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(I started writing this ages ago – but finally found the time to post it. Apologies for the present tense! O.)

Rübezahl Sun Worshippers


I am sitting in a rickety, homemade wooden chair at the edge of the vast expanse that was once Berlin’s major airport but is now a strange new park whose appearance owes more to JG Ballard than to Frederick Law Olmsted. The scale of what I am seeing around me is exhilarating and I feel as if I am in the midst of some gigantic perspective exercise. The sweeping runways vanishing into the horizon have tiny figures careening along them – skateboard sailers tethered to colourful kites that flap high above the tarmac in the brisk blue sky. On the runway right near me, a gaggle of cyclists glides by with babies bundled into bike trailers, beaming and red-faced.

From my vantage point among this ragtag assemblage of knocked-together structures called Rübezahl Gemeinschaftsgarten (Rübezahl Community Garden), I sense an effusive atmosphere of relaxation on what is after all a weekday afternoon, with knots of people picnicking, chatting and drinking beer, while their kids churn at sand piles with plastic shovels or roll around in the spring damp turf. All around me people are reading, napping or taking in a bit of sun. This being Germany, where sunbathing is a national obsession, I spot two burly men, stripped to the waist, who have taken it to a whole other level. They are jammed together in what looks like a modified packing crate lined with golden foil and are clearly enjoying the effects of the season’s early rays on their already sausage pink torsos. Somehow I doubt they’ve applied for a building permit.

skylark over the airfield

skylark over the airfield in the centre right

As I head out on my own leisurely stroll along the landing strips, I come across educational signs set up at the verges describing various birds and insects making their home in the prairie-like airfields which, despite their man-made origins, have become vital habitat for numerous threatened species. The Eurasian skylark is one such charming denizen, nesting directly on the ground among tufts of grass in areas the public is politely asked to stay away from during the breeding season. Though still early in the year, a few males are hovering high overhead, ascending like tiny dots against the cerulean dome of the sky, in what is their exuberant spring mating display – and if you will indulge me here – I include the opening lines from Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art

The subsumption of Tempelhof Airport, complete with its runways, control towers and terminal infrastructure into what is now a multifunctional green space, wildlife sanctuary and neighbourhood commons is nothing short of fantastic and it is one of the hallmarks of Berlin’s rather progressive recent urban planning history, but it might never happened without the revolutionary sensibility of the people that made this cluttered little garden-cum-hangout space here at its edge.

Rübezahl shares its name with a folkloric, mischief-making mountain goblin with a nasty reputation for turning people into turnips. It is a self-designated autonomous zone, where certain preconditions exist that allow people to imagine what the biologist Stuart Kauffman calls the adjacent possible. This is de-territorialized, interstitial space, where almost anything goes – anything that isn’t capitalism that is – and it is here that alternatives to capitalism’s ubiquitous aesthetic can mutate and evolve, as if in some primordial tide pool of marginalized subjectivities, sheltered from the intense glare of commerciality that so dominates the world outside. This aesthetic of this zone is funky, emergent, salvaged and the tendentious. It is an architecture without architects, the opposite to the self-conscious seamlessness of the iPhone, the curtain-walled office complex, the Starbucks that have so colonized our optical subconscious.

