I came to attend the RC21, the “Resourceful Cities” conference of urban sociologists at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin Mitte. My comrades in SqEK (the Squatting Europe Research Kollective) had invited us to attend, since a few of them were organizing sessions in the meeting. I'd like to give a rundown of that great conference, but... I am supposed to be writing this book, and organizing this and that, so – that will have to wait. Enough to say that squatting research, far from being a cul de sac, is blooming. That's not for ideological reasons – not mainly from interest/desire for/concern with the disappearing commons, lack of public space, yada yada. It's because the deprived people of the world's global cities, the service proletariat, are insisting that they be allowed to live in the cities where the work is. Since they can't pay the rent, they have to squat. In the millions. How do they do it? Sociologists need to know.
The papers at RC21 showed that the question of squatting is broadening out. It's been an under-researched broad scale popular movement for a long while now, and as this conference considered global cities and their changes, it became increasingly clear that squatting and land occupations are a shared phenomenon. And it's not just shantytowns in never-visited cities of the global south. It's favelas and chabolas on the doorsteps of cities throughout the “developed world,” as under-employed hopeless pissed off people throng the vacant spaces saying “hmmm” – or “illegal, Scheiss-egal,” as the German squatters say.
With the urban sociologists, I heard how “informal settlements” are being managed, with governments choosing to assist residents to improve their self-managed slums rather than bulldozing them and resettling folks in housing blocks. These new approaches connect directly to the social movements – the organized squatters – who have achieved electoral leverage through their increasing level of organization. The kinds of innovative initiatives being tried, partnerships between NGOs and governments, are ripe for use in the U.S.A.'s more benighted regions where the denial of homelessness and criminalizing measures have a firm hold.
SqEK had a meeting in Berlin a few years ago, and I fondly remembered the Regenbogen Fabrik (rainbow factory), which we had visited on a tour. This time I stayed in their hostel. It's swell: a courtyard of 19th century low-rise factory buildings, made over into a garden yard. Kids swarm in the kindergarten during weekdays. There's a free women's repair clinic run out of the bicycle shop which is always crowded. The RB Fabrik runs the hostel, of course, and a cafe. In the back the kitchen has breakfast for guests and a very popular blueplate lunch special for the neighborhood. Their other projects are a woodworking shop and a film screening room. We visited the latter, and instead of normal seating they have rows of old couches.
The hostel crowd was divided between the single rooms, which seemed to be mostly older German women and the multi-bed dorms, where I was. The dorm crowd was pretty normal hostel guests, hang-around drinkers, and so forth. But also some street musicians. One of these, Changa Mire, was from Zimbabwe. He told me of increasing repression of street musicians in Berlin, which explains why I didn't see hardly one around. Changa is an instrument builder. It is his ambition to build the world's biggest marimba. I tried to think of where they might want to do that...
Saturday saw a big street fair, just up the steet from the RF Fabrik. This was one of several in the Kreuzberg district, all on the same day. This one was marked by its strongly political character. The whole crowd seemed to be dressed in black in a weird punk throwback to the 1980s. It felt like an Autonomen party, and I was delighted to wander among them. I had lunch there at the “VoKu,” a Volks Kuchen run by a group of African immigrants – a vegetable stew with rice, lentils and a big glob of flavorful peanut sauce for a few Euros, a tremendous deal for more food than I could eat. I bought some tough t-shirts from the political tables.
I saw some friends from the conference at the street party, Armin who organized an excellent panel, and Martin who had hosted SqEKers in their house, the Rote Insel. A few of us also made a formal presentation outside the conference, at the New Yorck Bethanien. (I was continually interrupted by a drunken punk from Brooklyn, a subcultural version of the ugly American.) It was striking and a kind of reversal for me to be in a squat next door to an art space – the Kunsthaus at Bethanien, which is having a show of New York artists in mid-September. I had written a text addressing the art/squat split (although finally I didn't talk about that). It's a hard one... A former Kunsthaus Bethanien director at one point tried to get the New Yorck occupiers evicted, claiming they were “bad for culture.” (See “House Magic” #2.) The well known sociologist and gentrification specialist Andrej Holm told me at a party for RC21ers that Kunsthaus Tacheles was resented by the squat movement because they had made a deal with the city early on, and supported civic redevelopment initiatives like the Berlin bid for the Olympics. Only when they were on the point of eviction did they appeal to the movement for help.
