History of the Kreuzberg district in Berlin
Urban renewal, mobilizations of the inhabitants and squat movement
Lucie LECHEVALIER HURARD, 2008
Association Internationale de Techniciens, Experts et Chercheurs (AITEC)
Social movements for the right to the city
From the squat movement in Berlin to local referendums to maintain local public services, this fact sheet offers a short walk through the history of urban social movements claiming the right to the city in Germany.
The small « Museum of Urban Renewal and Social History of Kreuzberg » invites us, in text and images, to discover the history of the urban renewal plans of a working-class neighborhood in West Berlin and the history, intertwined with the first, of its inhabitants: through their mobilizations, the latter opposed urban planning projects that often forgot that Kreuzberg had always been a mixed neighborhood, and that it intended to remain so.
Today, it is both a popular neighborhood, which welcomes many migrant families, old and new, but Kreuzberg is also the boutique and gentrified neighborhood of trendy bars and luxury lofts.
A short dive into the history of the neighborhood, which will allow us to understand where this typical tangle comes from, and to take a little tour through the Berlin « squat movement », which made its debut there in the 1980s.
The Kreuzberg district was built more than a hundred years ago to accommodate the poorest of the poor: migrants coming from Poland or the former East German provinces (Silesia) to find work in the capital of the new Reich. Poor quality housing was found alongside small factories: the streets were very narrow and common spaces were rare. The neighborhood has thus had a popular tradition since its creation.
The post-war period and reconstruction
At the end of the Second World War, the inhabitants of Kreuzberg mobilized to rebuild the buildings destroyed by the Allied bombing: 42% of the district’s housing was razed or was unusable. At the time, there was a lack of money and materials for a real reconstruction. It was therefore the inhabitants who took on the task of rehabilitation, which was absolutely necessary for the thousands of homeless people to find a roof over their heads.
From 1954 onwards, the Marshall Plan funds made it possible to launch a large-scale reconstruction. The old principles of social construction of the Weimar Republic were taken up again: apartments with « light, air and sunshine » were desired.
For the first time, urban spaces were also planned that were not structured by straight streets: the buildings were separated from each other, never aligned. The typical Berlin subdivisions disappear. Passers-by should have the feeling of moving around in a whole, without there being a break within the district.
Finally, the mixing of functions in urban spaces, which was the specificity of Kreuzberg, is to be abolished: residential areas are to be separated from workshops, commercial areas and even cultural spaces. Culture is assigned to separate « cultural forums ». This is the end of a neighborhood tradition.
A marginal district of West Berlin
With the construction of the Wall separating East and West, Kreuzberg, which until then had been located in the center of the city, became a peripheral district of West Berlin.
Once the reconstruction was completed, the building contractors were looking for new business sites. They proposed the rehabilitation of old buildings according to the « clear-cutting » method: their motto was « Demolition and Reconstruction ". The renovation of old buildings does not interest : there is a lack of knowledge and know-how in this field. On the other hand, new construction of large volumes is of definite interest : it is a matter of supporting the construction industry, which is of major importance for the economy of this city, a small island of the Western world isolated and drowned in the middle of the FRG.
The argument used to defend these destructions is the unsuitability of the old housing for the new social structures of West Berlin: the urban planners of the time explain that it is not only the buildings that are old, but that the society that lives in the Kreuzberg district is « outdated, uncultured, mildly asocial, incapable of adaptation, and, in any case, resistant to any change1 ". In this « outdated society » the elements of modern society in the new West Berlin could not gain ground.
The first urban renewal plan for the Kreuzberg district in 1963 was designed around this idea: the traces of the city’s black history had to disappear in order for the new democratic order to be fully expressed in the city. The municipality nevertheless considers the participation of the inhabitants in these renovation projects to be important: while in the western part of the district large housing estates are built very quickly, without thorough consultation of the tenants concerned, the renovation of the area south of the subway railway will take much longer, because of the obligations regarding consultation of the inhabitants, which are laid down in a 1971 law.
The emergence of a citizen protest
The project of a group of private investors was nevertheless implemented on the Cottbus Gate square: a massive « dragon » of 300 dwellings and 15,000 m2 of commercial space was built around the square.
It is only after the construction of this complex that real protests from the inhabitants arise. These new buildings have consequences for the surrounding tenants: the population of the neighborhood is changing, the tradition of social mix is a thing of the past, rents are increasing, many people, especially immigrant workers, have to leave the area}}. The rest of the district is promised, in a rather short term, to the same fate : as a result, the rental leases indicate the planned term of the contract: « until demolition ".
