The Fight for Hamburg’s Cultural Identity

by Adele Rossouw:

“Komm in die Gänge” the little red sticker invitingly proclaimed – come to the Gänge. This is the invitation that distracted me during my walking tour of the Hamburg inner city, with its modern buildings and shiny surfaces. These stickers are still to be found across the city, reminders of a demolition protest that took place at the end of 2009, but which fuelled a debate on the city’s cultural development that is still raging today. Hamburg’s Gängeviertel, a historic quarter in the inner city, was saved from demolition by a group of activists who illegally occupied the buildings in August 2009. However, the occupation was more than a rebellious act of a select artistic community. It has come to symbolize a wider public’s discontent with the city government’s cultural development policy.

Until the recent public insistence on renovation, Hamburg’s Gängeviertel had been declining for years. Large parts of the district were destroyed by the bombing of the Second World War, and more was demolished with the building of a Unilever highrise that was completed in 1964. Today, the remains of the original historical district are limited to a single block, while modern apartment buildings and offices  are rising up around it. These developments threatened to consume the last historic buildings in 2008, when the Dutch investor Hanzevast bought the property from the city. Plans for the demolition of the buildings were released, and tenants were asked to evacuate. This development caused public outrage, and on August 22 2009 a group of more than 200 activists occupied the quarter, with many more gathering around the buildings to contribute to the protest.

Traces of protest - Gängeviertel stickers adorn surfaces across Hamburg (Rossouw/TYG)

The occupation of the Gängeviertel was a public outcry against a cultural development policy that pumped millions into single big projects, but failed to protect the existing institutions that make up Hamburg’s cultural identity. The cost for the new Elbphilharmonie concert building, for example, has escalated to 351.3 million Euros. This has meant less support for smaller cultural institutions, such as the Deutsche Schauspielhaus, one of Germany’s most prominent theaters, or the Galerie der Gegenwart. The latter, part of Hamburg’s largest art museum, has had to close for extended periods because of a lack of funding. The Gängeviertel, then, has been but one of many cultural and historical landmarks that have suffered.

The public discontent that was illustrated in the Gängeviertel occupation was confirmed by the 50 000 signatures that were collected against the 7 million Euro cut in the city’s 2010 cultural budget. One of the then-governing Christian Democratic Party’s attempts at regaining public affection was to re-buy the Gängeviertel. In spite of this action, and of new leadership by the Social Democratic Party, the fate of the Gängviertel remains uncertain. Until it is secured, the citizens of Hamburg will remain at odds with the city’s governing politicians.