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

New on stage

Not only the scenery changed at Berlin, but so did the protagonists. The city walk during summer school took place at Kreuzberg, an area with a special history of migration and alternative and leftist cultures that has been subject to gentrification processes for years now. Political struggles are taking place here, located spatially close to each other: Over a year ago refugees arrived after a long march throughout Germany and occupied a a square and an empty school as part of their protest against asylum laws and for improved living conditions for refugees in Germany[xi].

Kotti&Co[xii] is another example of apparently individual cases becoming collective and finding a new political expression beyond former actors and leftist forms. The neighbourhood close to Kottbusser Tor, at Kreuzberg, started with a single issue: the massive increases of rents in their apartments, all part of a privatized social housing unit that is owned by GSW and HERMES. The increase has forced more and more tenants to leave their homes. They began to meet, at the beginning at the crappy, noisy elevator and talking about the problem. Some went to tenants consultations with the response that law doesn’t provide any protection for their case.

In May 2012 they occupied the square opposite to their houses and constructed a Gecekondu (Turkish: a house built over night) out of shelves. Kotti&Co became a visible, audible and political protest – and still is.

Their neighbourhood has continuously changed since then: lively “noisy demonstrations” depart at the weekends from Gecekondu. In those demonstrations some of us felt remembered to Argentinian Cacerolazo protests the early 2000s. Gecekondu became a space where people meet, chat, drink a Turkish Cay, where events take place and everyone is invited. Mainly but not only migrants and women are active at Kotti&Co, many of whom haven’t been politically active before. Some of them live at Kreuzberg since generations, some have stories to tell about being Gastarbeiter, being involved in social struggles around living conditions. According to the name Kotti&Co, the protest includes friends, scientists, political groups, tourists, everyone who wants to participate. But at the same time it is holding on being a tenants initiative in a particular situation – negotiating with politicians, inviting everyone to their noisy demonstrations and Gecekondu, show students and tourists around, writing proposals demanding (and partially achieving) the limit of rents and solutions for social housing at Berlin, networking with initiatives around Germany and sometimes also beyond it.

Another initiative appeared last year: “Zwangsräumungen verhindern!” (impede evictions) started after the Spanish example of PAH[xiii] (the platform against evictions) that is actively blocking evictions by means of civil disobedience. The aim is to turn individual displacement into a collective and public issue. Evictions have massively increased in the course of the gentrification of the inner city areas – approximately more than 22 households are evicted throughout the city every day. It is mainly the most marginalized people, such as unemployed or precariously employed people who are affected. The campaign successfully managed to re-frame the issue from a matter of individual failure to a prevalent social problem. Despite its symbolic and discursive effect, the campaign is based on networks of mutual support, offering advise and help to the affected people, thereby inducing a process of organizing beyond the traditional leftist spectrum.

Considering just these two examples of newly emerging struggles, it can be justified to speak of a new momentum of struggles around housing in the last years. It remains open, which effect those will have – remembering those of the squatting movements.

The old can’t remain as it is

But not only new agents emerge but “old” groups and movements are going through changes as conditions changed. These can be illustrated by the example of the “Mietshäuser Syndikat” (syndicate of rented houses)[xiv]: This network was founded to legalize occupied houses through buying them in a kind of co-operative-model at the beginnings of the 1980th. In the last years it turned more and more into a model to to “safe” houses from speculation on the real estate market, with traditional occupations becoming nearly impossible due to new forms of repression. In times of uncertain futures regarding living conditions and the growing difficulty to afford living in the inner city areas, the Mietshäuser Syndikat offers a structure for organized groups to be self-governed and having low rents according to the principles of the network. This model actually became increasingly interesting for groups at Berlin in the last years – and proved successful: Despite increasing real-estate prices a handful of projects have been or are to be realized during the last year. And around 100 groups are currently searching for houses and consultation at Berlin. Being an alternative model that does not provide future security trough private properties it is still the question whether this very individualized and relatively demanding form (in terms of time and work to be done, to finally get a house and organize collectively) can be applied on a larger scale.

Does this mean that we are witnessing a new urban movement at Berlin? Even though there have been new actors emerging that don’t fit old schemes of (identitarian) political agents, they might not include enough participation and dynamics to be called a movement. Under these present conditions many questions remains unclear. What are standards to measure success or failure? Or the beginning of new urban movements?

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