Hamburg It had rained all night and most of the morning in this large, northern port city in Germany where I was scheduled to talk to activists and organizers later in the evening. More depressingly, I had spent the morning finishing the second report on rural electric cooperatives in the South where the data seemed to establish a connection between financial self-interest of the directors and their resistance to democracy and diversity in their cooperatives, when Christoph Twickel, a local journalist and activist, showed up to give me a walking tour around the St. Pauli neighborhood of the work accomplished by activist campaigns and, thankfully, cooperatives of different shapes and sizes.
Not far away and close by the River Elbe and the port, we came upon a colorful array of buildings that had been the site of a multi-year squatting campaign commemorated by a giant mural. After a long struggle to evict, the city finally retreated, and the units are still affordable to a largely migrant population. Several blocks away we met Christoph Schaffer, a local artist and activist, who had been a central part of the community fight to preserve a small park along the river opposite the port to prevent city-supported developers from taking over the waterfront for high income housing and condominiums. This has been a three-year struggle more than a decade ago. Schaffer pulled out his key to a small shed along the park which he called the archives, and inside in a silver case marked “action kit,” were some of the old drawings of the park used to get input from other residents along with an old Polaroid camera, and other tools. A steady stream of people were walking by during this break in the clouds. Young people, he told us, are starting to call the park “plastic palm” after some of the colorful plastic palm trees along the walkways. Sure enough, Twickel pointed out a modern, sweeping gray building across the street by Twickel as the most expensive housing in Hamburg.
We then walked over to the container box for Planbude, which Schaffer had referred to as a “reckless” project a cooperative of eight people had spearheaded along Reeperbahn, the main avenue of St. Pauli. An Esso gas station had been sold to a developer consortium along the street and it had looked like 6000 square meters of affordable housing and shops were going to be lost to high-end development and gentrification. Planbude was an effort over several years to force the developer and leverage the city into a community benefit agreement to push the space in different directions. If perhaps a 1000 people had had input on the park, this effort involved more than 2500 complete with sketches, architectural competitions, and constant agitation. The results will include a hotel to make the developers happy, but three times the housing space, including some social and affordable housing, room for artists and others, a skate park, small business area and more. While we were looking, a passerby saw the door ajar and poked his head in for an update. By 2020, the full project should be complete.
Twickel and I then walked over to look at the last mega-project being undertaken by a cooperative of 200 people. They had bought an old armory that had also been a former jail, police station, and SS operation on multiple floors with over 10,000 square meters of space. They had bought it from the city for 1.5 million euros. Walking with Twickel from floor to floor was a tour through their field of dreams. To keep their eyes on the prize there were pictures on some floors of what had been there, so a visitor could see the progress. Guest housing for up to thirty was rushing to completion, a dance space, work space after work space, and on and on, including the meeting space where I would talk later. The financing is complex involving various city requirements since the space is historical, as well as what we would call “tax credit” financing in some parts. Some of the building construction is contracted and some is sweat equity by coop members.
Walking through the space I couldn’t help imagining where an ACORN office might fit nicely in some of the rooms, and where we might hold and house a future meeting of all of our ACORN Europe organizers, but like all of this building that’s something to contemplate for the future. This was my first trip to Hamburg to lay the foundation for a different kind of building, organization building, so who knew where that path might wander.