Bah! Hamburg

This is a piece that came out in this month’s Ryanair Magazine. Steve took the shots. We spent a couple of quick days investigating the underground scene in Hamburg, Germany’s wealthiest capital. If I’m honest I don’t like this article so much, but it’s what happens when you set yourself ridiculous deadlines and then ridiculously try and meet ’em.

The real estate around Speckstrasse in downtown Hamburg is some of the most expensive concrete you can walk on in Europe. You share the footpaths with suits and business types running late for power lunches. Glass towers and polished metal rods reach up to the skies and give you the impression that you’ve just walked into a hall of mirrors. This is no place for any scruffy art student with anti-capitalist leanings. But something happened last summer and changed all that.

A group of artists and activists broke into 12 empty buildings and began to decorate and live in them. The squat is now called the Gängeviertel and occupies a patch of land worth millions. It’s what happens if you live in a city where the developers sit on run-down land waiting for prices to rise, and the citizens lose patience with them.

The squatters have been courteous and cooperative with city officials who, so far, instead of kicking them out have engaged them in meetings about the future development of the area. In effect, they made them the landlords. Marc Einsiedel, a 26-year-old who runs a screen-printing business was part of the first group of squatters.

“I have wi-fi but I don’t have a toilet yet,” he says. The buildings, as with all squats, were in a pretty bad state of disrepair when they first moved in. “I had to wire the whole system and all winter we just had portable heaters.”

Hamburg sits on the Elbe river, near the North Sea, and in winter the harbour freezes over and icebreakers have to cut paths for the cargo boats to land. If you want to squat a building in Hamburg, it’s important that you’re built of strong stuff. But if you ask Marc what the worst thing about squatting is, he’ll tell you it’s the meetings. They all gather regularly to discuss how to proceed with renovating the buildings and deal with city officials. “Meetings can go on until two in the morning,” he says. Democracy, done properly, takes a tediously long amount of time.

If the project works, the whole area will become an inner-city haven for artists, while the hostel – already up and running – will fit nicely into that rare group, along with prisons and park benches, of the strangest places you can spend a night. The Gängeviertel may sound like a project with its head in the clouds but it’s happening in a city full of precedent. The Rote Flora, across town in Schanzenviertel, has been an autonomous squat for more than 20 years. It was recently bought by a private investor, who claims he won’t change as much as a brick.

Hamburgers are headstrong and determined. They sent the Vikings, the Poles and the Danes packing. “Die Stadt gehört uns” (“the city belongs to us”) is a piece of graffiti you see very often, and in Hamburg there’s nothing throwaway or naive about it.

Rote Flora, an old theatre with space zoned for housing developments, was transformed into a park and operates as a political centre and venue for the Left. You can catch live music there most nights of the week, and the crowd are mostly punks. Hardcore punks. The McDonald’s that sprang up a block away had police protection for its first three months of operation and still got its windows smashed every other night. Hamburgers are famous for their confrontational personalities. It’s not a rough city, but you do hear people giving each other a piece of their mind on every other corner.

Bryan Leland, 35, hears it every night. He’s a PhD student who sleeps on the steps of the Rote Flora. He’s spent 15 long years working on a metaphysics paper, and now all he has to show for it is a beard and a family who gave him the choice: academia or us? He went with the metaphysics and has been about a month on the streets as a result.

“It is possible to live in Hamburg with no money,” he says. “It’s a very rich city but there is a strong community here taking care of each other.”

Bryan eats every night at places called “Volksküchen” (“people’s kitchens”). They’re basically impromptu restaurants in community centres where people pay as much as they can afford for their meal. In any other city, you’d call it a soup kitchen – but because it’s Hamburg these people’s kitchens are nice enough to date in. The Volksküche on Hafenstrasse is run by a different group every night. Students and youngsters, they arrive two hours before serving time, turn on some loud techno and start preparing mostly vegan dishes for whoever turns up. You’re asked to pay a suggested price of €2.50. Of course, if you don’t have any money this isn’t the kind of place to turn you away! A sign over the menu reads: “Eat the rich but drink with the poor.”

Maybe it’s easier to be anti-capitalist in a rich city where squatters are met with dialogue rather than truncheons, and a social welfare safety net exists to catch you. But Hamburgers have seen a lot of bad developments in their city, and that’s given them a healthy suspicion of money.

“An interesting fact about Hamburg,” says Karlo Kanibalo. “There were more buildings destroyed here after the war than during the war. The suburbs look like prisons now.” Karlo is an artist and gallery owner. Art Store, his shop on Wohlwillstrasse, sells only cheap art. Artists who want to exhibit are given a price scale that they have to stick to, and you can buy some for just €10. Previously, he had two shopping trolleys in the store. One for cheap art and the other for ultra-cheap art.

“Freedom is part of the old Hamburger spirit,” he says. “It’s even reflected in the street names.” It’s true. Grosse Freiheit and Kleine Freiheit (“Big Freedom” and “Little Freedom”) are two well-known streets in the city. Hamburgers have long been known for their entrepreneurial spirit. Fischkopp record shop on Grabenstrasse is staffed by volunteers, and all the profits go back into community development. Schanzenbuch bookshop is also run by a collective who meet to make decisions on the educational merit of a book before they stock it. And the Umsonstladen in Billstedt is an “exchange warehouse”, where people can offload unwanted furniture, clothes and bric-a-brac for free, and walk out with unwanted furniture, clothes and bric-a-brac for free!

Historically, Hamburg has always had a strain of the outsider about it. Like any city built around a harbour, it has greedily imbibed new influences and ideas as they arrive from the sea. Perhaps the thick atmosphere of freedom and possibility in the tree-lined streets has something to do with the city’s geography?

Spread over 155ha is HafenCity, the largest inner-city building development in all of Europe – its 21st century architecture expected to provide a workplace for 40,000 people. So far it’s squat free, but knowing the Hamburgers it’s only a matter of time before that’s changed.

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