Kreuzberg pro Guggenheim!


Note: Yesterday, I vented on my blog. It’s important to know that it was a rash blog post, which usually isn’t a good idea. I used very strong words, maybe too strong. (See the comments on the other blog posts for more.) I’m writing this after sleeping on the whole issue to elaborate my position.

When I read that the Guggenheim Lab‘s stay in Berlin was about to be cancelled, I was incredibly frustrated. Not so much by the announcement, but by the reasons: A local initiative has opposed the art space on the grounds of fighting gentrification (the latter of which I don’t disagree with) and with a very violent rhetoric, speaking “for the local community”. This I disagree with. Let me explain.

I, too, am part of a local community. I don’t believe that there is one community, but many, and they all have different interests and agendas, which sometimes are mutually exclusive.

I, as a local, welcome the Guggenheim Lab to Kreuzberg. I would love to see them here.

I’m a local, as big city locals go. I’ve lived in Berlin fore more or less ten years, six of them in walking vicinity of the very spot that the Guggenheim Lab was planned to be installed on. I feel like a local, I identify with the neighborhood and the city, with the subcultures here. In other words, I love the city, and the Kiez. I help organize non-profit community events like atoms&bits Festival, Ignite Berlin, TedxKreuzberg and others. I also helped put together a conference on urban spaces, Cognitive Cities. I live in a house owned not by a faceless investment bank but a nice neighbor. I run a local business (even if it might be a very non-traditional one). So I don’t feel like I need to do much to prove that I’m part of some local communities.

Many of these communities include expats, too. People who moved to Berlin in pursuit of one dream or another, or maybe just chasing after a good time, or striving to travel the world and learn a thing or two on the way. I, too, moved here from a small south German town. Many of my friends are transplants like myself, having grown fond of the city and having gotten involved, some from other German towns, others from across Europe, the US or Asia. Does that make them less of a Berliner? I don’t think so. My girlfriend was born in the US (but grew up around here), the two friends I founded our company with moved here just to do this, our office neighbors are Dutch, Austrian, American, German and Canadian. In other words, it’s a diverse neighborhood, a diverse city, and that’s well as it should be.

The cynic in me wants to know who the people behind the initiative are, the ones who claim to speak for the local community, and who want to decide who’s ok to do stuff here, and who isn’t, and what kind of stuff. The cynic in me says, it’s probably people who moved here just as well, and by doing to helped foster the very gentrification they claim to fight, only now they’re a few years in and growing structurally conservative. But that’s the cynic in me, and I’m trying not to let him take over my thinking.

So instead, I’d like to add my voice to the public debate. That seems to be the most productive, fair and democratic way to go about it: If one minority yells loudly and drowns out the other voices, speaking up seems like a good idea. It’s the plurality of ideas that makes a democracy, so I’m adding another one. Apologies for the dramatic words, but there you go.

I’m betting there are others like me in this part of town who very much welcome the Guggenheim Lab to the neighborhood. Another local community, or an overlap of many other local communities. So I’m thinking about putting together a little microsite to voice that opinion, and contribute to the discussion. More on that later.

Kreuzberg pro Guggenheim!

A few notes as background: As for the over-arching issue of gentrification, I do see this as a huge problem. And we’ll need a political solution to foster local development without uncontrolled gentrification. Some possible tools to help keep things under control have been discussed for years, and still sound sensible to me: Limits on the amount of residential spaces that can be used for commercial purposes, regulation of rent increases and similar instruments. Also, I think that public access to the water front is an important issue, so that should be part of the discussion, too. And lastly, the Guggenheim Lab of course shouldn’t just dump a container into the hood and preach to the locals; I haven’t talked to them, but I assume that’s not the plan. I also can’t judge if the threats were really so severe that cancelling the whole thing would be appropriate, but that’s not for me to decide. I believe in chilling effects.

Disclosures: As co-organized of Cognitive Cities Conference, I’m very interested in urban development projects of this kind. All said here is purely my personal opinion, I do not speak for my company or any clients there, of course.

Update 23 March 2012: Several people pointed out – rightfully, it seems after reading up some more – that no threats of physical violence were issued and that the local police just estimated an elevated risk. My apologies for following the initial reports.

No Guggenheim for Berlin


In cooperation with a car manifacturer, the Guggenheim museum was planning to set up Guggenheim Lab, a temporary museum/art space that also has sets up shop in NYC and Mumbai, India. Just now it was cancelled due to threats of violence by extreme left-wing activists who claim they are fighting against gentrification.

Gentrification has been a big and important topic in Berlin and across the globe for a long time. It’s at the core of urban development and social justice, as in an unregulated market for living space, price hikes can drive the residents of a neighborhood out of their apartments and into cheaper areas, on some very real level uprooting families. That’s one thing.

Then there’s the counter-argument, which says that low rents are usually a by-product of poverty, which in itself isn’t a good thing, and if a neighborhood doesn’t have economic growth, it declines even further, leading to a ghetto-ization in the long term.

Social and financial/economic injustice is a very serious issue, and needs addressing. In Berlin, without even trying to pull together the exact figures because I don’t have the time right now, there are several forces at work. Notably, the average income over the last two decades hasn’t risen all that much since there’s not much “real” industry in town. On the other hand, as Berlin overcomes its historic wounds, more folks move here, and also many people end up with good (and well-paid) jobs. Where Berlin used to be, in comparison to other European capitals, dirt-cheap, it’s now only very good value. Prices in many neighborhoods rise.

It’s important to note that they rise from a historically absolutely abnormal low. That of course doesn’t help an economically troubled family living on one mediocre income.

To find a solution to fix this problem, and to make sure that the income gap is narrowed, not widened, is essential, and it’s one of the big societal tasks. The most important step on the way there is a dialog with all the stakeholders, and deliberation.

Then there’s the activists, and I’m not even sure I want to call them that, as it has a positive connotation. I’m not saying that many don’t have the best of intentions. Yet, there are enough radicals among them that deliberation is killed, dialog made impossible. When the Guggenheim museum was cancelled, it was because the organizers had to protect the people working there.

And no matter what arguments these so-called activists use, if art is made impossible because of threat of physical violence, a line is crossed that removes them from the table of democratic discourse. Using violence to enforce your personal preferences over someone else’s is at the core of fascism.* If an art museum is not built because of violence threats in Berlin, I find it hard not to conjure up historic parallels.

It’s a shame, no, it’s shameful for anyone living here, really. I’ve only lived in Berlin for 10 years, and yes, it’s changed significantly. In some ways I appreciate the way it changed, in others I don’t. But not once did I feel entitled to threaten to hurt someone if they didn’t behave the way I didn’t like, and nobody ever should have that right.

And I would love to see a demographic breakdown of the idiots who do this kind of thing. I’d bet that a majority of them, too, moved to Berlin in pursuit of one dream or another, and that they, too, visited the temporary art spaces that were squat houses, and went to alternative parties, and told their friends back home about it, and did all the other things that are, by definition, the things that fuel gentrification.

Today, I’m ashamed to live in this city that I love so much. And I hope that we’ll find a way to defend any art space against these activists’ violent, ultra-conservative, purely destructive, fascist agenda.

*Might have been a rash choice of words. See the discussion in the comments, and Philip’s fair points on this.

Update 23 March 2012: Several people pointed out – rightfully, it seems after reading up some more – that no threats of physical violence were issued and that the local police just estimated an elevated risk. My apologies for following the initial reports.