About 2,500 police officers deployed to evict inhabitants of one of the capital city’s last squats marked the beginning of the Berlin underground scene. The building in the former East Berlin district of Friedrichshain became a squatting place twenty years ago, when a mass influx of inhabitants came here following the fall of the Berlin Wall thus making it Europe’s main squatting place. But this “open” city image where squatters from all over the world poured in has long since become an empty symbol and just a squatter here or there has remained while others have been either evicted or forced to sign a lease making them legal residents. This most recent eviction of squatters provoked riots which soon escalated into real street warfare between the police and squatters where twenty people were arrested while a several policemen were injured.
Should the legendary Tacheles, the renowned Berlin squat building, be evicted as has been announced for the past two years, it’s anyone’s guess what’s next in line. This one-time department store has been changing its utilization purpose since it was built in the early 20th century in the Jewish neighborhood Scheunenviertel. It even served as a Nazi prison at one point and was bombed during the Second World War only to be scheduled for demolition in April 1990 after standing empty for years on end. However, two months prior to the scheduled demolition artists moved in and organized public discussions and lobbied with the city authorities to prevent demolition. When an expert analysis showed that the building was in good shape it was proclaimed a protected monument and ceded to the artists. Today artists no longer live in Tacheles. Now there’s a total of 9000 square meters of exhibition space, around 30 artists’ ateliers, the Zapata Club, workshop spaces, performance arts scene, cinema… Tacheles has become a cultural center, a touchstone for the city’s anti-gentrification movement and a must-see tourist stop, which some 400.000 people visit annually (there’s no entrance charge), but could now well be counting its last days.
Even though there’s been talk of evicting artists since late 2008, when the artists’ lease was up, nobody dared give the go-ahead as they knew that it would provoke massive protests. However, in the meantime the bank stepped in and it wants to settle its debts. Namely, the former owner of the building and its large surrounding lot, development entrepreneur Anno August Jagdfeld, wasn’t able to cover his seven-figure debts to the state bank, the HSH Nordbank any longer, thus the bank became the new owner of Tacheles. The former owner also had various plans for that location (residential developments…), but gave up on the idea after attempting to negotiate with the squatters and an agreement was reached where the squatters paid him a symbolic rent of one euro per annum. However, the bank isn’t so generously inclined toward the squatters. On the contrary, it intends to sell Tacheles and throw the artists out while asking them to cough up a hundred thousand euro worth of rent for the first year. The bank intends to auction off the whole real estate with a starting price of 35 million euro, as this is quite a valuable and large lot in an attractive location at the corner of Oranienburger and Friedrichstrasse. The bank’s spokesperson says they have some ten potential buyers and that they all intend to keep the building but not the artists in it. The city authorities, which allocated money for the programs that were held there also spoke on behalf of saving Tacheles, it being a “symbol of the city’s development for the part twenty years”, but for now it hasn’t made an impact on the bank’s attitude, as the bank itself is dealing with losses and is looking for a way to cut them. However, André Schmitz, the city “Minister of Culture”, warned the bank that Tacheles, as a protected cultural monument, must continue to preserve and maintain its cultural orientation.
Of course, the artists have no intention of giving up without a fight. They’re doing everything they can, from writing letters to Chancellor Angela Merkel to threatening a hunger strike and chaining themselves to the building.
The fight over Tacheles is a continuation of a Berlin debate over city management. The winners in the debate have always been various investors whose new projects meant the end of alternative locations. Will that be the case with Tacheles? We’ll find out soon enough as the place is all set to be sold to the highest bidder.