Reflection / 9. December 2020
Two decades of activism on the Cuvrybrache Part I
Once Berlin's most famous empty lot, we reflect on its history and legacy as a beacon of activism for bottom-up urban development. What remains after an ultimately unsuccessful struggle for self-determination and what is the point of protest in a city which is increasingly unresponsive to its citizens demands?
by Yannik Lydssan
When you are at the U-Bahn station Schlesische Straße in Berlin Kreuzberg and head south-east for just about three minutes, you will come across two buildings that tell a winding story of post-unification Berlin. You can hardly miss them – between the old buildings one commonly finds in this part of the city the slick red and grey brick facades stick out. Thirty meters high, the buildings stretch all the way from the street to the riverside of the Spree for more than a hundred meters. Massive, uninviting and nearly impenetrable, they separate themselves from their surroundings and look like they should really have no business being there.
It is impossible to tell today but buried underneath these buildings lie the aspirations and hopes of a decades long struggle for a plot of land. Until their construction started at the end of 2016, this plot of land was known as the Cuvrybrache, owing its name to the adjacent Cuvrystraße. A common reading of the Cuvrybrache goes something like this.
Having been a contested space since about the mid 1990’s, the Cuvrybrache unites a number of discourses that have defined Berlin ever since its Western half was reunited with its Eastern counterpart: urban development and (lack of) public participation, the city's creative capital, a place in society for marginalised groups. Local neighbourhood communities, the city’s administration and private real estate developers have been struggling with and against each other for the prerogative over what should happen on the plot measuring roughly 50 by 150 meters for the better part of two decades. The land witnessed cultural hubs, famous street art, a settlement, and other initiatives - small and big - come and go over those years. When this seemingly endless fight over the Cuvrybrache was over and the construction for two massive office buildings began, all these efforts appeared to have been futile. The Cuvrybrache, it seemed, had become a symbol for all that had been going wrong in the city and, after all, the inevitability inherent to these processes. The ordinary citizen can fight all they want, struggle, protest – it will all be in vain.
This reading is quite plausible, but it is equally cynical. It may feel that way, but the struggle over the Cuvrybrache produced many significant things - transitory or lasting: art, human infrastructures, political awareness, knowledge, shelter. It showed us that something other than conventional urban development is possible and that the decades-long fight cannot simply be dismissed as ultimately pointless. Saying so implies that some things are simply given, they just are the way they are. You may stall their advancement for a brief moment, but their trajectory will remain the same, unbothered, and there is nothing that you can do about it. This is deeply cynical and extremely uninspiring. If this is the lesson to be learned from the Cuvrybrache, it is a bleak one.
I argue that despite an outcome that inspires pessimism, we can look back on a process that spans multiple decades and have a much more nuanced and refined understanding of it. We can point towards all the initiatives, protests and art that were successful at their time, understand why these methods worked and how they could be used for the struggles of today and tomorrow. Likewise, we can put our finger on the failures along the way – no matter by which party – and learn from them. No process is ever predetermined, no outcome ever inevitable. They are only framed in such a way after the fact in order for us to find a peace of mind - and, ultimately, deter future protests from finding inspiration looking at the past. In studying the history of the Cuvrybrache in more detail, I want to illuminate its all but predetermined path and shine a light on all the valuable lessons that can be learned from it.
Chapter I: 1852-2002
At the time less of a street but more of a path leading down to the riverside of the Spree, the Cuvrystraße was named after civil servant Heinrich Andreas de Cuvry in 1852. As a former soldier in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon, he was tasked with administering relief for the poor in a time when it was of low priority to the city and severely underfunded – poor relief was primarily charity-based and handled by parties such as the church. Although he was appointed a “City Elder'' in 1850, examination of historic sources suggests that it were not his, to be fair, rather modest accomplishments that led the magistrate to consider naming a street after him, but rather his extensive ownership of property between Schlesische Straße and Landwehrkanal. Paying tribute to those who offered up private land for public use by naming a street in their honour was a commonplace custom at the time, yet it somewhat construes Cuvry’s legacy and, in a way, already foreshadows the tension between those with means and those without - those who have land and those who need it – that would run so high a century and a half later.
Historic records on the various interim uses in the early years are incomplete, but in its first days, the plot of land adjacent to the Cuvrystraße and confined by the Schlesische Straße and Spree river in the west and east, respectively, was used as a park. From 1885 up until 1925, it was also home to a bathhouse that offered the opportunity to swim in the Spree. After the second World War, the Cuvrybrache lay on the very edge of West-Berlin and was only a stone toss from the highly militarised border. It fittingly served as an emergency reserve organised by the Senate during the time of the Cold War and was part of a large network of reserves around West-Berlin that were established in case supplies to the city were ever cut-off again. Despite the differences in these uses over time, a common denominator was their ultimate purpose: being of use to the general public.
