Recently I played a long evening game of soccer with other twenty-somethings, teenagers, and kids on a small rectangle of AstroTurf in Kreuzberg. A mixture of backgrounds: German, Turkish, Argentinian, New Zealander.
The kids ranged in age from six up. We were playing first to seven, and that final goal took over an hour.
Afterwards, at 9:40pm, this gaggle of kids wove their way onto the footpath, a few buildings along, and through a metal gate into the courtyard of their own housing building. Half of them had small Germany shirts on, in celebration of the World Cup. They pierced the street with their whistles, one of many sounds that contribute to life here.
Earlier that evening I’d met a journalist, who’s filming a project through which I volunteer.
What’s so special about Berlin?
‘What’s so special about this town?’ he said, a mock-question really, because he also told me in the space of an hour that Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg used to be considered ‘so hip,’ fifteen years ago; back then, Kreuzberg and Neukölln were considered boring, ‘home,’ he claimed, ‘to alcoholics, pensioners and Turkish families.’
It was worth checking out the Bowie exhibition, and did I know before I came that Berlin would be like this, so crazy? The streets around are like civil war.
This was a reference to an(other) awful episode in the story of the state’s repression of refugees, and refugees’ amazing fight back and self-organisation in Berlin this year. Contested public space.
The city had tried to evict Ohlauer Straße, a refugee school in a squatted building that’s been running for over a year.
Squatting is illegal in Berlin, despite its long history and earlier heyday. Twenty refugees refused to leave, climbed onto the roof, and threatened to jump if the cops entered the building. Meanwhile, nine hundred (!) police officers encircled the streets below, closed access to vehicles, set up blockades to stop pedestrians, and variously surveilled and attacked the people who gathered as close as they could get to the school.
A little earlier, I’d watched five homeless guys who live near Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof. There was an altercation – not violent – between two of them, and one had his bag thrown across the ground. Someone called the Police and soon four cars, and ten officers, arrived.
They appeared to tell the men to disperse, to move on, but the guys simply crossed the road, having nowhere else to go. A form of occupation; we are staying in this space.
The public come first
I get a strong sense of the public, the civic, the use of public space here. From frequent green spaces, to people walking and cycling and sitting in cafes on the street. Fruit & veggie markets and flea markets that operate in streets and parks every week. Closed off to traffic and instead edged by small stalls, seats, and people walking through, milling, shopping, eating ice-cream.
Frequent festivals that do the same across whole suburbs, free outdoor music festivals. Demos. Debates over whether to develop the large ex-airport Tempelhof, or leave it all as public space.
The latter position won in a recent referendum. All this high level of liveability is maintained by people’s own agency, creating and recreating public space, within the limits of their circumstances.
These spaces are not privately owned and individually administered like a Facebook group. They are not pay-for-entry music festivals. They are not privately owned and quietly security guarded malls, where you can be evicted for walking slowly or taking notes (try it sometime).
I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. It’s an uplifting account of the way most people respond to disaster (altruistically, organising together). She celebrates public life, and the concept of a beloved community (popularised by Martin Luther King). Solnit writes:
“The differences between Mexican and U.S or Canadian culture matter here. Mexicans often put a higher value on public life of the most immediate sort, on strolling, gathering, and celebrating in public; they have inherited a public architecture of plazas, monuments, and open market-places; these things are part of society there in a way that they are not in most places farther north…Public life still plays a strong role in many Latin American countries as both a pleasure and a source of political power, and Latinos have a stronger recent history of political organising outside and against institutions.” (p. 147).
There is a public life of this sort here in Berlin, and it’s a joy to experience.
Frances Mountier is a writer living in Berlin.