Reflection / 21. December 2020
Two decades of activism on the Cuvrybrache Part II
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?
Chapter III: 2011-2014
The summer of 2011 marked the first sighting of tents on the Cuvrybrache. Presumably attracted by the appeal of camping by the riverside of the Spree and emboldened by the fact that nothing seemed to get built on the lot anyways, a few people had come and pitched their temporary homes. Mostly coming from around the local neighbourhood, a few people enjoyed the warm months of the year living on the Cuvrybrache. With the onset of winter, they vacated the land again, yet they were, in a sense, pioneers who had laid the foundation for what was to come in the years after. Self-determined use of (and living on) the Cuvrybrache seemed possible.
Before the temporary homes could return in 2012, new plans for the Cuvrybrache were rolled out early in the year. After IVG had experienced financial turmoil, it sold the Cuvrybrache to investor Arthur Süßkind’s Terra-Contor. Shortly thereafter, the Cuvrybrache was announced as the location for the new BMW Guggenheim Lab - a temporary space that would serve as a forum to promote “innovative ideas for urban design and urban life”, as the official website puts it. This did not sit well with local residents who had numerous objections to the project. The most relevant might be boiled down to two aspects. The project was considered to cater exclusively to an urban elite comprised of politicians and academics. Local residents and their needs and ideas did not appear to be of relevance to the project other than in rhetoric. Perhaps even more damning was the foot-in-the-door character that finally getting a built structure on the land seemed to have. Those who enjoyed the Cuvrybrache as it was feared that once something was built on it, the biggest leap for developers had been completed. It would no longer be freely accessible to the public and realising further development plans once the lab had moved out would be a comparatively small step.
Protest against this prospect was spearheaded by “BMW Lab Verhindern” and ultimately quite successful. The BMW Guggenheim lab cancelled its plans for the Cuvrybrache, much to the dismay of politicians. Unlike in previous quarrels over the Cuvrybrache, both District and Senate appeared to share the position that bringing a collaboration of household names like BMW and Guggenheim to Kreuzberg could only increase the value of the neighbourhood and cement the image of Berlin as a location for innovation. Mayor of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Franz Schulz, from the Green Party claimed that the project could have been “an asset” for the city and that “bowing down to violent protesters” was simply “wrong”. Senator for the Interior, Frank Henkel, from the CDU struck a similar chord when he cursed out protestors in an interview and proclaimed that they were “a risk to the city as a location [for investment]”. With rhetoric between what one would expect to be rather opposite political poles of Green Party and CDU blurring into a uniform position of “violent-protest-bad” and “big-investment-good”, the city of Berlin seemed to have thrown much of its political weight behind the project - only to bounce back off the resilient opposition from Kreuzberg residents.
While the project was eventually assigned a different location in Prenzlauer Berg due to the will of the city to make it happen, things got awfully quiet around the BMW Guggenheim lab from that point on. In a sense, the lab, nonetheless, had an impact on Berlin. As Andrej Holm put it in der Freitag, the discourse stimulated by the controversy and protest around the project touched upon all the issues the lab intended to address – and then some – much better than the actual lab could ever have. Sometimes, it appears, bad ideas make for good discussions.
The BMW Guggenheim lab, or rather its failure to secure the Cuvrybrache as a location, also left an impact on the Cuvrybrache as it must have been vital in sparking the population of the land that would occur over the course of 2012. This time, the homes were not temporary but built with the intention to stay indefinitely. Early in the year, people had come to camp out on the land between Spree and Schlesische Straße again and when the Räuberläb, tentatively describable as a bar, opened, it was the first time since the YAAM days that an institution promoting culture settled on the lot. To a degree similar to the imagined ideal of the BMW Guggenheim lab bringing together people from all social and economic spheres but completely raw and unpolished without any prescriptive structure or big brand sponsors.
Quickly, what had initially been mostly local residents claiming the land, turned into an extremely diverse settlement comprised of outcasts, refugees, students, artists and hippies - those who wanted to live differently and those who had no choice. Despite threats of eviction from the new owners of Terra-Contor, the community flourished and grew and until it covered almost the entire plot of land and became its own little ecosystem. For a moment in time and if one squinted at it from just the right angle, the settlement on the Cuvrybrache appeared like a utopian project that could finally cement the local ambitions of keeping the land for the community. It seemed to offer all the things that protesters had fought for so often for so long: culture, art, refuge, a meeting place, and, above all, self-determination. It is certainly remarkable what the sheer will of those involved was able to accomplish. Yet, if one picked a slightly later point in time and stopped squinting, the imperfections of this constellation and the immense tensions around it became visible. It was not hard to see that life on the Cuvrybrache was unlikely to continue unchecked and indefinitely.
