Politics

Friedel54’s last stand

Some David vs. Goliath stories have happy endings. This isn’t one of them. For the past three months Neukölln’s remaining anarchists faced off against a Luxembourgian corporation evicting their community space. On Jun 29 that fight will be over.

Image for Friedel54's last stand
Photo by Marie Yako
Some David vs. Goliath stories have happy endings. This isn’t one of them. Since last year, Neukölln’s remaining anarchists have been facing off against a Luxembourgian corporation evicting their community space. On June 29 that fight will finally be over. It’s an unusually warm Sunday in early April, and sunlight bounces off the car roofs and cobbles of northern Neukölln. Rubber boats float lazily on the Landwehrkanal, their inhabitants smiling behind oversized sunglasses. Down the road, brightly-dressed families, students and young professionals sit outdoors at Polish, Peruvian and English-American restaurants and cafés, while Fräulein Frost contends with lengthy queues of customers waiting patiently in the sunshine for their organic, homemade ice cream. Welcome to the happy, gentrified microcosm of Friedelstraße. Further down, though, a police car blocks off part of the road. A crowd of around 100 are listening to impassioned speeches in front of an unrenovated Altbau, its worn, red-painted front adorned with graffiti and banners. One states “Risiko Kapital” (risk capital) in bold black paint, alongside a skull and crossbones. Above, scrawled on the wall in white, it reads: “Wir bleiben alle!” We are all staying. In front of the house, tables offer vegan food in return for a small donation. Other stands have leaflets and books on socialism, anarchism and anticapitalism. Despite the police presence, the atmosphere is jovial. Children play in the street while neighbours lean out of their windows, watching the scene unfold. There’s live music, too. A girl of around 10 sings her own antidisplacement song to the crowd, and later a man in his mid-thirties raps about his experiences moving around Berlin trying to find an affordable home. Flyers strewn around the event explain the situation: The Friedel54 Kiezladen, aka the neighbourhood bar/“living room” on the ground floor of Friedelstraße 54, is on borrowed time. Its rental agreement was terminated in 2016, and a court settlement giving the group permission to voluntarily exit the premises expired at the end of March. Now its final eviction date is set for June 29. Having made a name for itself over the last 13 years with exhibitions, readings, free legal advice, residential support and political events, the social and political hub is now occupying its premises illegally and will most likely be forceably evicted at the end of this month. And with it gone, the residents of Friedelstraße 54’s apartments may not be far behind. Yet the message we hear from the speakers at the demonstration, this Sunday and every Sunday in April, is that the Friedel54 Kiezladen is not going anywhere. “We are all staying,” a woman at the mic repeats. “Friedel54 must remain.”
A collective history
Image for Friedel54's last stand
Demonstrators at one of many “F54 bleibt!” protests. Photo by Lucas Rubio Albizo
Graffiti and banners at demos lump “F54” with the threatened likes of punk mini-village Køpi and Friedrichshain lefty stronghold Rigaer 94, but the Neukölln apartment building was never a squat. In fact, it’s just a normal, if shabby, Altbau, with 20 flats in various states of (dis)repair. Some, but not all, still have coal heating. Many inhabitants are longtime Berliners with cheap, decades-old contracts, paying some €6 per square metre when most on-the-market Friedelstraße flats command at least twice that.   The Kiezladen itself is cool and dark, lined with posters advertising past and future protests. Two shabby yet cosy living rooms are bisected by a kitchen and by-donation bar, where the collective’s press officer, a 27-year-old man using the pseudonym “Matthias Sander”, is hanging out between introducing speeches. A student, part-time bartender and Neuköllner since 2009, he’s been involved with Friedel54 since joining the neighbourhood’s local anarchist chapter four years ago. He also provides free legal advice for tenants in the Kiezladen’s weekly counseling sessions. Sander doesn’t live in the house itself, but is familiar with its history. He explains how the Kiezladen was founded in 2004, when two friends sharing a flat on the ground floor of Friedelstraße 54 decided to open up their home to neighbours and friends. It quickly became a central meeting point for local alternatives at a time when Neukölln was called “dangerous and dirty”, Sander explains. The founders have long since moved out, but the space remains. It’s now managed by Akazie e.V., a collective comprising residents of Friedelstraße 54 and a handful of interested outsiders like Sander. Some 15 local left-leaning initiatives host events there, exactly what you’d expect: punk rock vegan dinners, art exhibitions, sewing workshops, meet-ups for refugee rights group Corasol and Sander’s Anarchistische Gruppe Neukölln. As Sander makes clear, the space has no commercial goal – food and drinks are sold by donation, which goes towards the space’s €6/sqm rent. Or at least, it used to.
