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  • Gentrification virus: Is it killing Berlin’s squat spirit?


Gentrification virus: Is it killing Berlin’s squat spirit?

REPORTAGE! House project Liebig34, among the last of its kind, is fighting to #stayathome while #socialdistancing is preventing kiez bar Syndikat from taking their anti-eviction protest to the street. But their struggle predates Corona.

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Liebigstraße 34 is one of the city’s last remaining collective housing projects, a refuge solely for women, trans and intersex people. (Photo by Nicholas Potter)

Berlin has long been a hub of radical protest. This has left its mark on the city through anarchosquats, leftie bars and autonomous youth centres. The derelict neighbourhoods of 1970s and 1980s West Berlin provided a fertile ground for alternative projects, while the Fall of the Wall left scores of abandoned, run-down buildings in its wake, quickly transforming post-Wende Berlin into a Mecca for squatters the world over. More than just illegal homes, many projects championed alternative forms of collective living based around principles of self-organisation, while others offered a safe space to marginalised communities. These housing projects were complemented by an archipelago of collective-run bars and autonomous spaces that formed the left-wing fabric of the city. However, today, the last few bastions of a once-blossoming scene are under threat.  

Berlin’s last feminist housing sanctuary

In Friedrichshain’s Nordkiez, just a stone’s throw from the notorious anarchist stronghold Rigaer94, is Liebig34. The building at Liebigstraße 34 is one of the city’s last remaining collective housing projects, a refuge solely for women, trans and intersex people. It describes itself as an anarcha-queer-feminist space – the only one of its kind in the city. Squatted in 1990 after the Fall of the Wall, Liebig quickly became legalised with a rental contract. Until recently, rent was on a pay-what-you-can basis starting at €140 per month, but the project also had free ‘solidarity rooms’ for those who couldn’t afford it. It is currently home to 30 residents from around the world. Jessie, a 27-year-old German who has lived in the house for the past two years, is one of them.

“We offer a home to people who can’t afford high rents, who are struggling to find a place in Berlin’s cut-throat property market or who perhaps have an illegal status,” Jessie explains, sitting in a café across from the building. “But it’s also a space where we can organise resistance against the patriarchy, develop feminist discourse and put it into action.”

Squatted in 1990, Liebig quickly became legalised. Until recently, rent was on a pay-what-you-can basis starting at €140 per month.

Liebig34 offers far more than just accommodation. The ground floor contains an infospace with an archive on the squatter movement in Friedrichshain, while the building also houses a bar and offers a KüFa (Küche für Alle) – a community canteen with vegan food open to the public – twice a week on Friday and Sunday evenings. Last summer, they organised a Dorffest (or village fête) together with their neighbours in the Rigaer94– complete with a cinema, painting workshops, performances, variety shows and a flea market. “Lots of kids from the Kiez came,” Jessie recalls while sipping her cola.

Despite its many friends, it’s fair to say the project isn’t universally loved. Critics speak of violent autonomists who attack police. Jessie confirmed that 12 residents are currently facing charges, but thinks that “we have to consider what violence really is. Is it throw ing a few paint bombs down from the roof? Or is it the daily violence we’re subjected to through police checks?” In 2015, the police declared the neighbourhood a Gefahrengebiet (dangerous area) – just like Kottbusser Tor and Alexanderplatz – that allows officers to carry out ID checks at any time and search passersby without a reason. “They even look under the insoles of our shoes,” says Jessie, who has been subjected to searches herself.

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Christian behind the bar at Syndikat. (Photo by Nicholas Potter)

A controversial landlord

The house was previously owned by a joint-heirship but, due to huge debts, was put on sale in a forced auction in 2007. The residents of the project tried to acquire the house themselves through a co-operative, but it was instead sold to the property speculator Gijora Padovicz in 2008 for the bargain price of €600,000. His company, Unternehmensgruppe Padovicz, owns more than 200 housing buildings in Friedrichshain alone. The company’s approach to business is controversial. Its strategy generally consists of buying up cheap, old houses and renovating them, which critics say often results in longstanding tenants being kicked out or hit with extortionate rents afterwards.

The company has also gained a reputation for dubious practices, which are well documented on a website set up by disgruntled tenants: padowatch.noblogs.org. In 2008, Padovicz gave Liebig34 a lease agreement for 10 years, which expired on December 31, 2018. But the residents refused to move out and, since last summer, have stopped paying rent – thus technically making the project a squat again. The company is now trying to evict them through the courts. An initial hearing in November was quickly abandoned after residents and sympathisers staged a bare-breasted protest in the courtroom. The squatters were subsequently banned from the courthouse, the court decision is pending. “We’re not moving out and we’re not giving up this house,” Jessie says adamantly. “We will resist.”

