The fight over Berlin’s Tacheles

July 19, 2011

Over the last decade Berlin has been changing more rapidly than most of its inhabitants can stomach. Because of its history, the brunt of gentrification that changes everything (from social fabric to architecture) has hit the German capital more than other cities around the world.

Before the Wall came down, Berlin used to be a mecca for bohemians, artists, left-wing idealists and military service dodgers, mostly from West Germany. The collapse of East Germany resulted in an abundance of neglected buildings available in East Berlin. Punks and artists flocked in and the city became Europe’s capital of squats. A maelstrom of unfettered subculture productivity ensued, bestowing the city with an aura of the urban cool that feeds into its reputation to the present day.

But the Berlin of the wild nineties is long gone. Most of the squatters have been evicted or their housing projects legalized. Some of those whom back then ran underground clubs are well-off nightlife entrepreneurs today. Ordinary people who shared their neighborhood with the artists have had to move away, because rents have gone up manifold. And the influx of bohemians from abroad has turned into a stampede of party tourists, turning the last subculture enclaves into playgrounds for reckless twenty-somethings.

The Tacheles art center mirrors the evolution of Berlin’s underground culture in many ways. It started as an art squat in a run-down eastern working class district and quickly became an international icon. But the fall of the Wall also meant that its neighborhood, the Mitte district, moved from the edge of East Berlin into the very center of the unified capital. Mitte became the focus of a real estate development boom and with it came the media types and those who could afford to live in Class A property. Amidst the fancy bars and boutiques that sprang up everywhere, the gritty, graffiti-adorned Tacheles building became a major tourist attraction.

How to handle such a situation? Fight it or go along with it? This question (and scores of internal issues) split the Tacheles community into two factions. But for many years a tenancy agreement with the developer allowed the two camps to live alongside each other, with the up-stairs group pursuing a non-profit approach to art and the downstairs group combining art and commerce.

But the tenancy agreement has since expired and the building is now up for sale. When someone offered the downstairs group one million euro if they left, they took the money and vacated their part of the property. A betrayal? “No”, they say. If someone gives them money to buy their own building where they can realize their ideas, then that suits them just fine.

The upstairs group says it will stay and fight what increasingly looks like a losing battle. The city is notoriously broke and will not be able to bail them out. And while Mayor Klaus Wowereit says he is generally in favor of fringe culture – he famously coined the phrase that “Berlin is poor but sexy” – he also stressed that not every piece of fallow land that was created as a result of World War II and Berlin’s division could be preserved forever. In the end it’s big money that decides the game, as it has for many alternative culture projects before Tacheles.

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