Out of the frying pan… Friedel54’s troubles began in 2013, when the building was purchased by the Austrian company Citec Immo Invest GmbH. A year after their takeover, Citec put forward plans outlining improvements and renovations to the house, including additional insulation for the 50cm-thick outer walls and a €14,000 wooden shed for the rubbish bins. Some renovations would have been welcome, says Sander: the building needs new rain gutters, and gas heating wouldn’t hurt. But these particular measures seemed intended to do nothing but artificially raise the rent, displacing the flat’s long-term tenants. The collective, in conjunction with the Berliner Mieterverein fought back, bringing a lawsuit forth against Citec. And even though “there was scaffolding in front of the building for two years,” according to Sander, the intended renovations never took place. As retaliation – or so Friedel54 collective members suspect – Citec announced the termination of the Kiezladen’s contract effective May 1, 2016. They gave no official reason, and didn’t have to: business spaces in Berlin don’t enjoy the same protections as apartments. Faced with this latest setback, Sander and the rest of the collective came up with a bold plan: they’d buy Friedelstraße 54 themselves and manage it as a group. They hired a lawyer, came up with a financing plan and spread word in the press. In the spring of 2016, 100 collective members and supporters travelled to Vienna by coach to visit Citec Immo Invest GmbH to argue their case, although the furthest they could get was speaking to a porter in the building. (“He was extremely nice,” says Sanders.) But eventually, thanks to protests, direct aid from the Kiezladen and the support of the public, they were able to get Citec to take the house off the market and begin negotiations to purchase the property.
…and into the fire What seemed like a triumph for the group soon backfired when they realised, in October, that Citec had gone behind their backs. “We only heard they’d sold it when our neighbours read about it in the newspaper,” says Sander regretfully. “We had no idea.” The new investor, Pinehill S.a.r.l., is a Luxembourgian shell corporation with backers scattered all over the world, making direct communication between the residents and the new owners all but impossible. “Every time we try to contact someone, they just say ‘That’s not my department,’ and direct us to another one of their offices. The only communication we’ve had from them is about the eviction of the Kiezladen,” Sander continues. The group received a letter stating that Pinehill had taken over the shop’s eviction, and that it would proceed as planned. In a court case, the Kiezladen collective agreed they would leave voluntarily before March 31, 2017, although, says Sander, “We had no intention of doing so – that was just to avoid having to leave immediately.” They then stopped paying rent. “As a political act. A denunciation,” if not the shrewdest move, legally speaking. At that point, Pinehill S.a.r.l. was no longer interested in negotiating. Said Pinehill lawyer Heike Waskow in a terse interview with RBB in February: “My client does not want tenants who do not pay the rent.” If, as they claim, the tenants agreed to leave before March 31, there would now have to be a forceful eviction. Waskow remained vague about modernisation plans of the whole housing block, but admitted: “I know that some individual apartments should be renovated. But their condition should be adapted to meet the usual standard. They shouldn’t be luxury apartments.” Nor could they be, even if Pinehill tried: since 2015, like Kreuzberg 36, northern Neukölln has been under Milieuschutz, preventing the conversion of regular flats into high-rent luxury units. But evicting the collective that so effectively helped fight renovation attempts by the previous owners is a bad sign for residents, who fear Pinehill will bring Friedel54’s rents in line with the current neighbourhood average, if not higher. Says Sander: “They tell us it’s just the Kiezladen now. But in six months, things could be different.”
Image for Friedel54's last stand
Photo by Marie Yako
Fighting the good fight The house, Kiezladen and collective have received lavish attention from the local, national and even international press, but it’s now clear that wasn’t enough. Nor was the city government in any position to offer aid: “The district councillors are sympathetic, but they’ve told us, ‘It’s too late now, there’s nothing we can do. You should have come to us earlier.’” It’s already almost three months past the agreed-upon departure date. At an April meeting over vegan supper at the Kiezladen, both weather and mood were much chillier than on that Sunday weeks earlier. The room was half-empty as a pair of anarchists from Sander’s group reminded attendees about the coming Saturday’s joint demonstration with the punks at Rigaer 94, and the ensuing Aktionswoche – a week in which Friedel54 supporters were encouraged to raise awareness. How, exactly? “Be creative!” They then discussed forced eviction strategies, with their advice amounting to: “Tell the neighbours, form a human blockade and ask yourself whether you’re willing to get pepper-sprayed in the face.” What will happen when the police finally come for Friedel54 on June 29? “We can’t fight the police – no one can,” says Sander. “But we’ll be there, many of us, to let them know, until the very end, that we don’t agree with what’s happening.”  “We have this saying,” he says, pointing to an English-language slogan graffitied on the wall: ‘The future is still unwritten…’” The dejected expression on the young activist’s face says otherwise.