With all the history surrounding it, the famous murals and the unusual settlement it was now host to, the Cuvrybrache was well known around the city and a constant centre of media attention. Coverage was mostly not favourable as it was described as a place where weirdos, refugees, and other poor people came together to form “Berlin’s first Favela” as the Tagesspiegel did not tire to emphasise. Reporting on the positive aspects of the Cuvrybrache, of which there were certainly still plenty, was usually an afterthought or entirely omitted. Tendencies from most popular media outlets in Berlin, such as Tagesspiegel, Morgenpost or Berliner Zeitung, to side with the interests of the city and investors, who were still very much intent on realising the development of the land, was rather flagrant at times. The issue, however, extended beyond the matter of gentrification – the Cuvrybrache was a true melting pot of political issues. It became a symbolic battleground that encapsulated discourses around refugees, poverty, artistic capital, and, overall, whom the city actually belongs to. Reporting often capitalised on xenophobia, and sought to trigger latent aversions of refugees and poor people alike to solicit disapproval of the Cuvrybrache. Simultaneously it was touted as one of the mythical, free spaces Berlin was supposedly so infamous for where art and culture were able to flourish. With all its controversy and contradictions, the gigantic murals towering over the lot and simultaneously being a sore spot and an inspiration, the Cuvrybrache truly was emblematic of Wowereit’s Berlin: It was poor but sexy.
The reporting and framing in most media continually chipped away at the initially great public support for the Cuvrybrache, mounting pressure on the city to do something and restore order on the property. In practice, this proved somewhat difficult as police or any other authority was not allowed to intervene since the settlement was on private property. The enforcement of an eviction by the police would have required the investor to prove that concrete plans were approved and construction would actually commence once it had been enforced. These criteria could not be fulfilled by Terra-Contor, which had entered into negotiations with the Senate over the amount of social housing the planned apartment complex should contain. For the moment, this meant that people on the Cuvrybrache were able to continue doing things the way they pleased.
The “anything goes'' attitude with which the Cuvrybrache had thus far governed itself and which had provided so many liberties for its residents and visitors had started to take its toll. Tensions were growing between residents of the Cuvrbrache but started to spill over into the neighbourhood as well. Outside of the usual quarrels between neighbours about things such as noise or who was allowed to do what and when, possibly the biggest issue was an infrastructural one. The Cuvrybrache was not being serviced by public infrastructure: no gas, no electricity, no water, no waste disposal. These issues started to compile in the summer of 2014 as garbage began to stack up and the place became increasingly unsanitary due to a lack of respective facilities. By this time, many of the residents must have known that some things would require change in order for the project to continue to keep going. On September 18, 2014, however, a fire broke out in the settlement. Most did likely not know this yet, but, at this point, they had already spent their last night on the Cuvrybrache and would never get a chance to do things better.
In the night of the fire on the Cuvrybrache, about 100 people became homeless upon its eviction. Police initially promised that this was only temporary but the plot was subsequently declared a crime scene and sealed. Those who were allowed to enter again could only do so for a few minutes to grab their personal belongings. A fire such as the one that caused the final eviction of the Cuvrybrache was always a possibility in an environment in which everything was make-shift – in fact, there had apparently been previous instances of smaller fires or explosions in the past. Yet the timing of the fire was, at least, somewhat ominous. Only days prior, it was reported that residents had received a new notice of eviction which was spiced up with threats that, if refugees’ children were still present at the time of eviction, those would be taken away and deported. Likely, this is “merely” an extremely not-so-well timed and thinly veiled threat that does not stand in any direct connection to the fire, but it is certainly not a good look for Terra-Contor. Regardless of how the events exactly transpired, the fire was a golden opportunity for Süßkind and Terra-Contor, and the investor had finally gotten what he wanted: people off the Cuvrybrache.
Things looked pretty bleak for the future of the Cuvrybrache. A development of the land was not imminent as Süßkind was still negotiating with the Senate about details in the plans, but it’s prospect had certainly become more tangible than it had been in years. The shacks and tents of the settlement had disappeared and the Cuvrybrache had become a no-go area (as far as that was possible to enforce) again. The loss of momentum in the struggle over the land one can only imagine. Still towering over the now barren lot were Blu’s murals which had seen the settlement come and go. Perhaps the last thing that remained from these irreversibly gone days, they almost appeared anachronistic.
