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.
I quickly learned to tell the floors apart by the posters on the wall. Second floor, the intersquat festival, third, an anti-G20 convergence in Hamburg, fourth, a miniscule German communist party. The kitchen displayed a photo of the home’s original squatters at a crowded and tense meeting in the same room at least 30 years prior. A similar photo in the next room showed a street scene taken from the roof of overturned cars and the charred remains of recent fires on the cobblestones.
During the Cold War, Berlin was an international island in the middle of East Germany. The area belonging to the West was walled-off to prevent defection and sabotage. Kreuzberg was a chunk of West Berlin that jutted into the East. The West offered incentives for those that would live in the perilous East, which would be the first target for invasion in the case of World War III. The main takers were Turkish immigrants, and leftists – because living in West Berlin meant no compulsory military service. The Autonomists, communists, and anarchists who inhabited the neighborhood squatted dozens of buildings and fought to keep them. In the end, only those who cut deals with the State held on. My new home was one of these.
Squatting is nearly dead in Berlin. The police have become experts, and evictions usually take less than a month. The previous year, however, a school on Ohlauer Strasse was occupied by about 150 refugees fed up with living conditions at a nearby Occupy-style protest camp. The Green Party-controlled district tolerated it for some time, but dismal conditions in the squat and rumors of violence were enough to make them cave to the city’s demands to evict. The police closed the surrounding streets to prevent activists from seizing the building in solidarity, and for the next week the city government debated how to evict. The main logistical issue was the threat of suicide from some refugees who moved to the roof once police entered the yard. They would rather die than go to a detention center, they said, and they would jump if cops entered the building or set up anti-suicide nets.
For over a week, rumors of an approaching eviction occurred on a daily basis, leading to exhausting low-energy conflicts between a few hundred activists and a massive police presence. On July 1, police used pain compliance tactics to clear their blockades. As they dragged skinny activists to the sidewalk, the crowd chanted “Where were you in Rostock?” and other less sophisticated insults at the riot squad, who in their green monster padding and thick gloves weren’t penetrable by much else.
The barricades were cleared later that week after the city came to an agreement to remodel the building while the refugees remained on the third floor. Private security replaced the police at the gates of the occupied school, and the activists left the street. Time would prove the agreement was merely symbolic, and the school was totally evicted that fall.
The sham agreement was enough to get the radicals off the streets. With Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in full swing, the German Left fell back into its long-standing stalemate on the topic of Zionism and antisemitism. The streets of Kreuzberg were now clear once again for ex-pats like myself to wander the cobblestones at night and swig beer by the canal. One night I tried to befriend a swan in the Paul Lincke canal by pretending to throw it crumbs. She swam up to the edge looking at me expectantly, but I had nothing to offer other than an apology for calling without reason.
My new housemates were all at least 10 years older than me and had watched the neighborhood change. They were warm towards me, seemed to enjoy my cooking and some were happy to switch to English when I was around. An ally of the squatter, antifascist, and No Borders causes that preoccupied the residents, I nonetheless gleaned a hint of resentment towards my English-language contributions to political discussions in German, or in the mandatory eye-contact when clinking drinks.
Why had I put my life on hold to experiment with burning out? My low budget was supplemented by returning red bulls cans and picking through free-boxes. During the day I read crumbling English-language pulp in parks. At night there was always a selection of film screenings, community dinners, solipartys, and punk shows. A month into the stint I made some friends, or more accurately, attached myself to a few other expat circles that I could individually visit once a week to avoid the despair of having no social life. The other half of the time I was content to continue my daytime activity of sitting on the curb of Oranienstrasse and watching the beautiful people dance and the businessmen hustle from place to place. Breathing in the solipsistic atmosphere, breathing out miserable leftist metaphysics, I easily dissolved into this cosmopolitan New World Order.
In my last week before my visa expired, I made a list of all the Berlin sites I had not yet seen, and tried to cross-off one each day. Sachsenhausen, Hohenschönhausen, Tempelhof, the Topography of Terror. I was chased out of the abandoned socialist amusement park Spreewald by a security guard, and watched pale club-lifers dance to Gabber in the rare light of day during the Fuck Parade.
I found a far greater tour of dying Berlin by working on the crew of the reshoots of an indie film directed by a friend of a friend of a friend. They were only paying 50 euros for 4 days, but the premise had me hooked. The film seemed to be a semi-autobiographical story of a relationship the director had with a Russian refugee with cameos of Peaches, Nina Hagen, and Blixa Bergold, all set in the eroding and erotic semiotics of Berlin’s socialist and fascist architecture.
