Gentrification in Berlin shutters a bombed-out building where artists had squatted since the Wall came down
By Bruce Falconer
December 7, 2012
On a bright Saturday afternoon, a small crowd gathered along Oranienburger Strasse, a stylish, café-lined street that runs through Mitte, Berlin’s historic central district. A makeshift soundstage on the back of a flatbed truck was parked in the shadow of a hulking, five-story building, its façade blackened with grime and slathered with graffiti. Strings of petitions drooped to the street from top-floor windows, billowing past a banner asking, “Where Shall We Go Now?” Come Tuesday morning, the several dozen avant-garde street artists of Kunsthaus Tacheles, some of whom had been squatting in the building for more than two decades, were finally to be forced out. In the dim hope that their eviction might be delayed, as it had been so many times already, the artists had organized the early-September demonstration—half angry rant, half street party—to appeal for public support.
Tacheles was born in the anarchical early days after the Wall came down in 1989, when East German police lacked authority but their West German counterparts had yet to assert theirs. Drug dealers and prostitutes patrolled the streets. Here and in other inner-city districts in the former East Berlin, squatters occupied scores of abandoned sites—including, in February 1990, the pre–World War I building that would come to be called Tacheles. Its first inhabitants were the members of an East German free-jazz band, which lent its name (Tacheles is Yiddish for straight talk) to the community that formed around it. Musicians, artists, radicals, addicts, and dropouts from both sides of the Wall quickly took up residence and set about creating a counterculture utopia inside the power vacuum.
Tacheles encapsulated the euphoria of the new age and symbolized “the emergence of Berlin from its long years of darkness,” a reporter wrote in The Guardian (UK) after visiting the ruin in 1992. In time, as the city awoke from its Cold War slumber and reinvented itself as a modern European capital, Tacheles lost its edge, becoming a kitschy anachronism known more for its success as a tourist trap than for its art. Still, the impending eviction of the artists and the auction of their crumbling gallery to private investors would come as a loss for Berlin—one more piece of its past spiffed up and resold as the city sheds its bohemian image.
I had first learned of the Tacheles protest earlier that week, while walking in a park once known as the “death strip”—a patch of sandy dirt on the Berlin Wall’s eastern approach, where East German border guards had shot to kill. These days it’s a grassy memorial crowded with tourists and, on the day I was there, littered with postcard-size invitations to Saturday’s demonstration.
A few days later, at Tacheles, techno music reverberated off nearby buildings, interrupted by rabble-rousing speeches and inscrutable performance art. Two men in black monastic robes—one wearing a crown of thorns, the other a metal helmet, both carrying bamboo tiki torches—solemnly assembled an installation made of what appeared to be garbage. In front of the stage, a shirtless man in a frizzy black wig and a grass skirt recited a prose poem attacking politicians and bankers, the bogeymen of many Tacheles artists. But if the artists were angry, they were also resigned. Despite efforts to promote it, the demonstration was sparsely attended, the street’s emptiness evidence of a city that had already moved on. Even as the rally continued, several artists left the building carrying boxes of their belongings.
“The last four years were a constant fight to keep this house,” Tacheles curator Barbara Fragogna explained, straining to be heard over the music. “It took a lot of energy, and now it’s at a point where we are very tired.”
The building Tacheles occupied bears the scars of Berlin’s passage through the 20th century. Completed in 1908, it opened as an upscale shopping arcade that quickly went bankrupt. The structure stood empty after World War I, eventually passing to the Nazis, who used it as an SS administrative office and a torture and detention center for prisoners of war. By 1945, bombing and artillery fire had left much of it in ruins—so much so that East Berlin’s city planners scheduled it for demolition. By the time the Wall came down, parts of the building had already been reduced to rubble and hauled away, but a large section of it remained. It was there, in the ruins of a ruin, that the first members of Tacheles established themselves.
Tacheles flourished, drawing artists from around the world whose studios and exhibits were open around the clock. The artists formed cooperatives that organized parties, concerts, and theatrical productions, showed independent films, and operated a bohemian bar called Café Zapata. Behind the building, a popular beer garden shared a vacant lot with a sculpture workshop. Visitors wanting to participate in the creative frenzy were encouraged to paint graffiti on the walls and to interact with the artists in their studios. “It’s beautiful to actually be in the space, present with the artists as they do their work,” said Liam Melaluka, an Australian filmmaker who is making a documentary about Tacheles. “I think that’s quite appealing to the tourists.”
