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'Protests make Hamburg different'

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A protester in Hamburg on Saturday. Photo: DPA
16:55 CET+01:00
What prompted peaceful protests to turn violent in Hamburg and will they happen again? Those in the area worst-affected by the demonstrations told The Local of grievances from gentrification to police aggression.

“People in Hamburg have always gone to the streets when the government does something they don’t agree with,” said St. Pauli resident Gernot Krainer, reflecting on demonstrations in the area in December and January.

“Protests are an important part of city and street culture here, especially in St. Pauli and the Schanzenviertel, they make Hamburg different from, say, Cologne or Munich,” he added.

Last Monday city authorities finally bowed to pressure and lifted Hamburg’s restricted zones which gave police extra powers to stop, search and ban people from the area.

But the atmosphere in St. Pauli and the Schanzenviertel remains tense. On Saturday almost 3,000 people marched to protest against restricted zones.

'No hipsters please'

Gernot Krainer has lived in St. Pauli for more than 25 years and has witnessed the neighborhood’s gentrification. “It’s always the same cycle,” he said. “First an investor buys a property. Then the tenants are pushed out.

“Then a sleek new high rise is built, all steel and glass, luxury apartments with the requisite coffee shop on the ground floor.”

He added: “People here are angry. Developers are destroying our neighborhood.”

Krainer is speaking from experience. He is the co-owner of a St. Pauli landmark, “Die Kogge,” a small hotel and bar on Bernhard-Nocht Strasse, which is popular with touring rock bands. 

The Kogge and its neighbours are biding their time as investors are threatening to bulldoze the historic buildings to make room for a series of luxury apartment towers.

Krainer doubts that the kind of “yuppie tenants” these developments are supposed to attract will like living in St. Pauli.

“These hipsters, young folks with money, think it’s cool to live here,” he said. “But at night, when the nightclubs and bars are in full swing, or when their kids see sex workers on the street or behind their windows waiting for customers, they complain.”

In defence of the old neighborhood and to save The Kogge, Krainer and other community activists founded a group in 2011.

For the past two years they have held demonstrations, collected signatures against the project, and organized discussion forums. 

Eventually the investors agreed to extend The Kogge’s lease, convert one of the neighboring buildings into a self-governing cooperative owned by the occupants, and reserve part of the new development for low-income housing. 

“Our demos were effective, unlike the big demo in the Schanze last December [which led to violence]. That one conflated too many issues,” said Krainer.

Riot like its 1980

Krainer concedes that his successful initiative might have stalled had it not been for the Hafenstrasse riots in the 1980s, which permanently changed city politics and established protesting as an effective means of government resistance in post-war Hamburg. 

“The Hafenstrasse protests were about gentrification,” Krainer said. “Hamburg would be completely different today if people had not demonstrated.” 

Emotions erupted over the Hafenstrasse, a picturesque St. Pauli street overlooking the Elbe, in the early 1980s, when the developer issued an eviction notice to squatters in twelve buildings to make room for new construction. 

Most Hamburgers saw the Hafenstrasse as an island of lawlessness and a festering eyesore. Elbe river cruises made it a part of their itinerary - “chaos-sightseeing” from afar. 

In 1987, the Social Democrat (SPD) mayor Klaus von Dohnanyi led the way towards the conflict’s peaceful resolution by persuading all parties to return to the negotiating table. 

The buildings remained and were, in 1995, turned into cooperatives jointly owned by the occupiers. 

“Hamburg would be a lot less interesting if the Hafenstrasse, the seedy, old St. Pauli, or the Rote Flora did not exist. We don’t want our city to be all cleaned up and boring,” Krainer said. 

These places have become important parts of Hamburg’s cultural landscape – and big tourist attractions.

Visitors from all over the world flock to the Rote Flora for great live music, or simply to see a “real punk.”

And the Hafenstrasse is mentioned in travel guides as a rare left-wing utopia.

But does all new construction spoil a neighborhood’s character and destroy its authenticity? 

Who owns this city?

The fight over the run-down “Esso-Häuser,” an apartment complex built in the 1960s and nicknamed after the gas station that occupies their ground floor, illustrates this dilemma. 

The buildings are prime St. Pauli real estate, right next to the Reeperbahn. Decades of neglect have left the buildings structurally unsound and the owner plans to tear them down this year.

Tenants have been temporarily accommodated in hotels and promised new contracts under the same conditions as their old ones. 

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Is this really a building worth fighting for, a bulwark against the neighborhood’s commercialization, as demonstrators called it last December?

Yes, insists Krainer. Many other St. Pauli residents share his view. To him the buildings are worth preserving. Just like other, more traditionally beautiful parts of St. Pauli, residents should have the right to decide what happens to them. 

“We live here, and we refuse to be ‘managed’ like vassals in a feudal state," he said. "We have a right to this city, too. The real question is: who owns this city?” 

The police provoked us

That tension is not going to go away. The violence between left-wingers and police which led to the establishment of “restricted zones” has only soured relations between the two sides.

Albrecht Metzger, a St. Pauli resident and community activist, said: “Police operations were completely arbitrary and random and entirely political. The goal was to suppress political protest. 

“People have this image of the police as their 'friend and helper', but being stopped by them, in full gear, is an act of provocation.”

CLICK HERE for photos of the December protests

Ale Dumbsky, editor of the magazine Read, and former drummer of the punk band “Die Goldenen Zitronen,” added: “The SPD-led senate attempted to push through and assert commercial interests by force and failed, because the people of Hamburg made use of their right to demonstrate and their freedom of assembly.

“The big demo on December 21st escalated because of the police. The police were beating people and used water cannons without prior provocation.” 

By Jana Bruns

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