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Autonomous Free Spaces: The Battlegrounds of Berlin


Writing by Lucy Rosenberg. Artwork by Sarah Dobbs.


"There are no borders between peoples, only between the top and the bottom."


Just over a month ago, the former residents of the Køpi 137 Hausprojekt (housing project) marked the one-year anniversary of their eviction. Following a string of similarly forceful ejections across Berlin, including that of the famous Liebig 34 Hausprojekt (evicted at the height of the pandemic), Berlin’s radical co-housing scene is disappearing to make way for increasing gentrification.

Currently, a housing crisis similar to that of the corporate hubs of Hamburg and Munich is ravaging Germany’s cultural capital. The overturning of the progressive Mietendeckel (rent cap) in April 2021, has caused rent prices to skyrocket, along with inflation and gas prices following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Not to mention the displacement of thousands of refugees who now find themselves in Berlin and in need of accommodation. As such, the time has come to reorientate the housing system towards meeting social needs, rather than chasing profits in the form of condo complexes only affordable to the upper-middle classes and foreign investors.


Before it’s eviction and subsequent demolition, the Køpi Hausprojekt lay in the trendy neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, close enough to hear the low drone of Tresor’s techno music and to see the flamboyant and revealing attire of the KitKat regulars. Having stood on Köpenicker Straße, one of the oldest streets in Berlin, since the early 1900s, Køpi was the street’s only remaining pre-war building, giving it an unparalleled historical value. Originally used as a dancing hall for the working class, the building has since become a visible representation of Germany’s checkered past, surviving two World Wars and the GDR regime. By the early 1990s, the building was destined for demolition, but its occupation by a group of West German “Automen '' saved Køpi from such a fate. Instead, the graffiti covered building and the adjacent “Wagenplatz” (trailer park) played host to over 100 residents, offered free concerts and exhibitions as non-commercialised forms of entertainment and education, and provided a community for those seeking an alternative to commodified housing.


Sadly, what was once a vibrant site for communal living is now littered with piles of rubble, barbed wire, and stagnant heavy machinery. Despite suspicious paper trails to previous buyers and a rather spurious power of attorney signature for the demolition process, the dubious current owner, Siegfried Nehls of Startezia GmbH, ordered the eviction a month before the expiration of the building permit. Since then, the plot has remained unused, with many former residents believing that it will be sold on again, empty, despite the dire need for affordable housing in Berlin.


Therefore, it’s no surprise that the closure of these housing projects has been met with vehement resistance and protest. In October 2021, on the day of Køpi’s eviction, over 2000 police officers were deployed across Germany in response to potential decentralised resistance, with over 1,300 active in Berlin. The inordinate, violent, and expensive response of the police force is rarely covered by journalists, who revel in painting demonstrators as violent punks in black hoods, intent on attacking authority figures and torching cars. Yet, the rejection of the pursuit of monetary profit which is changing the face and very ethos of Germany’s capital is the only cause for which the occupants are fighting. By autonomously maintaining the building, the residents not only preserved a physical symbol of German history, but the very occupation of the building serves as a steadfast representation of the intersectional, anti-capitalist struggle which has defined and shaped Berlin for so many years.


Thus, it is clear that capitalist development projects are incongruous to the grassroots culture which pervades Berlin's urban society. The desperate demand for social housing runs counter to the objectives of vulture-like property developers who continue to pick off autonomous free spaces, not only to deepen their own pockets, but to exploit social inequality. Moreover, the costs of these evictions are incredibly dear. Surely the estimated 1 million euros needed to evict Liebig 34 would be better spent on social infrastructure investments and alternative, non-commodified spaces rather than aiding shady individuals in their capitalist crusade to create a homogenous landscape of flat-pack apartment blocks. Thus, the residents of Køpi advocate not just for the preservation of their own home, but also for a diverse and inclusive society, which recognises housing as a human need, rather than a commodity.


Despite their eviction, the former residents are still active, even temporarily reoccupying the plot earlier this year and encouraging numerous protests since. The very essence of Køpi is characterised by transgression, conflict and struggle; a bastion of revolution itself, which shows no sign of dissipating in the face of gentrification.



Sources

Sandler, D., 2016. ‘Living Projects: Collective Housing, Alternative Culture, and Spaces of Resistance’ in Counterpreservation: Architectural decay in Berlin since 1989. Cornell University Press, pp47-89.

https://koepi137.net/

https://kopibleibt.noblogs.org/

https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/raumungstermin-fur-kopi-wagenplatz-steht-fest-5614750.html

https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/kopi-unterstutzer-verkunden-besetzung-von-gebaude--polizei-widerspricht-4282831.html

https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/kopi-unterstutzer-verkunden-besetzung-von-gebaude--polizei-widerspricht-4282831.html

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/23/berlin-rent-cap-defeated-landlords-empty

https://taz.de/Protesttermine-in-Berlin/!5887658/

https://en.squat.net/tag/liebig34/

https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/last-stand-for-the-far-left-berlin-commune-fights-the-property-developers-a-525017.html

https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article217541798/Liebig34-Es-war-einmal-eine-Festung.html?icid=search.product.onsitesearch

https://taz.de/Raeumung-des-Koepi-Wagenplatzes-in-Berlin/!5808168/


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