Neukölln’s lefty community pub

While Liebig34 and its supporters wait for a final decision, Neukölln’s leftie hangout bar Syndikat is also under threat, with its fight for survival unmasking a Berlin property giant in the process. Opened in 1985 by squatters from a neighbouring housing project on Weisestraße, the collective-run pub has been a Schillerkiez staple for 34 years. But Syndikat isn’t just a haven for left-wing scenesters planning their next demo over a 1312 Sabotage Pils. “We’re a community pub,” stresses Christian, a 39-year-old Cologne native who’s been a member of the collective for 12 years. The pub is dingy, but in a charming way; its walls are lined with posters from demos past, while above the bar hang two scarves with the slogans: “one struggle, one fight” and “Syndikat bleibt” (Syndikat is staying).

The collective immediately looked to negotiate with the property management firm, but that’s where things got complicated.

Highlighting its community credentials, Syndikat hosts regular Kiez meetings where local residents can seek advice for their own housing struggles, with lawyers and rent specialists on hand to help out. This is a particularly pertinent issue in Schillerkiez, which over the past 10 years has witnessed some of the most rapid gentrification in Berlin. Between 2010 and 2015, the typical purchase price per square metre of property doubled to €3500, according to the taz newspaper.

With all this change, Syndikat is one of the few remnants of former times still left in the neighbourhood. But soon it could be last orders. In July 2018, Syndikat received notice that their contract was to be terminated, and that they had until the end of that year to hand over the keys. The collective immediately looked to negotiate with the property management firm, but that’s where things got complicated. They found out the legal owner was a Luxembourg-based company called Firman Properties S.à.r.l., but after struggling to find any further information online, decided to do some sleuthing. Friends of the bar who live near the Luxembourgish border drove to the firm’s address and found a PO box with 76 other company names listed. Eventually, after a search that saw them scour Danish commercial registries, they found a company with links to Firman: UK-headquarted Pears Global.

Pears vs the pub

Pears Global Real Estate is owned by three brothers from the UK. An old version of the company’s website, which has since been taken offline, stated that Pears owned 6200 flats and commercial units in Berlin. Meanwhile, more recent research from Syndikat,verified by investigative research centre Correctiv and the Tagesspiegel, found that the company owned at least 3000 apartments in the Haupstadt– all managed through a dizzying string of shell companies. Subsequent research by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung revealed that Firman Properties – the ownerof Syndikat’s building – is owned by Knights Properties, also based in Luxembourg, which in turn belongs to Knapwed Holdings Limited in Cyprus, which itself belongs to Karayan Limited in the British Virgin Islands. And sitting at the top of this tree is Pears Global. So while Firman Properties officially owns just five buildings in Berlin, it is part of a much larger web controlling a much larger chunk of the city’s real estate pie.

It’s pretty clear. The state protects property and capital but not social spaces like ours.

Nevertheless, in 2017 Firman recorded a turnover of €1.2 million, but in Luxembourg paid just €535 in tax. “That just shows how this whole system is built,” Christian fumes. So far, every attempt to contact the three Pears brothers has proved unsuccessful. An eviction hearing took place on October 29last year. No one from Pears Global attended. Syndikat’s lawyers argued that the shell company wasn’t adequately represented through a lawyer and criticised the fact that the company had been registered in Luxembourg. Unfortunately, the judge wasn’t convinced by Syndikat’s anti-capitalist critique, and on November 26 the court ruled in Firman Properties’ favour. Syndikat have appealed the decision but Christian’s faith in the courts to save the bar isn’t particularly strong. “It’s pretty clear. The state protects property and capital but not social spaces like ours.”

While Liebig34 and Syndikat hope for the best and plan for the worst, alternative housing projects in the city are banding together to defend their very existence. A campaign has been launched under the title “Kein Haus weniger” (not one house fewer), garnering support from prominent cultural figures such as Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, choreographer at Berlin’s State Ballet Sasha Waltz, Schaubühne intendant Thomas Ostermeier and the directors René Pollesch, Milo Rau, Ersan Mondtag and Leander Haußmann. The campaign recently published an open letter demanding the protection of these free, alternative spaces. Its message: “Without its alternative housing and cultural projects, Berlin would only be the city where the Wall once stood. Socially, politically and culturally, it would be much poorer.” 

The protest may appear to be little more than a tempest in the teacups of the Pears and Padoviczs of this world, but the point it makes might be worth keeping in mind for investors hoping to benefit from Berlin’s identity in the future.