Hamburg Gängeviertel Free Space for Art and Life

The Hamburg Gängeviertel
The Hamburg Gängeviertel | © Franziska Holz

In 2009 artists occupied an historic quarter of Hamburg, which was to give way to new buildings. They demanded that the historical substance of the neighbourhood should be preserved and a free space for creative people established in the heart of the city. A short history of the “right to live in the city”.

Where once historical street names like “Bäckerbreitergang” (i.e. Baker Broadway) and “Caffamacherreihe” (i.e. Coffee Maker Row) in the Hamburg Neustadt recalled the past, hard work and the narrow lanes, now the view initially ranges upwards. Office buildings tower umpteen stories high, glass reflects sunlight. And smaller, in-between, there are the twelve grey houses of the Gängeviertel (i.e. Quarter of Lanes). The last bastion of the historical workers’ quarter in Hamburg Neustadt was occupied in August 2009 by 200 artists. The city had sold the land with its vacant houses to a Dutch investor, who planned to pull most of them down. The artists, however, demanded the establishment of a free space for creative people in the centre of the city, with affordable studios and living quarters. After the idea received plenty of publicity, the city finally bought back the area and is now restoring it.

Revive the city through free spaces

“The symbolic value of the project is indescribably great at a time when even children learn that everything is under marketing pressure”, says photo artist Carsten Rabe. As in many other cities, the credo of urban planning in Hamburg was for years “The highest bidder gets the contract”. And so the city centre became an anonymous space of office buildings and flats, available only to a certain wealthy clientele.

“If you wanted to have a quiet evening in Hamburg, you went to the city centre after nine pm,” says Rabe of the once dead scene. Now 200 street art and conceptual artists, photographers, sculptors and painters live here. For Rabe it was important to combine living and work in the city centre, to revive the city through the project. He has a room in the “Kupferdiebehaus” (i.e. Copper Thieves House), the only already completely restored building in the neighbourhood. It offers living and studio spaces for about thirty artists. The wooden floors smell fresh, the walls are white and smooth. The majority of the artists, however, still live in provisional, patched-up buildings with coal stoves. The restoration of the entire Gängeviertel will last another ten years and cost probably 20 million euros. There will be seventy-nine social housing units and twenty-one commercial units.

Negotiating the future of urban living together

Though initially derided by the public, the artists struck a nerve. Their demand for a “right to live in the city” and the preservation of historic buildings was joined by 150 Hamburg architects. Countless television stations and newspapers reported from the small neighbourhood, which formed the last remnant of the narrowly built workers’ quarter with the eponymous narrow lanes between the houses. The houses, which still stood vacant only a few years ago, today offer “an open structure for all citizens”, says Christine Ebeling, press spokeswoman for the Gängeviertel. There are exhibitions, concerts, cafés run by volunteers. The graffiti, sculptures and Gründerzeit façades awaken the curiosity of passers-by, who now come here from all over the world. “We’ve also been everywhere, from Canada to Korea”, says Ebeling, who keeps in touch with similar projects around the world. The great international interest in the Gängeviertel and its cooperative shows that many people are in consensus as to how urban living and working should look in future. The project is no pipe dream, says Ebeling; it is about setting up a practical counter-proposal to the urban policy of the 1960s and 70s, which preached the ideal of satellite towns and commuting.

No chance without public funding

Ebeling is therefore also in constant exchange with the city, which, as building contractor, works together with the artists initiative in all phases of the project. This form of civic participation is not without friction. In early 2015 there was a planning stop because the initiative demanded that tenants should be contractually obliged to take part in the Gängeviertel Cooperative. This sort of clause is hardly feasible in legal terms for publicly subsidized flats. The conflict with the city will also make up a large part of the work in future, especially with respect to further funding of the Gängeviertel. “We won’t be able to finance it only through rents and events”, says Ebeling. A building described as a “factory”, which is to be converted into a cultural centre, would cause an annual financial promotion of 240,000 euros. In the absence of any financial promotion, the mainly volunteer-run project will hardly be able to make ends meet. “In future we’ll have to fight against those voices that say: The city has already given you 20 million – how much more do you want?”

The photo artist Rabe sees the Gängeviertel project as a temporary phenomenon, whose spirit can radiate into future generations. Rabe, who lives in the Westwerk in Hamburg, an apartment building rented by an artists collective in 1985, says: “One day the Gängeviertel will also have established itself, its residents grown older and started families”. Then, he says, the next generation must open new spaces, create new concepts, so that free spaces are preserved in the city in which artists and citizens can develop and the new can emerge. For without these spaces, the city dies from the inside out.