Indeed, in spite of itself, Tacheles grew into a tourist attraction, drawing 400,000 visitors a year and helping to fuel investment up and down Oranienburger Strasse. Cafés, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs—some borrowing the Tacheles name—opened by the dozen to capitalize on the growing foot traffic. In 1998, a German firm called the Fundus Group purchased the mostly empty 272,000-square-foot midblock lot on which Tacheles stands. According to Der Spiegel, the investors planned to redevelop Tacheles as apartments and erect five new buildings, including a luxury hotel, on the site. But the artists refused to move. Fearing a repeat of the violence that had accompanied other recent evictions, Fundus backed down, granting the occupants a 10-year lease at a token rate.
Tacheles had bought itself some time, but the antagonism the artists felt toward the changing city around them deepened their sense of isolation—and soon enough, the absurd nature of their art collided with real life. “Janine F.” was the name in police reports for a 24-year-old woman who kept a studio in Tacheles. One night in November 2002, having worked all day on a series of cardboard sculptures for an upcoming exhibit, she confessed to several other artists that she was planning to kill herself. Someone reached for a video camera and filmed her as she discussed her own death. The next morning at Tacheles, she threw herself from a top-floor window, striking a garbage truck on the way down, and landing among a group of tourists. They gathered around her body taking pictures. For a while, no one called an ambulance, believing the suicide to be an elaborate piece of performance art.
The artists’ lease expired in January 2008, but by then the investors had run out of money and the building went into receivership. A consortium of banks, led by Hamburg-based HSH Nordbank, planned to auction Tacheles and the land surrounding it, valued at upwards of $90 million. Again the artists refused to budge and initiated a prolonged legal battle that played out in the local media.
Leading the charge for Tacheles was a combative character named Martin Reiter, an industrial artist from Austria who had been with the group since 1993 and who for almost a decade was its nominal leader. The onetime punk rock guitarist became the face of the resistance—a role well suited to his personality. Reiter had achieved early notoriety at Tacheles for constructing “the Uncontrollable Robot,” an 800-pound monster assembled from stolen factory equipment and designed to hop down the street, pulverizing the pavement as it went. A lanky man with long, stringy gray hair and crooked yellow teeth, Reiter railed in the press against the banks that threatened Tacheles’s survival. Bankers were conducting a “real estate war against mankind,” he told one reporter, and were committing “art theft under police protection,” he said to another. Rhetoric like this, delivered with proletarian fervor, found many sympathetic ears—even among Berliners who cared little about Tacheles. The art squat’s battle with the banks restored at least some of its cultural relevance. But where it had once symbolized the hope and excitement inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tacheles now stood for the desperation many people felt as they were priced out of their own neighborhoods.
Nothing excites Berliners quite like gentrification. The city remains one of the most affordable in Western Europe, but as rents have soared, incomes have not kept up. In some neighborhoods of the former East Berlin, entire populations have been displaced. In the most extreme case, four out of five people who lived in the district of Prenzlauer Berg when the Wall came down have since moved away, according to Andrej Holm, a sociologist at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
Into the breach have poured tens of thousands of transplants from more affluent regions of Germany and from abroad, living on block after block of renovated apartment buildings. Meanwhile, Berlin’s transformation has fueled a tourism explosion. The city now books more hotel rooms than any other in Europe, after London and Paris, and nine new hotels are scheduled to open in 2013. Tourists also rent apartments short-term at inflated rates, driving prices up. “Berlin is regaining the status of a world city,” Burkhardt Kieker, director of the tourism agency VisitBerlin, recently told the Reuters news agency. “The average Berliner is honored by the tourists.”
But many others are not. Berlin is a city of renters, and as monthly payments have risen, so has resentment among its longtime residents—sometimes extending to outright xenophobia. In December 2010, for example, a Berlin-based radical magazine called Interim implored its readers to steal wallets and cell phones from tourists and to attack their hotels and tour buses. Meanwhile, antigentrification vigilantes have been blamed for torching hundreds of luxury cars parked in trendy neighborhoods.
Acts of violence and vandalism remain the exception, but the sentiment behind them is widely felt. Where I lived last summer, in the working-class district of Neukölln, ground zero in the gentrification fight, English is spoken almost as much as German—a reality grudgingly accepted by locals. Signs and lampposts bore stickers emblazoned with the phrase, “Berlin doesn’t love you.” And on the façade of the apartment building across the street from my own, someone had written in red spray paint, “Fuck yuppies.”