"Artists are whores," I told him.
But not all artists are rank opportunists or neoliberal accomodationsts, prepared to fight squatters for public space. After months of emailing, I finally caught up with Jaime Idea. Jaime worked with Basekamp to edit the giant compendium of conversations with artists' collectives called “Plausible Art Worlds.” She's a multimedia artist, a former Flux Factory resident who came to the SqEK meeting in New York in 2012. She is shortly planning to participate in a show in London called “Made Possible by Squatting.” This is a play on the famous “white book of squatting” put out by the Dutch movement a few years ago in a failed bid to stop the criminalization statute from passing. The Dutch also put up signs in different cultural venues that had started as squats – there are dozens of them – to remind people what they could lose if the occupation of vacant speculative properties was curtailed. The London show is underground, clandestine, so... we'll see what goes. (A report has been promised here.) As her contribution, Jaime is working on an online add-on map of evicted squats in London, a useful geographic tool for demonstrating the long-term prevalence of the movement there.
We met Jaime and her friend Jordan from Brooklyn (isn't everybody now?) in the Bauwagen platz called Lohmuehlen along the Spree River. This is one of the last of the places travelers can park their house trailers, and part of it has been fitted out as an open air cafe with a bar and a big stage. Lohmuehlen does public events, concerts, screenings, exhibitions and the like as part of their engagement with the neighbors, to muster support for their staying there in the face of developers' pressures to get them off so that oh-so-important luxury housing can be built.
Like every Sunday, this was “tea and cake” day at Lohmuehlen, and we feasted on cheap desserts and talked on benches under the rare Berlin sun. Jordan told me his story of Surreal Estate, the famous New York City collective house which was twice targeted by NY police in collaboration with federal agents for the subversive activities there. The place was important for organizing media work around demonstrations, he said. The last time it was violently evicted – illegally; they just won a settlement – was during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations when Vlad Teichberg and his comrades were live-streaming the demos worldwide. For a government whose military gunned down journalists in Iraq – as Bradley/Chelsea Manning's leaked video shows – shutting down inconvenient truth-tellers stateside is all in a day's work. As a long-time lefty American, I can't say I'm surprised. But as a near-senior citizen, I can say I'm dismayed at how brazen the police state has grown.
After the sweets we climbed on our bikes and pedalled off, hoping to catch lunch at a vegan VoKu which was making pizza. (All these kinds of events at autonomous spaces are listed in the indispensable Berlin publication “Stress Faktor,” available at many lefty places. The VoKu was in a bar inside a courtyard, the ground floor of a building rented for a communal house project of the kind that motivated many past squats. The bar was dark, graffitied, and full of lounging vegan punks. They had a great infoshop table, and I bought a bunch of cool patches – a red rat with a match, another of a hand holding a match to the moon over a cityscape (what is being contemplated?), two in Spanish, and another: “Life is ecstatic intercourse between destruction and creation.”
Happily, despite the German government's determined hardcore repression of all new squats, the culture the movement generated persists, living off the deeply rooted naturist spirit of German youth. A character map of Kreuzberg I bought called “Kiezplan” features a sniffiing dog, a running cat, and a curious rat. The banner outside the Koepi read something like “We don't want your yuppie flats/ We are happy with our rats.” Equal partners in occupation? An eviction of the Koepi, the largest remaining public social center squat in Berlin, would mean open street war with the remnants of the squatting movement and young people from all over the region. That and the local politicians Kreuzberg has elected mean there is some chance they can continue their long-term ragtag occupation, and their partying ways. Since the cleanout of the accomodationist art squat Kunsthaus Tacheles late last year, Koepi is about all there is left. Ringed by Bauwagen encampments and strong fences, it would be tough to evict without a small army.
Still, very nearby the Koepi are now apartments with private elevators for tenants' luxury cars, an excess pioneered in NYC's Chelsea district, not long ago the stomping ground of meat market tranny streetwalkers. So.... we'll see.