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Empty buildings

June 21, 2010

In former squat-heaven Berlin, the last one closes after a dramatic battle. The city's urban make-up is changing, and now a legal alternative to squatting is gaining ground in a city with lots of empty buildings.

Brunnenstrasse 183 in Berlin
The house on Berlin's Brunnenstrasse was the city's last real squatImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The bombed-out looking building with no windows looms over a main street in Berlin's hip, quickly gentrifying Mitte district. The five-story facade bears a mural of a ghoulish character in the jaws of a monster, and reads, "All of us are staying." But the building has been empty for months.

This is the scene of Berlin's last open squat and a sign of the times for the squatting community. The 1990's were a heyday of squatting in post-Reunification Germany: lots of empty buildings, some with no official owners for decades, and not much pressure from real estate firms or police to clear out. But with new demands coming from the housing market and local government, squats are dying out and, out of the rubble of the Berlin squat scene, a legal variation is gaining support.

Grunge neighborhoods turn marketable

Markus Miessen knows this neighborhood well; the architect co-wrote a book about Berlin's vacant areas. Smoking outside a small street corner cafe on a cold morning, cappuccino in hand, Miessen said, "A building, preferably, should be inhabited, but it is equally unproductive to evoke open fights." And this fight has been burning for years.

Police raid at Brunnenstrasse 183 in Berlin
Police evacuated Brunnenstrasse 183 last fallImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Seeing signs of gentrification in early 2000, many squats became legitimate by reporting themselves to the state and being granted a special allowance to property usage. "There's just a different demand," Miessen said. In the 1990's, "there were all these empty spaces. And now, for the popular areas, people are willing to pay the price."

Instead of going under, many squats are meeting the state in the middle, turning themselves into what are called house projects - essentially, legitimate squats with contracts and rents of 100 to 300 euros (about $120 to $370).

All except one.

One last showdown for squatters

The house on Brunnenstrasse 183 - a squat since 1992 - was the last rent-free squat in Berlin. The five-story building was the epitome of what some urban sociologists call "life in leftover spaces." Residents disposed of their own trash, received donated food, heated the building with scrap wood and paid for other charges with money donated at their street-level bar and shop.

It took the Berlin police more than six months after the official eviction date to clear the house out. It culminated in a face-off that lasted several days and involved police helicopters circling over the neighborhood at night, rallies during the day, and alarming photos in the local papers showing anarchists on the rooftop waving flares.

During the raid, a couple hundred people from the neighborhood demonstrated outside. One man in the crowd told local media, "This is gentrification - live."

In an ironic twist, the man who had bought Brunnenstrasse 183 in 2006 and is ultimately responsible for clearing the squatters out is Manfred Kronawitter, whose son, Michael Kronawitter, is a leader in the anti-Fascism movement in Germany. It was Antifa flags which were waved on the rooftop of the squat during the forced evacuation in January.

'Complacency within the scene'

Dominik Brotherton, a 21-year-old who had lived at Brunnenstrasse 183, has been on the streets since the squat was closed. He collects bottle deposit money, plays music on the streets and occasionally writes arts and culture reviews.

Brotherton said he had moved into the house on Brunnenstrasse, billed by tabloids as a "leftist terror-nest," because it was "the only open place in Berlin where you didn't need a contract to live." Seeing it close "signifies the nail in the coffin for the Berlin squat scene," he said. "Squatting is a taking-back of land and, in most cases, the land is used to the benefit of the community."

Mainzer Strasse in Berlin in June 1990
Berlin's Mainzer Strasse in 1990: After Reunification, there were plenty of empty spaces for squatters to move intoImage: Renate Hildebrandt

He sees a change, not only of property ownership, but also within the character of Berlin and its residents. "The sad thing is that it shows a complacency within the [squat] scene - that the scene is content with their house project contracts, while still chanting the slogan 'no god - no state - no rent contract,'" said Brotherton.

Legal interim housing projects take hold

According to the Urban and Rural Development Network at Berlin's Technical University, there are about one million empty apartments in former East German states, mainly due to emigration from the region. There, a new legitimized type of interim land-use is developing - a sort of organized squatting, which aims to use empty buildings and lots in hopes of keeping up neighborhood morale and property values.

Dozens of agencies link the empty buildings with prospective users, usually through a listing of the building locations and dates of availability. The idea is simple: Empty parking lots and apartment buildings become flea markets and temporary residences. Similar projects with names like "Reclaiming Space" and "Null Euro Urbanism" are also taking place in other European countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, and Austria.

It's hard not to miss the irony of sponsorship of some initiatives from companies such as Ikea - the agencies which connect the empty buildings to prospective users are, after all, private firms which work in conjunction with the city or state. But that doesn't mean the projects are just a capitalist ruse. The city of Zurich, for instance, has used an old hotel in the spirit of interim usage to house some 250 asylum-seekers since the beginning of 2009.

Mainzer Strasse in Berlin in 2006
Berlin's Mainzer Strasse in 2006: In recent years, Berlin's once run-down neighborhoods became desirable - and expensive

Temporary use boosts economy

"Attractive interim usage has a spill-over effect on the economy," said Marie Richarz from a temporary housing agency in Berlin's Neukoelln district. When buildings stand empty, the surrounding area loses market value and the neighborhood's street-level shops and restaurants see less foot traffic.

The most well known interim housing in Berlin is the so-called beach bars along the Spree River that popped up in the early 2000s. The practice has had so much success in the German capital that in April the daily Berliner Zeitung named "interim usage" (Zwischennutzung) the term of the times - a word quickly infiltrating the zeitgeist.

Just like squatting, interim usage is, of course, only temporary. Petra Rohland, spokesperson for the Senate Department for Urban Development of Berlin said, "When the temporary use is successful, then there is often a discussion when the users have to leave."

For now, at least, the practice seems to offer a solution to otherwise empty spaces. Though the clientele may be different from traditional squats, the effect of keeping buildings full and neighborhoods thriving is one that people in this aging, under-populated region of Germany are happy to embrace.

Author: Candice Novak

Editor: Kate Bowen