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Hafenstrasse in its new gloryImage: dpa

When Squatters Grow Up

Nina Bednarz (tkw)
May 26, 2004

During the eighties, Hafenstrasse in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg was a notorious squatters' hotspot, but as time drags the former 'occupiers' towards middle-age, the street exudes a much more settled vibe.


Named after the city's harbor, which is just spitting distance away, Hafenstrasse carries the official title of 'alternative living project'. Over the best part of the past decade, the 13 crumbling houses, once a port of call for sojourning sailors, have been the subject of a loving renovation project. Number 138 is the last to be gentrified, and its completion will remove the physical reminders of an era already passed. With new windows, doors, floors and facades, the once rotting houses have become prime water-front real estate in one of Germany's most desirable cities.

The street has developed its own little infrastructure, too. There are bookshops, 'info shops', alternative cafes, a soup kitchen and two bars. One house used to be a brothel, but the hookers have been replaced with creamy coffee, and an altogether different sense of cozy. The name "Amphore" is just about all that stayed the same.

"Hafenstrasse is known the world over. It is a magnet for tourists, and attracts interesting people," Lars Menge, owner of the cafe, told Deutsche Welle. He says it is a political place, and is fascinated at how outsiders expect the residents -- of which there are now 100 -- to be somehow beyond the norm. But they're nothing more than average folk going about their daily lives.

Hafenstraßen-Häuser in Hamburg an Genossenschaft verkauft
Hafenstrasse during the squatting daysImage: dpa

Take Patricia, for instance. She left Berlin in the 1980s to become part of the squatting landscape in Hamburg. She fought heated battles with the police on Hafenstrasse, but now, at the age of 44, she feels that she has grown up and although she hasn't moved away, she has moved on. "We now have 20 children, and I would say that the shared flat existence we used to live in has dissolved. We either live alone or in families. We have people who take care of the financial aspect, who run the rent accounts and so on. It's really like running a little company," Patricia said.

Organized chaos

Such organization is a far cry from the chaos of West Germany's squatting years. Between the 1960s and early 90s, squatting was fashionable among young people in cities across the country. They regarded the illegal occupation of empty flats as a form of protesting insanely high rents and the establishment.

At the start of the 1980s, the area around Hamburg's harbor was popular with would-be squatters, but they never got to stay for long, as the authorities systematically cleared them out within 24 hours. The case of the Hafenstrasse was a little different. In the autumn of 1981 the empty houses along the street were silently occupied, and when the police came to forcibly evict the squatters, they refused to go. It was the start of a long and sometimes bloody battle, which ultimately the illegal residents won.

Battle over

By 1996, after more than a decade of debate, confrontation and stand-offs, the city of Hamburg agreed to sell the street to the squatters and subsequent tenants for a symbolic price of then DM 2 million ($1.2 million). They took out a loan, formed a collective, and now month-by-month, they are paying off what they owe.

The fight to occupy the houses was over, but the task of actually renovating the row was yet to begin. "When it rained, it leaked and we had mold growing in the roof. The beams had to be taken out, and they put up whole new roofs, new floors, and the walls have been re-plastered," Patricia recalls.

But everything, from the squatting, to the street fights, to the renovation has been worth it. "Even if everyone goes about their daily lives in different ways, it's just a whole different feeling to open the door and to know the people who live inside," Patricia said. And in order to keep it that way, when a flat comes up for rent on Hafenstrasse, it is not advertised on the free market.

This once rebellious street is now like an image from picture-book paradise. At the moment, a little park is under construction between the houses and the harbor, diggers are flattening an area which is to become a roundabout, and there is even talk about re-routing the busy Uferstrasse to reduce noise levels for the Hafenstrasse tenants. It has become a much sought-after location, full of one-time squatters who really are all grown up.

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