Still, rising hostility aside, the foreign invasion has continued unabated. Since 2007, the annual growth of property values in Berlin’s older downtown districts has reached 15 percent—with most sales going to buyers from abroad. Mitte and other neighborhoods in the former East Berlin are in particularly high demand. The reason is simple, said one real estate agent quoted in The New York Times: “It’s where the artists are.”
But, of course, at the current rate of gentrification the artists won’t be there much longer—at least not on Oranienburger Strasse. At Saturday’s street demonstration, I met a keen witness to Tacheles’s end days named Petrov Ahner, the group’s semiofficial photographer. The building had already been closed to the public for more than a month, ostensibly for code violations, but Ahner smuggled me inside for a look around.
We ascended Tacheles’s winding staircase past two decades of graffiti that covered every surface like counterculture wallpaper. The electricity had been shut off by court order earlier in the summer, as had water service more than a year before that. In response, the artists had set up generators and improvised a rooftop system to collect rainwater. But by now the futility of their efforts was obvious: sunlight illuminated the stairs, but the hallways beyond were pitch black and led to studio spaces that were empty but for the sharp odor of urine—left, as if marking their territory, by the private security contractors who’d already taken over much of the building, Ahner told me, though others said the artists themselves were to blame.
Over the preceding year, the banks had laid siege to Tacheles, claiming the building one section at a time. It began in April 2011, when the owners of several street-level businesses, including Café Zapata, agreed to close down in exchange for a payment of more than $1.25 million. The security contractors, acting as the banks’ hired muscle, quickly occupied the space and began plotting further conquests. In the months that followed, the contractors steadily expanded their area of control.
We looked out a fourth-floor window down to the sculpture workshop. Metal fencing penned it in, snaking through the overgrown lot behind Tacheles, demarcating territory the banks had conquered. Up on the fifth floor was the former studio of Belarusian painter Alexandr Rodin. One morning last December, contractors stormed his studio, threw Rodin out, and locked themselves in. Three months later, when the artists temporarily regained access to the area by order of the court, they found Rodin’s paintings shredded and his sketchbooks soaked in urine. Why target Rodin, I wondered. “Because he’s the most famous one,” Ahner said. “They wanted to scare us. If they can do it to Alexandr Rodin, they can do it to anyone.”
Returning downstairs, we stopped to take in the only remaining art installation in Tacheles: a papier-mâché effigy of a banker wearing a business suit covered in blood. Ahner said it was left over from an earlier street demonstration, one of the many that had preceded that day’s—all of them, it now appeared, to no avail.
The following Tuesday, barring a miracle no one believed would come, Tacheles prepared to close its doors for good. I arrived just after 7 A.M., having been invited to a kind of Last Supper. Small groups of people huddled in the early morning chill, sipping coffee, chatting quietly. The sun was just rising and the eviction still an hour away, but already police paddy wagons were circling the block. A woman with a worried look watched one of them drive past, then turned to me and said in English, “I don’t know why they keep doing that.” She stamped out her cigarette and fumbled to light another with trembling fingers.
In the early 1990s, during the zenith of Berlin’s squatter scene, evictions often involved running street battles between protesters and riot police. Today, violence flares less often, but no less brightly—and both sides remain ready for the worst. In November 2009, the police department sent 600 officers to evict 21 people from a house in Mitte. More recently, in February 2011, a riot broke out in the neighboring district of Friedrichshain after police forced their way into a derelict apartment building. They found just nine squatters barricaded inside, but on the streets below, thousands of angry protesters ransacked the neighborhood, breaking windows and hurling Molotov cocktails. More than 80 people were arrested and 60 police officers injured in the clash.
But if police feared today’s Tacheles eviction might turn violent, they need not have worried. Only a few dozen people showed up, as many reporters as protesters, their mood somber. A man in an ill-fitting suit plunked out mournful notes on a baby grand piano that had been wheeled onto the sidewalk. The two monks in black robes I’d first seen at Saturday’s protest paced back and forth with their tiki torches, continuing their sidewalk vigil. For one woman who’d been standing there quietly, the tension proved too much. She pierced the silence with the blow of a whistle and let loose a series of shrill screams as she slowly walked past, swarmed by photographers.
Martin Reiter sat on a lawn chair nearby, giving interviews. “Fucked-up bank managers robbing a big art piece—nothing new in history,” I heard him tell a reporter. The new owners would no doubt keep the Tacheles name, he said, but it would be like replacing the Mona Lisa with a forgery.
Bruce Falconer is the senior editor of The American Scholar.