This gradually started to change after East- and West-Berlin entered into their period of rapprochement. Properties such as the Cuvrybrache and many others along the Spree in the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg went from neglected strips of land close to an extremely tense border to affordable real-estate in a good location with promise for lucrative development. Before any large-scale development could happen on the Cuvrybrache, in 1996, YAAM (Young African Art Market) was the first to seize the moment and moved onto the 12000sqm lot. Quickly developing into a major cultural hub in the city at the time, it brought opportunities to enjoy music at the riverside beach bar, play sports, or visit art exhibitions and was frequented by kids, youths and adults alike. Apparently, it was even integral to the formation of a number of artistic collectives such as the band Seeed who are reported to have met at YAAM and, subsequently, grew into one of Berlin’s biggest acts. YAAM, it seems, introduced something truly valuable for Berliners: a local recreational area in the middle of the city - all organised from the bottom up.
Simultaneously, however, the re-development of much of the recently freed-up properties on the Spree riverside began taking concrete shape. A few years later consolidated under the name Media Spree, it was a massive undertaking that imagined the riverside as a site where heavyweights from the world of media and communication could settle side by side and would – for better or worse – initiate significant structural changes in the area. As the plans were rolled out, properties started changing hands from public to private rapidly with the Cuvrybrache being no exception. BOTAG (Bodentreuhand- und Verwaltungs-Aktiengesellschaft) had acquired the land already in 1992 for approximately 20 million Deutsche Mark and started negotiating with the District over plans as to what exactly to build on it. Protracted negotiations on the District level that stretched over several years prompted the Senate to step in and assume the responsibility in 1998, citing the “extraordinary importance for urban planning and politics” the project carried. History seems to have proven the Senate right on that account - although its interpretation as to what caused it to be of “extraordinary importance” and for whom appears to be, to put it diplomatically, quite different from that of many other stakeholders. The Senate’s assertiveness triggered a lawsuit by the District against the Senate over the planning prerogative in which an appeals court eventually ruled in favour of the Senate. Finally, in 1998, Senate and BOTAG landed on an agreement: a shopping centre was to be built.
The plans were not well received by local residents and retailers alike who feared noise, increased traffic and pollution from cars, as well as a threat to various small businesses in the neighbourhood (among them the operators of the Markthalle 9 which has, 25 years down the road, itself transformed into a driver of gentrification in the neighbourhood). Out of eight floors, three were planned as parking decks with the capacity to hold more than 500 cars – a clear indicator that this shopping centre was not concerned with the needs of the local community but sought to attract a more peripherally located clientele. Despite these concerns, confidence was high on the part of BOTAG that construction would start according to plan. All papers were signed, and the permit delivered. As last measures the YAAM – much maligned by locals – had to move out in 1998 and a few warehouses that had remained from the days of serving as a Senate reserve were demolished. The table was set, construction could commence. Yet, it didn’t.
BOTAG had not anticipated the resilience of local residents and the problems that would befall the company by the end of the millenium. Upon becoming insolvent, BOTAG was bought by IVG (Industrie-Verwertungs-Gesellschaft) in the summer of 2000 and with it, the future of the Cuvrybrache also changed hands once again. IVG initially ensured the public that the plans were to go through as intended with construction starting as early as fall 2000, but soon started striking a more cautious and less decisive tone as an IVG spokesperson was quoted stating that “(f)irst, all documents needed to be examined”.
Perhaps this mixed messaging was in part due to the public opinion surrounding the project. The initial concerns of local-residents and retailers had developed into full-fledged organised protest with a message that was loud and clear: a shopping centre was neither needed nor welcome. Instead, they advocated for a use that was geared more towards the needs and wishes of the community not unlike what the YAAM had offered for a brief period of time. It is possible that the IVG had noticed the turning of tides against the original BOTAG plans and, with its cautious communication and slow retreat from the original plans, started to hedge its bets.
Sure enough, the shopping centre plans were shortly after officially discarded. Protest had been successful in stopping a project that went against the interests of the local community. Although aided in part by the change in ownership of the project this was a considerable success - the future was still negotiable. But while the protest-initiatives anticipated to be given a seat or two at the table for said negotiations after putting forth such a tremendous effort to establish themselves as relevant stakeholders, IVG and the Senate had something else in mind.
