics, as well as lot of counter-chic. But it is tense.