After more than a century of existence and 50 years of disputed ownership, the homeless shelter turned artist haven known as Wiesenburg (“Meadow castle”) has been passed on to public hands, leaving its bohemian inhabitants fearing for its survival.
Check out Wiesenburg, including the parts usually closed off to the public, at this weekend’s Wiesenburg Festival (Sep 10-11).
Crumbling walls, a birch tree taking root on the steps, wild vines falling through empty window openings and mysterious doors covered in fronds. Dandelion parachutes hover in the hazy light shining through budding twigs atop the missing roof. We’re inside the hidden ruins of Wiesenburg, more precisely in the old dorm of what was once the largest homeless shelter in Berlin and – until recently – a playground for artists, filmmakers and schoolchildren. The 13,000sqm haven sits in the heart of Wedding, between the Panke river and the Ringbahn, an area otherwise dominated by drab concrete façades, phone shops and men sitting with beer bottles on the benches. The only way in is through the gates on Wiesenstraße 55, where a small sign shows the names of nine people and their respective workshops and businesses nested among the ruins: a wood sculpture atelier, an art and video studio, mechanical engineering, metal workshops, a music booking and production agency, a recording studio and a dance hall. No doorbell, though. A 200m path leads up to the only part of Wiesenburg that is still legally habitable: the former administration compound, a large red brick turn-of-the-century structure adorned with volute gables in Renaissance Revival style, today a protected monument. Among its 12 residents are the members of the Dumkow family, who’ve been running and managing the property since before the war.
For decades Wiesenburg was an insider secret, which the few residents and the eccentric bohemians who populate its ruins had hoped to keep away from the attention of the Berlin Senat – its rightful owner since 2004. And for 10 years, the Senat let them be. But on November 1, 2014, the state-owned housing company Degewo was handed the keys to the gates. Large areas were deemed too dangerous for safe use and made offlimits to the residents, including the 7000sqm ex-dormitory, a huge wild garden and some of the artists’ studios – leaving the residents bewildered and worried about their future.
Amidst all the uncertainty, Joachim Dumkow still stands guard over Wiesenburg. People call him Joe. Or “Mad Dog”.
The guardian of Wiesenburg
We’re not squatters, but they closed off the grounds. Of course – a vacant place like this can’t just be left to some crazy artists.
“This is the infamous UnbezahlBAR,” says Dumkow, pointing to the moss-covered counter and dilapidated walls that stand behind the red tape installed by Degewo. His DIY bar was once the shelter’s canteen. “We’re not squatters, but they closed off these grounds. Of course – a vacant place like this can’t just be left to some crazy artists,” says the intense-looking 40-something with round steel-rimmed glasses. “The real reason? Gentrification! Would you like a beer?” By profession, Dumkow is – as he puts it – “a fucking male nurse” who’s worked for eight years as a medic on film sets, “from Hollywood to Bollywood. Do you know Shah Rukh Khan? Are you familiar with Quentin Tarantino? Have you ever heard of the Wachowski Brothers? Super, I know all of them,” he proudly declares. Born in 1967 in Wedding, Dumkow grew up in Wiesenburg and occasionally featured in the many films shot there. “Remember the little 10-year old squirt in the scene from The Tin Drum with the fire at the synagogue? That’s me!” he says. He eagerly runs through the list of greats who filmed at Wiesenburg, from Fritz Lang, who shot parts of M here in the 1920s, to 1970s directors Volker Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who shot scenes for The Tin Drum and Lili Marleen. “As you see, this is a magical place, and we wish to keep it like that,” he barks. He’s nicknamed “Mad Dog” for a reason.
He lives below his 80-year-old mother, the descendant of a Jewish benefactor of Wiesenburg; his grandfather worked there before WWII. “That’s why it hurts me when Berlin degenerates it all here,” says Dumkow, who knows every corner of Wiesenburg and its history and is more than happy to run through it over a beer or two.
Long story semi-short: in 1896, Wiesenburg was built by architects Georg Toebelmann and Otto Schmock as a men’s shelter for the Berlin Asylum Association, a humanitarian organization that counted physician Rudolf Virchow and SPD co-founder Paul Singer among its members. It expanded to shelter women in 1907, and at its 1910s peak offered accommodation and warm meals to up to 1100 people per night.
Dumkow speaks fondly of how revolutionary Wiesenburg was at the time, treating homeless people not as a “public nuisance” but as human beings in a hopeless plight. He explains how the shelter was requisitioned by the military during WWI, and by the end of the war many of Wiesenburg’s former donors couldn’t afford to support the institution. The building’s operation was continued with the support of the city of Berlin; the Jewish community took over the lease in 1926. From there, a familiar story: the building was expropriated by the Nazis in 1933 – “from thereon, there were no official homeless people,” says Dumkow – used as a headquarters for the Reich Labour Service and a workshop for printing Third Reich flags, bombed at the end of World War II. After the war, Dumkow’s mother’s family, along with other bombed-out Jewish families, moved back into the administration compound, the only surviving building. In the 1950s small industry moved in, including metal workshops. The rest of the area remained a war ruin until filmmakers, artists and the like spotted the place and started using it again.