On the night of December 11, nearly three months after the fire, Blu’s murals were painted over black. This was not done by the city or investors as one might be inclined to assume. In fact, Blu himself had commissioned a group of Artitude e.V. members around Lutz Henke to cover both of his artworks with black paint. I am not sure if there has been a comparable instance of auto-iconoclasm in history (there probably is and I just don’t know), but Blu certainly stirred up controversy and raised eyebrows far beyond Berlin.
His reasoning is fairly simple and appears to make sense. Citing “changes happening in the surrounding area” since he had first painted his murals in a collaboration with JR in 2007 and 2008, he “felt it was time to erase both walls”. In an op-ed written for The Guardian, Lutz Henke elaborated on these motivations. He describes Berlin as a city which has branded itself as a creative city yet has simultaneously displaced the sources of this very same creativity. Protest is incorporated into the aesthetics of the city and marketed as a feature not a bug. The city of Berlin, he argues, is “an undead city”. With Süßkind’s apartment plans deliberately leaving the view on Blu’s murals unobstructed, the commodification of artistic protest Henke describes appeared to be just around the corner on the Cuvrybrache. Considering these arguments, painting them black as a last, resounding statement makes a lot of sense. “We do not stand for what is happening to our art and to this city” appears to be the message.
For a moment, it is shocking and thought-provoking, but once the moment has passed, what remains? A black wall and, for those who were there, memories. How does a piece of art – or this particular piece of art – exert more influence: in life or in death? As an original piece or as a large black void that covers it?
In 2014, there was a petition that called for the piece to become protected heritage. The petition received nearly 8000 signatures but was ultimately unsuccessful. The murals were extremely popular and, after the settlement had disappeared, in a way, the only thing the Cuvrybrache still had going for itself. Whether or not one considers this popularity inherently good or bad in light of the arguments put forward by Blu and Henke, it was worth something. It was something people could still – literally and figuratively - look up to and draw inspiration from. Something that might have helped people to rally around. Who knows, perhaps further pursuing its status as protected heritage would have led to an entirely different development on the Cuvrybrache. In any case, it still had value and presented leverage.
The statement of painting the murals black was certainly one that was heard loudly. But what actually was the statement? If one looks beyond the proclaimed statement of resistance, a very different interpretation emerges. Instead of fighting the fight they had themselves once elected to fight, they abandoned it. Their protest was literally erased from the walls with a last gasp. Painting the murals black was not only resistance, it was simultaneously a concession of defeat.
If the outlook after the fire and eviction had already been bleak, the Cuvrybrache had now come to manifest this tristesse wholesale. The greyness of a Berlin December day that just wraps itself around the city and everyone dwelling in it would no longer be broken when one passed by the Cuvrybrache. Instead, one would just face an empty lot and a gigantic, black void, radiating the despair and surrender of its creators. “There is nothing left to gain here”, it silently seemed to scream.
The fall had been so fast and so deep after everyone on the Cuvrybrache had ridden the high of the (early) settlement days, it must have hurt and deflated the motivation of many of those who had been involved or supported the project. Between fire and eviction, unfavourable media coverage, and erased murals, was there still anything left those defending the communal right to the Cuvrybrache could do? Or had time run out and circumstances conspired to make the development of the Cuvrybrache, finally – after two decades of back and forth – possible?
Chapter IV - 2015-2020
After the dust had settled on the turbulent ending to 2014 on the Cuvrybrache, very little appeared to happen for over a year. After the eviction of over 100 residents from the Cuvrybrache, Investor Süßkind had ensured that he would soon start construction of the “Cuvryhöfe” - the plans for which he had put forward in 2013 - while a final result from the negotiations with the Senate was still pending. Then, in March 2016, basically over night, the trajectory of the Cuvrybrache took a dramatic turn.
When Süßkind and the Senate appeared to be unable to find a common denominator – the Senate demanded a share of 25% social housing while Süßkind was only willing to offer 10% - the investor simply backed out of negotiations altogether. At the same time, he also pivoted from building an apartment complex to one entirely comprised of commercial and office spaces. Building and renting out 25% of his apartments at 6.50€ was simply not economical, Süßkind argued. For the local Kreuzberg residents, the absolute worst case scenario appeared to take shape. Not only was their beloved – and only – access to the Spree going to disappear, they were not even going to get the much needed housing out of it. Instead, they were getting gigantic office spaces which, many feared, would be a further driver of alienation and gentrification in the neighbourhood.
