The rise in police crackdowns, criminalization, and deportations may spell the death of squatting in Berlin.
A.M. Glittlitz escaped Brooklyn for Berlin, and found not the leftist squat haven he’d imagined, but a city as burned out by displacement and financial strain as the one he’d left behind.
“Ruin Value” was Albert Speer’s design theory for the Third Reich. One of the many visionary artists drawn to the utopian Aryan ideal, Speer aimed to redesign unremarkable Berlin into Germania, a modern imperial capital that, like Rome, would retain its ideology even after its destruction.
It turned out the ruins came before the Reich. Like a post-modernist joke, orphans of the war used the rubble of fascism to build adventure playgrounds – improvised amusement parks – clean from the calculations of adult hands. Fifty years later, the Cold War kids gave the entire city center the adventure playground treatment, using the ideological fallout of unification as material. While politicians and art collectors scrambled to collect pieces of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of fallen borders to the global market, thousands of Berliners seized the massive apartment buildings of East Berlin that were now technically not owned by anyone. Along with squatted social centers, gardens, parks, bars, cafes, venues, and art galleries, thousands of units were now owned and operated by the residents, as if socialism triumphed by its own downfall.
Also with the destruction of the “anti-fascist barrier”, as GDR officials referred to the Wall, was a boom in neo-Nazism. Pogroms against Roma and Vietnamese immigrants occurred in Rostock almost immediately after unification, and Nazis opened squats in pace with leftists across the country. Berlin in particular became a focal point of what was becoming a three-way fight between the extreme left, right, and the State, and even this was recuperated into Berlin’s “poor but sexy” image that perversely recalled the economic and political chaos of the Weimar Republic.
The sexy have come in the tens of thousands, forcing those charming paupers to grapple with skyrocketing cost of living, evicted squats, and the specter of “Broken Windows”-style policing on the horizon. With little other employment opportunities, the drug trade turned into work for refugees, and Goerlitzer park became an acceptable place to deal openly. Clearly a part of some sort of long game, the police are slowly demonstrating control over the park, with occasional raids, bans on barbecuing and amplified music. Along the Spree, a couple of shanty towns mostly populated by immigrants are getting the same treatment. Portrayed as slums that should be shut down for public safety, liberals are warming up to relocating the campers to detention centers. Lifelong Berliners know what is coming soon: bans on camping in public, more deportations, and even the unthinkable: tighter enforcement of public consumption of alcohol and weed. Transplants from New York and London are paying the same prices they would in Bushwick and Hackney, and they need to feel at home.
It was either riot porn or Twitter’s Norwegian Air ads that sold me on the creative class’ dust-bowl migration to Prussia. Through a dozen snowstorms and unusually cold weather I dutifully brought Williamsburg yuppies bags of fried chicken to their dorm-hotels, all the while keeping in mind Al Burian’s definition of happiness as “a bike in Berlin”. With each death-defying delivery through the icy streets, I chipped away at the walls of my snow-globe.
By summer I saved enough to live in Berlin for the tourist visa-allotted three months. On a mailing list for leftists I quickly found a large and inexpensive room near Goerlitzer Banhof in Kreuzberg. It was a tense time at the Wohngemeinschaft (House Project, or WG)– several of the veteran residents were moving out over a political dispute regarding property relations and public space. A fresh-faced radical tourist needn’t be concerned about the hours-long plenums or ideological splits. There were passive-aggressive allusions, but I never bothered to ask.