In 2001, both parties had agreed on a new plan called “Neue Spreespeicher” that was entirely divorced from anything that had come before. The plan was to construct two buildings in a warehouse style that stretched for 150 meters all the way to the riverside and would host office lofts and a hotel. Despite these completely new plans, IVG and Senate sought to incorporate them into the contract for the previous permit and, thereby, circumvent any lengthy public participation processes – definitely sketchy practice and not very legal. In a number of letters and protests, the protest-initiatives communicated their outrage over the closed-doors negotiations and demanded to be involved in a meaningful way. A public participation process was carried out in the summer of 2002 but did not produce any tangible results and was, according to participants, hardly more than a facade. An interesting point of emphasis during this process – beyond those already well established - was the advocacy for a more than 100 years old chestnut tree located on the Cuvrybrache. Leaflets, poems and entire songs were dedicated to the tree, its significance for the community and the importance to protect such an old living being. Unsurprisingly, IVG representatives were unimpressed, arguing that felling the tree would constitute no loss, claiming it was about to rot to death anyway.
Interestingly, the reception of the permit to build the “Neue Spreespeicher” project in 2002 did not mark the beginning of a new chapter as one might have expected at the time. The Cuvrybrache did not disappear under two enormous office buildings shortly after – it eventually would, but many years later. Instead, it rather marked the end of a chapter. One of a post-unification scramble for space during which everyone sought to get into the best position for the newly available plots of land all throughout the city.
In hindsight, the city may have made a quick buck selling off many of its properties but did not foster an urban development that was to its and most residents benefit. Despite all the cash influx, the city is, to this day, perpetually in need of money and has in many places forfeited the right to have a meaningful say in urban developments. In the case of the Cuvrybrache, it has further led to infighting between different levels of government over the planning prerogative, even going so far as to settle the matter in court. Private investors seized the opportunity and bought up chunks of land from the city that they, at the time, maligned were overpriced but have exceeded those values a long time ago. The city’s residents were caught in the middle of these massive shifts often without being asked for their opinion, merely trying to hang on by their fingernails in a rapidly changing Berlin. Their sustained efforts at places like the Cuvrybrache against the BOTAG shopping centre, however, showed that resistance is not futile but can have a material impact.
In a way the 1990’s in Berlin really set the table for the city to become “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy), the proclaimed city motto by former mayor Klaus Wowereit. During his time as mayor (2001-2014), the city transformed rapidly and capitalised on its image as an alternative city for the creative crowd while doing rather little for this crowd in return. For the Cuvrybrache, the 1990’s truly ended with the signature on the permit for the “Neue Spreespeicher” project in 2002 – although it took a few more years for it to truly arrive in Wowereit’s Berlin.
Chapter II: 2003-2010
After the summer of 2002, things got unusually quiet around the Cuvrybrache. The investor, IVG, struggled to secure tenants for the planned buildings and was experiencing financial struggles. As a result, pretty much nothing happened for quite a while. Documentation on these years is somewhat scarce, although it is reported that locals continued using the space for strolls, barbecues or to just sit by the river and enjoy the excellent view of the Oberbaumbrücke one would get treated to. Other temporary uses included diverse artistic projects as well as a flea-market, but nothing that seemed to attract too much attention or managed to gain a lot of traction. Meanwhile, the “Neue Spreespeicher” project seemed to be stuck in its planning stages yet was continually presented as though the start of construction was just around the corner. This relative tranquillity on and around the Cuvrybrache seems somewhat odd and anticlimactic after the exciting years of the YAAM and tense struggles that succeeded it, but must have been a welcome break for the local community.
On a larger scale, however, the struggle for urban space was intensifying: in the mid-2000’s, Media Spree was on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the District of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Nearly four kilometers long, the stretch between Jannowitzbrücke and Elsenbrücke – which also includes the Cuvrybrache – had been a largely industrial site and was, due to its proximity to the border dividing East- and West-Berlin, rather neglected after the re-unification. It was perfect for the realisation of new plans. The individual projects by 22 private investors that were to be built on the land they had acquired from the city in the massive sell-out that were the 1990’s consolidated under the label MediaSpree. Previously on the edges of the Eastern and Western part of the city, these properties had become prime real-estate overnight and now shared the prospect of being developed mostly without any input from local-residents. Some provisions such as regulating the accessibility of the riverside were made, but mostly investors were rather unconstrained based on the permits they had already received upon acquisition.