Three types of people lived in Kreuzberg in the 1970s :
the « old people ", who were born and raised there ;
immigrant workers, who found the most affordable rents in the city ;
and the young people who believe that they have found in Kreuzberg a niche for social experimentation of alternative forms of « living together ».
In the area « SO 362 » one finds many living communities, political initiatives, women’s groups, alternative economy projects, etc. : the idea of responsibility and commitment for the collective good links all these groups.
They will be at the origin of the most intense movement of contestation of the urban renewal projects planned for the district}}. Places where opposition to the urban renewal projects converged emerged. For example, the Mieterladen organizes actions against the practices of the developers of the current projects, whom they accuse in particular of buying old buildings and then leaving them abandoned to justify their demolition, which they need to carry out their large programs. And indeed, the number of empty homes is growing, along with the number of people looking for a home.
In 1979, a new form of the inhabitants’ struggle appeared: the « maintenance occupations ». Residents of the district occupied two old buildings that were to be demolished. The experiment was a success because a few months later the owner granted the occupants proper rental leases, which completely removed the threat of demolition.
At the beginning of 1980, about twenty buildings were occupied in the same way in a few weeks: everyone’s hope was to prevent the destruction of old buildings, which remained the only obstacle to an explosion in rental costs. The renovation of the old buildings, whose cost is low, must guarantee the maintenance of a modest population in the district.
A Free Republic of Kreuzberg ?
All the squatters in the district meet to share their experiences and to develop common strategies for negotiating with the public authorities. They form a « squatters’ council ". Some of them dream of a « Free Republic of Kreuzberg » with its own alternative bodies of common operation. Projects with a social dimension are emerging: an art and cultural center, a health center, a counseling center for women, a collective farm…
The common capacity for mobilization was strong: when the police evicted one of the squats in December 1980, this provoked major confrontations in the street. Many other demonstrations followed.
The relationship with the authorities became increasingly tense when the new government elected in 1981 declared that it wanted to develop a « Berlin line of reason " : it was simply a matter of evicting all squats and above all of preventing the occupation of new buildings at all costs, in particular for the benefit of the owners who immediately began the process of renovation or demolition.
The squatters’ movement is gradually criminalized : the article of the penal code defining criminal association is used to arrest the 134 members of the « Squatters’ Council ".
The legalization of some squats… and the definitive eviction of the others
In this context of very tense relations between the squat movement and the public authorities, the need is felt to seek ways to pacify the situation by legalizing certain places. Several forms were adopted for this purpose : the cooperative, the workers’ group. These new entities now rent the buildings or buy them. They carry out the necessary renovation operations themselves. But many projects are still being evicted at the same time.
Since then, very few new squats have opened in Berlin : they are systematically evicted within 24 hours of their installation.
The most remarkable positive effect of this « semi-failure » of the Kreuzberg squat movement is to be found in the increased efforts of the public authorities to set up procedures for consulting the inhabitants in urban renewal programs.
From 1983 onwards, a period of « cautious renovation » began: the motto was « overall orientation of the projects towards the inhabitants, rehabilitation of the traditional « mix » in Kreuzberg, reinforcement of the social infrastructure ". The public authorities seek consensus, notably by setting up a Commission for urban renewal that is invested by self-organized groups of inhabitants}}.
The projects carried out at that time did not emphasize the « modernization3 » of housing (as was the case everywhere else) nor the construction of new buildings, but rather the return of a mixture of different urban functions in the same spaces : small factories reappeared, common spaces were revalued, kindergartens were built
In the 1980s, Kreuzberg was still the poorest district in West Berlin.
Kreuzberg in reunified Berlin…
With the fall of the Wall, Kreuzberg once again became a central district of the city, a district of passage, of transit. However, part of its population migrated to the East, whose unrenovated buildings offered very attractive prices for students and artists looking for large studios.
The money from the urban renewal programs is no longer flowing to Kreuzberg but to the eastern districts. Kreuzberg is becoming poorer and has an unprecedented level of unemployment. The residents’ mobilizations are no longer able to unite.
Today, one can find in this district multiple architectural examples of all the types of urban renewal that have been carried out in the city.
All of this coexists happily, and despite the competition from Friedrichshain, Prenzlauerberg, or more recently Neuköln, Kreuzberg remains a very popular district for Berliners.
It seems to be a good place to live…
1 Karin Zapf, 1969
2 The name corresponds to the postal code of the area
3 The houses were modernized with individual sanitary facilities, but they preferred to keep coal-fired heating so that rents would not increase too much.
En savoir plus
The museum is located in the heart of the Kreuzberg center, near the Kottbussertor, Adalbertstrasse 95A. You can visit the museum website