The first shoot was 9:00 am outside Berghain, a world-famous queer techno club located in an abandoned train station behind a strip mall. We bribed club goers, many of them who had been inside for the entire weekend, with 20 euros and some sandwiches to walk past an actress puking against a fence. After we got a small crew together, managers of the club came out irate that we would film people leaving the hedonistic club. Many of the patrons lived double lives, I gathered from his spiel. We got what we could of the shot as a few dozen people heckled us from a window on the club’s third floor.
The next shot was supposed to be in the courtyard of Berlin’s famous punk squat Kopi. I have no idea how or if they got permission to shoot there, but when we got there the door was shut due to police activity. Across Koepenickerstrasse, a small homeless encampment on the Spree was being removed by police. Skeptical of the political sincerity of the production staff, I channelled what I thought one of the films characters might say: “Fuck the cops!” Shortly after I was excused for the day.
The next scene was at Boxenhager Park, a park in the most beautiful part of Friedrichshain. The autumnal tree-lined streets recalled the most romantic aspects of Central Park in New York City, with the motley-crew hobo atmosphere only available in Berlin. The Boxi-population of Sterni-pickled punks, techno wingnuts, African immigrants, teenage runaways, East Berliners drunk since before unification could sniff our contempt as soon as we came around with clearance forms and 20 euro bills. Some were enthusiastic for the cash, but others resisted and initiated a low-intensity campaign of sabotage against us. It took a dozen takes and mounting payouts to get the thirty second shot of a woman shaking her head and muttering some ostalgia (East German nostalgia) while picking a Club-Mate bottle from the trash.
More heckles the next night at Kottbusser Tor, Kreuzberg’s famous nexus of hipsters, immigrants, refugees, tourists, and junkies. We blocked one of the narrow alleyways to shoot Blixa’s cameo. In the scene, he walks past a poster for the protagonist’s book about the Berlin underground with two fashionistas on his arm, and sneers something to the effect of, “Wait – I know this guy. He’s came here and tried to sell everything we’ve fought for…”
Bergold was like a mascot of the Berlin’s 80s new wave underground in his three piece suit and bizarre haircut, somewhere between a well styled banker’s cut with two fang-like bangs above each ear. Accompanied by an assistant with a Neubauten-branded messenger bag, he approached me and said something in colloquial German.
“My mistake, you really blend in here.” he said once he recognized I didn’t understand. Although he may have implied I looked like part of Kotti’s junkie population, the remark justified the whole summer scheme.
By the last day of filming the crew was becoming mutinous. Among schemes to get a piece of what had been revealed to be a rather large production budget, we talked about the film itself. The make-up intern had worked on the film since the beginning, and actually saw the script. “It looks rough,” she said, “like no one proofread it.”
The film’s trailer, at least, had all the elements of a great Berlin love story. Two ex-pats meet at a dance club, and we watch their romance unfold among countercultural institutions of underground Berlin, where the oppressive past of checkpoints and street battles dissolves in acidic queer sweat.
One of our shoots was at Ficken3000, one of the seediest of many sex clubs. A vanload from Schoenberg of Romanian Hustlers, all dressed in a matching white baseball cap and Adidas track-suit uniform came around noon. They chugged Becks and vodka, smoked hundreds of cigarettes, and hit on the female crewmembers between takes. I assumed the shot was a back-drop for the film’s leading couple, whose love transcends this decadent swinging scene. Homosexuality was once so threatening that conservatives feared it would ruin patriarchal society, but now it fits in so neatly a gay sex club is just another banal establishing shot.
My task for the rest of the evening was to reserve a parking spot on Oranienstrasse. Instead I used the deposits from the water bottles the hustlers left behind on a couple Flensburgers and went home for nap. I went to the spot 20 minutes before they showed up, all totally high and exhausted. They shot the last scene, an external of Rosa’s. After wrapping the production staff handed the production assistants their 50s. I asked for 20 more, but she refused. “Everyone asks for more. The fact is we aren’t paying you. This is a stipend for an internship.”
“You can’t spare 20 more? I worked nearly 40 hours, and was an extra in two scenes. You were paying random extras 20 a piece.”
“I don’t have to pay you anything. After all you’ve been drinking on set.” At last the production’s contempt for interns was made perfectly clear. I took the 50 and walked.
An hour later, I noticed missed calls, two texts, and email from the production director. A Walkie Talkie was missing, and I had caught the blame. “We have your information,” a text said, “if you don’t return it we will have to go to the police.”
I walked to the afterparty at Rosa’s. The production staff were smoking a joint outside. The director apologized to me profusely, admitting her mistake, and offered me a hit. I walked off again, only then realizing she hadn’t asked for the rest of the petty cash, about 30 euros.
I didn’t return the money, although I knew they would figure it out. Two days later I sent an email explaining my actions, but they never responded, and probably didn’t care. After all, we were all petty criminals trying to make off with some chunks of Berlin rubble.