How, you might ask, is one able to simply leave negotiations with the Senate and build an entirely different project at a whim? Notwithstanding the utter lack of regard for the Kiez’ needs on Süßkind’s behalf, the Senate has no one to blame but itself. Remember the “Neue Spreespeicher” plans which, 14 years ago, received a permit in a rather questionable process, but had afterwards been forgotten and disappeared to the very bottom of municipality filing cabinets? Exactly this permit had been issued extensions on multiple occasions and it was exactly this permit which Süßkind was able to pull out to everyone’s surprise. Whether or not other factors outside of his disagreement with the Senate motivated him is unknown. In any case, Süßkind now no longer had any administrative obstacles to face to finally get construction under way.
Time was, from Süßkind’s perspective, however, of the essence. The permit for the “Neue Spreespeicher” plans had an expiration date which, dated November 6, 2016, was only a mere 7 months ahead and the Senate had already made its intentions clear not to renew it again. There remained, thus, a sliver of hope for everyone who did not support Süßkind’s plans that he would somehow fail to meet this deadline. Things became incredibly close, but three weeks prior to the expiration of the permit, construction started.
One of the first things that happened struck a rather emotional chord with many: the chestnut tree was felled. The over a century old tree which years before had been serenaded and poems written in its honour now received its final courtesy: an obituary and flowers left at the fence moaning the irrevocable loss. The oldest tree in the Kiez and last living being that still told the stories of times when the Cuvrybrache was a park and a bathhouse was gone. And with its disappearance, a new time on the Cuvrybrache inevitably began.
While construction on the lot progressed, Zalando was announced in early 2017 as the sole tenant that would move in over 2000 employees upon completion. Naturally, the prospect of such a disruption in the neighbourhood did not inspire much enthusiasm in local residents, some of whom had not conceded yet, and had formed the initiative “Bizim Kiez” at the end of 2016. They continued to rally against the project despite ongoing construction, organising artistic protest such as the projection of paroles on the large, now mural-free wall or processions to the sites driving gentrification in the Kiez. The resilience and determination on display in the face of almost certain defeat is unquestionably inspiring – even though it was unable to elicit any change in the realisation of the plans.
What changed, however, was Zalando’s commitment to move into the “Neue Spreespeicher”. Putting forward delays in construction, Zalando chose a new location for its headquarters administering Terra-Contor and Süßkind a bit of their own ruthless-capitalism-flavoured medicine. Only a temporary setback, full occupancy of the “Neue Spreespeicher'' was announced in September of 2019, about two years later. With its prime location at the Spree in Kreuzberg, it was always going to be merely a question of time until Terra-Contor would be able to make this announcement again.
Today, at the end of 2020, the building is nearing completion. Only the interior and courtyard are still being worked on. One can already visit the site and make up their own mind as to whether this building fits the mould of the Kiez and whether this was truly the best outcome that could have been achieved. On the surface, nothing is left that reminds of the decades of struggle, hope, and enjoyment of liberties. And in a time not so far ahead in the future, one might fear, no one will notice the alien nature of the “Neue Spreespeicher” in between all the old and storied buildings, and simply have accepted its presence, moved on. For many, however, one is, at the same time, inclined to hope, much more will remain than meets the eye at first glance. Everything that has happened on this lot over the years must have meant something, it must have left some kind of lasting impact, right? With all the energy expanded and all the bigger and smaller successes and failures along the way, the Cuvrybrache is an outstanding case study for urban activism and how (not) to do it. It is also exemplary for a failed attempt at urban renewal and a dysfunctional relationship between government, civil society, and private sector. We have interrogated the history of this place with all its twists and turns, but how do we make sense of it all?
Epilogue: A new wall and new frontiers
In order to address the way in which urban governance functions nowadays, geographer Erik Swyngedouw formulated his notion of the “post-political city”. Building on ideas from political philosophers such as Ranciere and Badiou, he argues that a change in the relationships between government, civil society and private sector has produced a new urban governance which is characterised by an absence of political friction.