Naturally, this did not sit very well with a lot of residents in the district. They feared city planning was inconsiderate of their needs and would, ultimately, lead to displacement due to rising rents. Soon, a large opposition started to mobilise under the banner “Media Spree Versenken” (Sink Media Spree). It gained a lot of traction and was popular with much of the population in the affected district. On top of frequent demonstrations and other protest actions, signatures were collected for a public referendum on MediaSpree for which the necessary threshold was quickly met. In July of 2008, citizens from Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg were asked to vote on whether they supported the project as is or the proposal made by Media Spree Versenken. This proposal sought to prohibit buildings higher than 22 meters and closer than 50 meters to the Spree, thus leaving room to create a riverside that was accessible for everyone. With 87% voting for the Media Spree Versenken proposal, the referendum was a resounding “No!” by the citizens against the Media Spree project. NGO and Watchdog “Mehr Demokratie” described it as one of the most successful referendums in the history of the city based on its turnout of over 19% (which sounds low but is actually high for anything that is not a general election). Franz Schulz, mayor of the District at the time, immediately pledged to implement the plans despite the looming costs north of an estimated 160 Million Euro necessary to purchase back the land. Similar to the quarrels over the Cuvrybrache nearly a decade earlier, a dispute between different levels of government ensued when the Senator for urban development at the time, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, proclaimed that absolutely nothing would change about standing MediaSpree plans. The two processes came to resemble each other even more when calls to pull the planning prerogative from the District and give it to the Senate grew louder, yet again citing the “extraordinary importance for urban planning and politics”. With the tension climaxing and the stakes as high as they were, what was going to come from the referendum? Who was going to decide what would happen to the Spree riverside?
One might be inclined to say: “A referendum was carried out, the citizens were asked what they wanted and answered almost unanimously. Go, get it done.” A fair answer, yet it misses a decisive detail about public referenda: they are not binding. And thus, just like Senator Junge-Reyer had assured investors, absolutely nothing changed. All plans were carried out as the respective investors saw fit and Media Spree Versenken started to disintegrate.
When the political energy of citizens and their will to organise and make their voices heard is cynically channelled into a void of meaninglessness, one is forced to experience an almost existential despair: does my will matter? Media Spree Versenken fought its way through the institutional path which is frequently touted as the one that will bring about change if your cause is the will of the people, but the referendum tested this claim for its merits and found that it does not hold water. What, exactly, is the point of holding a referendum if nothing will come from its outcome? Instead of participating democratically in their city, it feels much more like citizens were merely allowed to act out all the relevant steps - to play democracy. The effort and energy exerted by the citizens to oppose Media Spree is certainly inspiring, but they were up against a Senate that did not respond to legitimate demands – an uphill battle in which the game felt almost rigged.
For investors, however, this was great news, they had won what was likely to be the decisive struggle over the Spree riverside at large. Would this insurance of Senate support stimulate the development of the Cuvrybrache, where progress had stalled for the past six years, as well? Not exactly, it seemed. Things remained quiet around IVG and its “Neue Spreespeicher” plans outside of a change in the banners advertising the soon-to-come buildings every now and then. Something else had, however, started to change already a year earlier. In the summer of 2007, art had arrived on the Cuvrybrache in a big way.
After several smaller artistic projects had come and gone on the Cuvrybrache, the “Planet Prozess” festival hosted by Artitude e.V. in July and August, 2007, would leave a lasting impact on the walls bounding the land on its southern end. Street artists Blu and JR from Italy and France, respectively, had painted a gigantic black and white mural depicting two figures in the process of unmasking each other. The metaphor for the re-unified parts of Berlin “feeling each other out” quickly became known far beyond the city limits of Berlin. A little over a year later, Blu returned and used the free wall next to it for another mural. Deploying a similar style, it depicted a collar and tie wearing, headless person whose hands were chained together at his golden wrist watches, reminiscent of handcuffs. It is commonly understood as a commentary on the selling out of the city and, coming four months after the Media Spree referendum, could conceivably be in direct reference to this controversy.
The presence of the murals, their political message that directly connected to the space, and the great popularity they gained – in a sense – endowed the Cuvrybrache with additional meaning. They were now the host to famous artworks which towered high above, watching over everything happening on the land below them. To a degree, they marked the end of the calm years on the Cuvrybrache and breathed new life into it.
Despite having lost the greater fight over the direction MediaSpree would take, the Cuvrybrache remained empty and, with no construction on the horizon, the struggle over its future would soon be rekindled. With the turn of the decade, new interest arose in the lot from both the city and investors who were about to find out just how much fight the local residents still had in them when it came to their most favourite non-developed piece of land.
Photo Credits, in order:
(1) William Wires
(2) Bizim Kiez Archiv
(4) Matthias Schormann
(5) Ca Ira!
(6) Frank M. Rafik