The Dull Irony of a Hamburg Artist Squat
Everything about Hamburg is grey. This isn’t that surprising, grey is efficient, hard working and practical – much like the Germans.
But Gängeviertel wasn’t grey. The bright pink entrance, scattered with once-loved books and handmade origami mobiles sucked me in to Hamburg’s eccentric underground like a wet noodle through a draining sink. I stumbled across Gängeviertel somewhere between a Deutsche Bank, some office blocks and an Urban Outfitters. The graffiti covered walls, homemade stickers and Buddhist prayer flags drew me to the empty courtyard. I could smell stale Lucky Strikes, pungent marijuana smoke and a vibe of old-school defiance. Dull, lifeless rain drizzled from the sky, unmotivated to do anything but dampen the brightly coloured hammocks and overgrown pot plants.
A lady with greying dreadlocks, who looked slightly past middle aged, emerged from one of the buildings for a cigarette, clad in hand-knitted winter wear, hemp and Birken-clogs with bright rainbow socks peeping out of the heel. In my very best German, I asked her about the colourful courtyard. She squinted over her wire-rimmed glasses, exhaled blue-grey smoke and invited me inside the decaying, painted white-brick building. Over a cup of ethically sourced, single-origin organic soy wanker-cino, Helen told me the story of the building.
Gängeviertel was born one-part squat, one-part commune and two-parts groovy art, music and events space. A number of people reside permanently in the buildings, struggling through harsh European winters in demand of their urban and spiritual freedom.
Helen is the matriarch, founding member and permanent resident of the squat. An artist by trade, she also runs a general communal store for residents and free potluck dinners for all. She showed me around the common areas, her thick German accent riddled with the hoarse croaks of a pack-a-day smoker, explaining to me in German and broken English the inner workings of the space. She preached the beauty of communal, off-the-grid living. There was an overwhelming sense of calm and peace about Helen. She seemed less highly-strung than the majority of Germans I’d met, less driven by that German efficiency.
In 2009, when the place was at risk of being demolished in the name of luxury apartments, a group of around 200 local creatives rallied in Gängeviertel to save the heritage building. The labyrinth of tall 18th century buildings and tight meandering walkways are the last of their kind in Hamburg and hold a deep historical significance to the city. The protesters were not having a bar of Dutch Investors’ plans to gentrify their quarter and Gängeviertel remains.
Inside, the buildings are dilapidated and cold, with splintering wooden floors and low-lying ceilings to match. Illegally wired lights glow an orange-yellow, illuminating only a small circle of the rooms. A patchwork of furniture fills the rooms, oozing stories from all the people it has seated. Art is spread across walls and lays resting in the corners.
Helen’s language is colourful and all over the place, much like the rooms, but her voice exudes a true sense of pride in her viertel. She preaches the beauty of living amongst friends and like-minded individuals, where the community can rely on each other to contribute a different, yet equally valuable skill-set to survive. She speaks from her heart about the meaning she found living a life outside of the monotonous “slave, consume, repeat” mantra of the world outside Gängeviertel and the independence she discovered through self-sufficiency. Her strength and courage was realised through the success of the Gängeviertel occupation and in preventing its gentrification.
As she guided me around the narrow, winding maze of paint-speckled alleyways and musty, decrepit rooms, I noticed something in the way she spoke that seemed contradictory to her philosophies on alternative, off-the-grid living. She spoke animatedly about the miracles of an activated charcoal water filter and how it changed her life. She shoved homemade black-and-white pamphlets into my hands. In the communal store, intertwined with her explanation of the “pay as you feel” honesty system, was a short sales pitch on the benefits of air-pressed, single-origin coffee beans and how it is so much tastier and so much better for the coffee farmers. I began to question the legitimacy of Helen and her “subversive” message. Was she advertising needless products to me in the hope that she would make a buck? Did she regularly invite tourists in to sell them this crap?
Everything about the beautiful, powerful, bright, self-sufficiency of Gängeviertel turned a little bit grey.
Perhaps Gängeviertel has more in common with the mass-produced, over-priced bohemian fashion in the Urban Outfitters down the street than its residents think. Despite the illusion Helen created, she still depended on capitalist structures to exist in her unconventional paradise. And I was starting to feel like a customer.
I suppose capitalism is all-pervasive, no matter how hard you try to escape it – even for Helen and the Gängeviertel squatters. At the end of the day, it’s pretty hard to get by without money. But despite the perceived distance between Gängeviertel and the mainstream, Helen’s anti-capitalist sentiments seemed a little ironic.
Photos by the author