In the eye of the storm: Urban Transformations in Berlin – Realities of Crisis and Perspectives for Social Struggles

2. Historical Background: Regulation and Resistance in Fordist Berlin

The pace and shape of the current transformations in Berlin’s urban space can only be understood by relating them to the historical legacies of this city, stemming from a history of recurring crises and constant social struggles. This is true especially in the sector of urban planning and housing in the post-war period, where Fordist regulation kept rents on a relatively moderate level and set boundaries for commodification and financialization of housing up until the 1990s. At the same time, the Fordist planning rationale was constantly challenged by social movements who demanded democratization and created counter-cultural spaces.

Social Movements as a driving force in urban politics at West Berlin[i]

The creation of post-war urban space was affected by different forms of crises. Resistance, diffusion of power and economic calculations have shaped city-planning since the 1960s from above and below.

In 1963, shortly after the Wall had been built, West-Berlin was increasing its importance to the German Federal Republic. The city government decided to launch one of the biggest building and urban renewal programs in its history. Under the catchword “Kahlschlagsanierung”, which roughly translates as clear-cut rehabilitation, an extensive purchase of lands and houses was planned, entailing extensive, publicly financed demolition and reconstruction works, in order to create an efficient, car-friendly city with modern, “healthy” housing. Many neighbourhoods in the city centre were supposed to be cleared of large parts of their older buildings, while poor sectors of the population living there were displaced to newly constructed apartment blocks in the suburbs, as they couldn’t afford to pay the sharply increased rents (see Holm/Kuhn 2010).

The plan was first implemented without much resistance in Wedding, a poor district in the north of Berlin (see Sethmann 2013). However, it did become much harder to realize it in Kreuzberg during the late 1960s and 70s. This had to do with the fact that in the course of the 60s this area, characterized by its working class composition and local craft, had become one of the main centres for migrant workers (predominantly from Turkey) as well as alternative and leftist activists. The new residential composition was partly favoured by the renewal program itself, as a great amount of housing was left empty and unattended, awaiting destruction; and partly by the intents of Western Germany to regulate where migrant workers could live – namely in the city’s periphery and close to the Wall. The area’s overall neglect created an open space for marginalized groups and self-organizing subcultures to emerge. The reaction to these changes were diverse: tenants were cleared from their houses, rental contracts agreed “until the house’s demolition”. Even repressive measures were undertaken to control migrant influx to areas like Kreuzberg (by the so-called “Zuzugstop”, defining districts where migrants from specific countries were not allowed to move in), which demonstrates the vision of their temporal stay confronting already established people.

The district’s strengthening sense of collective identity, in combination with the rising spirit of the new social movements that had emerged in the late 1960s, resulted in resistance gaining ground in many ways, from neighbourhood committees to squatting, as well as militant attacks on the state and its symbols. In the wake of the global energy crises of 1973 and 1979 and the wide-reaching transformation of Fordist production, the conflict between the city administration and Kreuzberg’s residents escalated. On the backdrop of rising unemployment rates and lack of housing, one of the biggest squatting movements in Europe emerged. From 1979 until 1984, more than 160 houses were squatted (Holm/Kuhn 2010) and numerous spaces for projects and collectives were established, where different concepts of cohabitation and organization were experimented. To avoid further confrontations with militant movements, while at the same time preventing new occupations, the city administration decided to implement the so called “Berlin Line of Reason” (Berliner Linie der Vernunft – which, with mixed success, is active to the present day). This meant that, from 1981 onwards, all existing occupations were granted a certain degree of protection from violent evictions; in turn, they had to undergo a progressive legalisation process, either by means of rental contracts, long term leases or collective acquisition of ownership. As a flip side, no new squats would be tolerated, and all new occupations would be evicted within 24 hours. As a consequence, Kreuzberg was conservatively consolidated as a centre for alternative living and oppositional politics. At the same time, the prospect of legalization led to lasting internal conflicts and fragmentation within the scene, considerably defusing its radicalism.

Even if the squatting movement seemed weakened after its peak in the early 1980s, it had a lasting impact on urban policies and planning: this became obvious with the call for “Behutsame Stadterneuerung” (careful urban renewal, program from 1981-1989, introduced by the International Building Exhibition Berlin[ii]): instead of authoritarian programs like the “Kahlschlagsanierung”, “careful urban renewal” stood for a preservation of basic building structures, stepwise modernizations and tenants’ involvement in the planning process. The squatting movement was central to this shift, being cause, object and partner of the new model for urban renewal (see Holm/Kuhn 2010). But this shift stresses also how the older model of clear cut rehabilitation was drawn into crisis.

Another turning point came closely after. The fall of the Wall in 1989 led to radical changes in Berlin’s landscape and Kreuzberg suddenly became a central district. The sudden disappearance of the German Democratic Republic and the consequent mass migration to West-Germany left thousands of state-owned apartments empty, while the East-German police force had basically become powerless. At the same time, the incipient collapse of the GDRs industrial apparatus created an almost endless reserve of vacant, ruinous spaces. The peculiar period until the official reunification was used by thousands of East and West Germans to take over hundreds of buildings in East Berlin, creating new alternative living projects in many of them.[iii] After initial uncertainty, the reunified city government decided to extend West-Berlins “Line of Reason” to the new occupations in the former East, slowly forcing them into legalisation. It should be added that some considerable, violent infringements of the Line’s rule saying that existing squats should not be evicted happened on a regular basis throughout the 1990s (most notably in Mainzer Straße in November 1990, see Arndt et all 1992, as well as during Jörg Schönbohm’s tenure as Berlin’s Innensenator, Minister of the Interior).

With the Hauptstadtbeschluss (the German parliament’s decision to move the capital of unified Germany back to Berlin) in 1991, it became clear that the stage was set for Berlin’s normalisation. Local and national elites didn’t hide their intention to reshape the German capital into a global economic player. Soaring expectations of an incipient boom lead to massive national and international investments and initiated huge construction programs, fuelling a veritable real-estate bubble. It didn’t take long, however, before, by the second half of the 1990s, the sobering realisation of the city’s desolate economic condition put a halt on most investments, granting its thriving subcultural scene a decade-long period of grace.

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