Governments have embraced the neoliberal agenda and as a result shifted “policy focus away from regulatory and distributive considerations towards the promotion of economic growth and competitiveness, entrepreneurship, and creativity”. In the pursuit of these goals, functions of government are deferred to the civil society and private sector: governance may now happen in the free marketplace of ideas - the government is its mere overseer. In this new constellation, civil society loses much of its influence over actual governance as its mechanisms for participation are only “performances'' with relatively little bearing on policy. Actual political friction, for Swyngedouw the core of democractic governance, is avoided, the “political [sphere] foreclosed” and what remains is governance through a “post-political consent”.
So, do we think that Berlin has become a post-political city? To some degree, certainly. Although not everything applies verbatim to the transformations Berlin has undergone in the past decades, it can be argued that they appear to resemble much of what Swyngedouw describes. The post-unification period in which the city of Berlin delegated many of the responsibilities it had in re-imagining and re-developing the city certainly signifies a shift towards the privatisation of policy. Massive projects with wide-reaching impacts for the city’s inhabitants were given into private hands without much governmental oversight and even less of a say for civil society. These projects, to which Media Spree and the Cuvrybrache can definitely be counted, were designed with the objective, it appears, to increase consumption and attract further investment in the future.
Whenever stakeholders from civil society tried to assert their interests, these were channeled into voids rather than any significant policy. Whether one considers the (forced) public participation that preceded the issuing of the permit for the Cuvrybrache in 2002, the referendum on Media Spree in 2008, or the countless other institutional procedures through which resistance was guided - non produced any significant, tangible change despite the clearly expressed desire for it. Despite never making it onto the Cuvrybrache, it is likely that the proposed Guggenheim Lab would have been of a similarly meaningless nature. All these processes are, as Swyngedouw describes them, rather performances of political participation which seek to uphold the “post-political consensus”.
Naturally, not all institutional avenues political dissenters can go down will always be as ineffective. The Tempelhofer Feld - with its 340 ha in the middle of the city one of Berlin’s absolutely unique features - is a result of a referendum. It is, however, also a rarity among decisions of large-scale urban development which have been impacted by civil society immediately. Nonetheless, it indicates that the post-political city is not an impenetrable apparatus, but can still be susceptible to protest.
Swyngedouw does not tire to emphasise the importance of injecting non-institutionalised protest in the cracks of the city, the in-between spaces. In an urban governance of homogenous post-political consent, he argues, “there is an urgent need for different stories and fictions that can be mobilized for realization.“ This is precisely what made the Cuvrybrache so special. Over decades, and especially during the years of settlement, it gave a voice to those who dissented, advanced alternative ideas about urban development and were therefore a key driver in the upholding of democracy as Sywngedouw understands it. The Cuvrybrache was one of “the sort of spaces where alternative forms of living, working, and expressing are experimented with, where new forms of social and political action are staged, where affective economies are reworked, and creative living is not measured by the rise of the stock market and pension fund indices.”
Despite all its failures, shortcomings and, ultimately, defeat, this will be part of the legacy of the Cuvrybrache and all those that fought for a bigger say in their city: having been a beacon of dissent and inspiration for alternative urban governance in a city that increasingly sought to govern past its inhabitants interests.
The legacy of the Cuvrybrache is, however, one that is not merely a memory of the good that once was. The social and political mobilisation that occured, the knowledge acquired throughout and the culture that was forged by it all live on in one way or another. It has now been over thirty years ever since the wall came down and the massive tear that ran through the heart of Berlin started to mend. Whether this gap has been bridged in a social, financial, or cultural way, I cannot even begin to answer here. Speaking strictly materially, however, the gap has very much been filled. Media Spree, the new Potsdamer Platz, and other high profile projects have patched up the many holes all throughout the city. More than anything, they feel like a new wall that has been erected where an old one was torn down. Instead of long-divided city parts organically growing together, alienating spaces of consumption have been created.
Vacant spaces, empty lots and undeveloped land in the middle of the city - such sights are mostly memories of the past decades. In the 2020’s space in Berlin will, in all likeliness, be hard to come by. (Re-)development of land and the struggles over it are moving to more peripheral areas such as Flughafen Tegel, which shut down just a few weeks ago and, at that point, started to be the latest, large-scale urban development project in the city. Perhaps a few years from now, the Tempelhofer Feld or other corners of the city will be brought (back) into the centre of attention in an everlasting battle over the city’s spaces. It is in these struggles where knowledge and organisational structures that have been fostered in the past will come to bear.
Photo Credits, in order:
(1) William Wires
(2) Guggenheim Lab Promotion
(3) Lucy Fricke
(4) William Veder
(6) Björn Kietzmann
(7) Lienhard Schulz
(8) Jens Kalaene