Architecture, Urban Space, City Research, Town Planning, Urban Development

Squatting from the Heart – Saving Hamburg’s Historic Gängeviertel

A civic initiative launched by people from all walks of life has saved a run-down historic quarter in the centre of Hamburg from demolition; the city had in fact already sold it to an investor. The real wrangling over the future of the area, however, is yet to come.

One of the most depressing places in Hamburg’s city centre is the children’s playground in the newly-built “Brahms-Quartier” development. A single swing dangles from a hefty steel bar in the shadow of nine-storey apartment blocks. There is no slide, no climbing frame and no sand pit – and the benches that surround the one available item of playground equipment are occupied mainly by workers from the nearby office towers who have come out for a smoke. The “Gängeviertel”, a district in which the houses are built very closely together and have narrow alleyways in between them, is just a stone’s throw away, and is separated from the highly-polished new buildings made of artificial stone, glass and wood only by Speckstrasse. Or, to be more precise, by what used to be Speckstrasse. The historic alleyway in which the house once stood where Johannes Brahms was born has become the entrance to an underground car park, through which high-end SUVs belonging to the Brahms-Quartier’s tenants purr on their way to their allotted spaces.

Come into the alleyways

Cleaning the courtyard; Copyright: Franziska HolzHardly anything could better illustrate the political conflict that has flared up since the summer of 2009, when the Gängeviertel in Hamburg was occupied, than the run-down historic brick buildings sitting cheek by jowl with the investor-financed architecture with the historicized name. On 22 August, some 200 activists moved into the twelve empty buildings; the last remains of the historic workers’ quarter that once stretched from the port right up to the new town. Ever since, they have brought the district to life with exhibitions, parties, concerts and discussion evenings – their slogan is “Komm in die Gänge” – a play on words meaning both “Come into the alleyways” and “Get things moving”. For many of the squatters, this is the first time they have taken part in a political action. In the media they are usually described as “Gängeviertel artists”, though freelance artists are just as much represented here as the nursing care therapist, the student, the graphic designer and the unemployed. Often, it is hard to pinpoint their identities: is the cook who stages club events in fact an artist or a restaurant employee? No matter how the activists earn a living, one thing is clear: they are fighting for the freedom to do what they feel is important in the Gängeviertel. They are making repairs, negotiating with politicians and making plans for how to organize the renovation of the quarter themselves – borne on a wave of public sympathy which encompasses everything from important left-wing figures in the cultural world such as the painter Daniel Richter and the film director Fatih Akin to the conservative Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. Thousands of Hamburgers are taking guided tours by “Komm in die Gänge” activitists and discovering just what a gem of a place the Gängeviertel is in the heart of a city centre that is largely dominated by glass facades, shopping malls and restaurant chains.

The miracle of Hamburg

One of the red dots near Kupferdiebehaus, the dots can be found at different places; Copyright: Franziska HolzThus the “Komm in die Gänge” movement has not only advanced to become the first occupation tolerated by the city for twenty years – in 2009 the squatters even succeeded in getting the Hamburg Senate to buy back the entire area from the previous owner Hanzevast Holding. The Dutch property fund company had been planning to build an apartment and office complex here in which no doubt just a handful of facade elements would have served as a reminder of the historic quarter. In revoking the contract of sale, the Hamburg Senate was essentially criticizing itself, as the financial authority had sold the Gängeviertel to the highest bidder back in 2002. The high purchase price had put great pressure on the land to yield sufficient returns, resulting in the first purchaser initially applying for permission to demolish the entire quarter and then selling it on to the Dutch company, which let the area fall into further disrepair. It was not until the “Komm in die Gänge” initiative was launched that the public became aware of what was being done to this slice of the “old Hamburg” – a city in which characters such as the famous water carrier Hans Hummel and the petite lemon seller “Zitronenjette” once lived. This made the squatters popular even amongst the middle classes – and suddenly no politician wanted to be responsible for selling off the historic quarter. As culture senator Karin von Welck put it at the end of August 2009, the initiative is “preaching to the converted”. All across Germany, in leading newspapers such as Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Berliner Zeitung, people were talking of the “miracle of Hamburg”.

The enthusiasm about the symbolic repurchase by the Senate, however, should not allow one to lose sight of the fact that the real wrangling over the future of the Gängeviertel is yet to come. Despite a marathon round of negotiations between the city and the squatters, the two sides have yet to reach any sort of agreement: city officials are not quite sure what the best course of action is, but tend to favour having the area developed by the Saga municipal housing association or a private investor and offering the “Komm in die Gänge” initiative partial use. The squatters, on the other hand, insist that they should be allowed to take over the entire quarter on the basis of a social financing model and to live there autonomously.

Political and social dimensions

The Schierspassage is an alleyway in the Gängeviertel. Copyright: Franziska HolzThe contrast between the two illustrates the political and social dimensions of the fight for the Gängeviertel. Politicians view the occupation as an attempt by artists and other creative types to gain access to cheap living space in a big city which the creative underclass can afford less and less. “Of course artists need space, and Hamburg must offer them this space”, explained culture senator von Welck in the Welt newspaper. Indeed, Hamburg has for years prided itself on being a “pulsating metropolis” for “artists from all walks of life” – picking up on the “creative cities” thesis put forward by US economist Richard Florida, who asserts that a lively sub-culture is a crucial advantage for a knowledge-based society. “Creative environments and open spaces” – the title of a recently published study conducted by the Hamburg Urban Development Authority – are desirable because they enhance the city and because they serve as a value-adding and potential-exploiting instrument of municipal policy. The idea is for them to be created on a top-down basis rather than being allowed to evolve naturally and unchecked. As the culture senator was at pains to point out to the Gängeviertel squatters in a television interview, “It is not your job to decide how real estate is managed”.

The question of a city in which it is worth living

The factory lies in the heart of the Gängeviertel. On the groundfloor the two biggest rooms can be used for events. Copyright: Franziska HolzThe “Komm in die Gänge” initiators themselves see things quite differently. Right from their very first press release, they explained that the goal of their project was “an autonomous, public and lively quarter used for a variety of cultural and social purposes” and joined forces with other Hamburg district initiatives which, during the course of the past year, have created the “Right to City” network. “In many respects, we are in much the same position as other workers who live in a precarious situation”, says Marion Walter, an artist and one of the very first Gängeviertel squatters. “Because I am a freelance artist and cannot provide proof of my income, it is very hard for me to get a flat on the open market.” What is more, the initiative sees its fight for the quarter as the legitimate appropriation of urban space, as a social investment. “We once made a conservative estimate of how much we have invested in the quarter in terms of labour and material”, says Walter. “We arrived at a figure of roughly one million euros.” At the same time, the squatters stress that it is “not about middle-class children appropriating private space, but about giving the public something back”, claims architect and Gängeviertel activist Heiko Donsbach, explaining that the only way to ensure that affordable living space and social facilities are made available is if the quarter is run autonomously by those that use it. And that is probably also the real achievement of “Komm in die Gänge”: that it has raised the social question and the question of a city in which it is worth living in such a way that it can no longer be ignored in Hamburg.
Christoph Twickel
is a journalist and author who lives in Hamburg. In 2003 he published a book about the history of popular culture in Hamburg entitled “Läden,  Schuppen, Kaschemmen. Eine Hamburger Popkulturgeschichte”; at the end of April 2010 his new book about gentrification and a city for everyone will appear, entitled “Gentrifidingsbums oder Eine Stadt für Alle”.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
March 2010

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