The social networks and shared sense of agency fomenting within places like Rübezahl spill out into the bloodstream of the city like immune cells, taking on long-held truisms of what might otherwise be considered inevitable or automatically legitimate in the trajectory of the city’s becoming. This place-based sense of entitlement is prepared to challenge the sclerotic orthodoxies of the political machine and break up fatty clots of business as usual – the valourization of private property, the stranglehold of big developers on the fate of the public sphere and so on. There are some other factors that should be taken into account when analyzing the amazingness of Rübezahl and the many spaces like it that have to do with Berlin’s unique history. There is a  deep-seated commitment to public allotment gardens here and  they occupy large areas of the city – with at least 833 of them having been counted as of 2012.  The pan-German Schrebergärten movement, dating back the mid 19th century, is particularly well represented. The program began as an initiative for the working classes who had migrated to the cities from rural areas during the nation’s industrialization. In contrast to other European centres, uncontested vacant land was up until recently in abundant supply in Berlin,  as entire districts had been reduced to rubble in the WWII bombing raids and the pace of redevelopment was quite slow in comparison to what was going on in West Germany due to the uncertainties investors felt were imposed by the  Cold War.  During this time there developed a radical political culture via the demimonde of artists, squatters, and other left-leaning activists –the ‘Lumpenintelligentsia’– who moved into the city for its affordable (or free) housing, the lack of a military draft (compulsory in the rest of Germany) and the generally free-wheeling attitude and tolerance of eccentricity that Berliners have long been famous for. After the Wall came down in 1990, the economic situation completely shifted and by now there is massive gentrification pressure on neighbourhoods right across the city as Berlin reasserts itself as the nation’s capital and investment continues to pour in. Bristling with cranes, the city at times feels like a giant construction zone. Nevertheless the long interregnum allowed Berliners to develop a strongly anti-authoritarian civic culture and to organize themselves politically in a way that puts significant checks and balances on the kind of rampant neoliberal development that has so dehumanized metropolitan life in other major centres.

The collapse of buildings seems like an odd pretence for ecological sustainability but this is the thesis Mike Davis puts forward in his fascinating 2002 essay – Dead Cities.  Large swathes of Berlin were demolished by the intense bombing campaigns of World War II but Davis draws a direct parallel to 1970’s inner-city America; where fields of rubble arose, not out of aerial bombardment but from the class war; during a time in America’s history when neoliberalism was entrenching itself and there was a racialized outflow of jobs and money (the so-called ‘white flight’)  from the East Coast cities to car-dependent suburbs. This massive social shift left inner-city neighbourhoods economically bereft and increasingly crime-ridden. Entire districts like New York’s Lower East Side and large sections of Detroit fell into ruin as landlords abandoned their now devalued properties to a growing underclass whose poverty was exacerbated by a raging crack cocaine epidemic. As the neglect continued, even  basic infrastructure was no longer maintained by tax-starved municipal governments and neighbourhoods started quite literally to fall apart. Abandoned buildings hit by arson and the intrusion of the elements soon became unstable and in many cases got demolished, though more than a few became successful squats, taken over by punks who managed without basic utilities, doing their dishes by turning on fire hydrants and so on.  With the demolitions, streetscapes opened up, with new vistas of unbuilt space striating once crowded districts of tenements and warehouses. As in Berlin, these lacunae  soon attracted guerrilla gardeners of various stripes. The predominantly Hispanic senior citizens of the Lower East Side a.k.a.  ‘Loisaida,’ built little community clubhouses or casitas where they could play cards, work on their elaborate, flag-bedecked bicycles and raise a few chickens. The squatter community was arguably more ideologically motivated, channeling hippie or punk notions of a post-capitalist utopia into the complicated mosaic of existing subjectivities. Personalities like the (legendary) Adam Purple and the founders of the Lower East Side Ecology Centre initiated composting facilities, drop-off programs for recycling and other ecologically minded ventures long before such services became commonly available. 

Fence ornaments at La Plaza Cultural in Loisaida

Fence ornaments at La Plaza Cultural in Loisaida

In the end though, whether in Berlin or Loisaida, the aesthetic of these autonomous zones converges into a readily identifiable vernacular – homemade, salvaged and funky – and there are also similarities in their social organizations, in their tendency towards the anti-hierarchical and a self identification as a liberated commons and rallying point for non-commercial neighbourhood culture, with a well-defined sense of alterity toward the municipal and corporate institutions from which they have wrested control.