The building’s tumultuous history left for uncertain legal ownership. “The dispute started in the early 1960s with my grand-aunt and a few residents who survived WWII,” says Dumkow. According to him, shortly before her death in 1961, Dumkow’s great-aunt, who was the last member of the board of the Asylum Association, transferred ownership rights to his mother. And the club carried on the same principles as before, says Dumkow: “helping those in need.” Wedding’s district office saw it differently. Claiming that the association now only existed to support the residents, they revoked the Asylum Association’s Verein status in 2004. Dumkow’s family appealed the verdict. “Our ownership claims are proven,” he says with a noticeably louder voice. As for the finances: “All revenues of the association flow into the preservation of Wiesenburg – otherwise we couldn’t have existed as long as we have.” But in 2014, the City Government arbitrated the dispute by handing Wiesenburg over to Degewo. The official plan: to “save” Wiesenburg “by preserving the historic site from further decay and opening it up to neighbourly and social activities in the Kiez.”
With 75,000 managed flats, Degewo is the largest state-owned housing company in Berlin and a member of the “Alliance for Corporate Social Housing Policy and Affordable Rent”. They’ve attracted attention before, when they took over the Brunnenviertel – also in Wedding – in order “to bring life back” into the low-income immigrant neighbourhood notoriously known for its drug problems and illegal labour. According to Cordula Fay of Degewo, their plan with Wiesenburg “is not to get rid of the tenants and users. Otherwise we would not have been in an ongoing dialogue with them,” she says – referring to a meeting they organised in May 2015 to which she invited all the residents and artists of Wiesenburg with the goal of discussing the development of the area. “The meeting happened in a very pleasant, constructive and respectful manner,” she continues. But Dumkow sees it as nothing more than a mere publicity stunt: “It was all promotion for them. They even took pictures of us drinking coffee and eating cake with them. But we were split up in small groups – almost purposely, it seemed – which made it hard to know what was going on.” They didn’t find out when the closed areas would be opened again, for example, or whether Degewo would end up selling off the site to private developers once faced with high renovation costs. But Fay guarantees that Wiesenburg won’t suddenly shift hands again: “We are encouraged by our shareholders to increase our inventory. A sales strategy would run counter to this course.”
Artists without studios
Many of Wiesenburg’s current tenants are distressed with the new situation, to say the least. Since the November takeover, Thomas Henriksson and Heather Allen are no longer authorized to access their own workplaces.
The people they send just look around and think: oh god, how can they work here? But for us, it’s beautiful.
“I feel like Sitting Bull. We are the Indians and they are General Custer coming to remove us,” says Henriksson. The 50-year-old Swedish painter shakes his head in despair. He actually shakes his head most of the time when speaking about “the battle” against the housing company. Henriksson, who moved to Berlin in 2000, has had his studio in Wiesenburg for 10 years. His partner, both in work and private life, is Allen, a 62-year old British sculptor who, though not as visibly upset by the situation, is “damn angry as well. I’m angry at Berlin as a whole, the way it treats its historical past.” She first visited Wiesenburg soon after moving to Berlin eight years ago and has had her studio there for the past two years. Though she and Henriksson don’t live at Wiesenburg – they share a flat in Moabit – they’ve greatly contributed to its character. Both took part in organising the 2011 art festival Dirty Fingers. “There were people coming here by the hundreds, about 400 a day for three days,” says Henriksson. Allen adds, “We had paintings hanging in the ruin, musical performances – people were blown away. Talk about opening it up to the neighbourhood.”
Now, thanks to Degewo’s claims that the floor is in danger of falling in, she and Henriksson are left in limbo. “The people they send just look around and think: Oh god, how can they work here?” she says. “But for us, it’s beautiful. Okay, so it’s a bit run down and there are water stains on the wall, but it doesn’t matter, because the atmosphere is so fantastic.”
Living the Berlin dream
Leading us around the crumbling ruins of Wiesenburg, Dumkow explains how he has gradually cleaned up the grounds himself, so the door could be opened to blossoming culture. “We have had weddings here, art exhibitions, concerts…” He points to a gap in the Terrazzo stone floor in the far back of the garden, where flowers are now growing out from underneath. “There’s a photo of me standing with a little suitcase right next to that. I’m little, just a tiny gnome. I couldn’t believe that a flower could grow out from a rock.” He has taken care to preserve Wiesenburg’s “romantic flair” – which is why he never changed the cracked windows in the bar, for instance. “We’ve been living the Berlin dream every person coming here wants to experience,” he says. “But now we, as the last bastion, are also being caught by the so-called ‘urban development’ which has been turning Berlin faceless.”
He points to the walled garden at the back of the ruins, also made off-limits by Degewo, which he cannot comprehend: “There’s a huge basement underneath it, but it has vaulted ceilings. In the last 70 years since the war, even during the bombing, it hasn’t collapsed, so why should it do so now? Some assholes also cut down 38 trees without even cleaning up the wood. We are really pissed about that.”
Despite Degewo’s adamant commitment to involve Wiesenburg’s tenants in the building’s future, Dumkow remains mistrustful. In the 1970s the Dumkow family succeeded in repelling several attempts to build high-rises on the grounds of Wiesenburg. “This time, we’re not so sure. Sooner or later, this place is going to turn into Kassel,” says Dumkow, referring to the city in northern Hesse that now hosts the Documenta art festival.
The fact is, as of now, he, his family and the artists can no longer take part in the “neighbourly and social activities” they used to, such as working together with the schools in the area, holding artist workshops and a so-called “green classroom” in the back garden where schoolchildren learn to identify plants or experience how honey is made at the beehives; something Dumkow’s 80-year old mother is greatly involved in. Berlin has few places left that enchant in the same way as Wiesenburg does. Can they trust Degewo to preserve the enchantment?
Originally published in issue 139, June 2015.