Might this then indicate some more universal human potential; that people in cities, when freed from the tight strictures of urban planners, architects and city engineers can successfully design and manage their own public spaces? Might this be a beneficial, humanizing strategy to employ in a larger sphere –to lighten up, just a little, on the rigid control of the urban landscape, with its privileging of commerciality and valorization of political power– and let some people, some of the time just do their own thing?  Where do we draw the line as to where we set aside professional oversight? To paraphrase a Zen koan: ‘What can we not do?’

I propose a celebratory adoption of unplanning as a guiding principle in the development of public spaces.  If Berlin and the Lower East Side are any indication, self-organized, ‘open source’ public zones offer us the opportunity to expand the discourse on what it means to live together, to build relationships and to foster the resiliency necessary to face such daunting challenges as climate change and our ability to respond to disaster. Even when these zones are ephemeral, they can have a profound and lasting effect. I saw this clearly in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, during which activists involved in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement – a temporary autonomous zone if ever there was one – were the among the first on the scene in my Lower East Side neighbourhood to provide disaster relief–well before government agencies could mobilize. Working in front of the aptly named Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on Avenue C, the former occupiers quickly rigged up an emergency cell phone charging system using a bicycle powered generator (left over from the OWS action), and it proved a lifeline for those trying to contact worried loved ones after their phones had run down in the multi day post-storm power outage. The ad hoc collective also set up barbecues, offering free hot food to any passers-by who wanted it. The food was salvaged from local supermarkets whose coolers had shut down and it would have otherwise gone to waste. The ability to self-organize on the spot, by what was rather a loose collectivity of squatters, bicycle activists and punks is (to my mind)  directly attributable to their collective experience in instigating ad hoc social spaces – from the East Village squats in which some of them still lived (though there are precious few left), to the local community gardens (still needing constant vigilance to protect them from developers), to the mobile commons of the Critical Mass bicycling actions, and culminating in the historic OWS occupation at Zuccotti Park –a globally influential temporary autonomous zone of consciousness raising and political dissent.

Post-Sandy temporary autonomous zone

Post-Sandy temporary autonomous zone

It is clear though, the appearance of East Village community gardens has changed over the past twenty five years, a reflection perhaps of the evolving class aspirations of the people that live around there and an increasing deference to the demands of civic authorities who push the gardens, in return for some official acknowledgement, be more park-like, with regular, publicly posted opening hours, community educational programs and more attention paid to issues of public safety, such as overhanging tree branches, soil contamination and so on. Along with this newfound acceptability, their members now have to spend considerable time fundraising and applying for grants to upgrade infrastructure and expand the reach of their programming.

While it is hard to find fault with this, it is evident there is a subtle shift in what were after all ‘guerrilla’ gardens, functioning as autonomous zones of anti-capitalist occupation, when they are subsumed into a much less radical programme of municipally sanctioned urban greening – an identity with distinctly more bourgeois overtones. Many of the gardens that survived the purges of gentrification have been registered under city programs such as Green Thumb, which provide helpful material and administrative resources. This does however make them de facto extensions of the city park system, with covalent obligations of accountability. Perhaps this was inevitable. It certainly has provided a modicum of stability.

The East Village neighbourhood itself has been branded ‘the garden district’ by the surging real estate industry for whom these once highly contested spaces of hard-won ecological democracy have become attractive backdrops for the properties they are flogging – leafy signifiers of a vanishing authenticity for which status-conscious buyers are willing to pay top dollar. In the gardens these days there is less bric-a-brac and unattended scrap, fewer salvaged car seats or drums of burning garbage to warm oneself around in the cool of the evening. There are far fewer gardens generally, with so many having been lost in the brutal re-calibration of the property market. Yet those that remain, though tamer and more established seeming, are living testaments to the power of ordinary people to create vibrant community spaces, in the nooks and crannies somehow overlooked by the panopticon gaze of ubiquitous commerciality. The question is: can we set aside more such zones, where the reign of total capitalism and micro-managing urban planners is voluntarily suspended, where everyday people are free to just hang out with each other, work things out as they go along, and build a better, greener world?


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