A Center of Community

by Greg Bryant
December 22, 2013
Part One

(Note: this is part of s series of RAIN articles with roots in Berlin.
See this 2013 interview with community organizer Michael LaFond).  

In Berlin, there's a long, narrow, twisty courtyard -- with many names. It's officially known by the street address: Rosenthaler Straße 39. It's only one building, with varied parts, but it leads the pedestrian along a short wandering thread, deep within a vast city block, far away from auto traffic, unveiling its own delightful world.

Within: a packed, curated, high-quality outdoor and indoor graffiti artspace. And a number of galleries. And an art cinema, with indoor and outdoor screens. And a bookstore. And three museums. And one cafe-restaurant-pub. And another one, a famous pub-club-cafe that plays world-class live and dj-ed music almost continually. And a few shops, a bunch of active art studios, and workshops, and several non-profit offices. It touches on the history of both old and new Berlin. It's also known as Haus Schwarzenberg, Eschloraque rümschrümp, Neurotitan bookstore and gallery, the MonsterKabinett, the Otto Weidt workshop, the Anne Frank Zentrum, Café Cinema, Central Kino, Stokx Studios, etc. All in the tiniest sliver of a city block. But, beyond that: it's a fun, non-judgmental, transnational place to hang-out on any evening.

All in one odd little courtyard, that sat abandoned before 1994. How does it work? How did this happen?

Today, it's owned by the city, managed for the city, without profit, by a professional maintenance agency. The individual projects within are protected from rising rents by city mandate. The lease-holding businesses and non-profits cooperate continually, on many formal and informal levels, to maximize mutual aid. It's all so well-integrated, with one arts group painting murals for a museum, with another museum attracting attention to the cinema and a club, etc., that it seems like it must be a collective. But it is not. It's a bunch of small independent groups that simply help each other.

It's important that such diverse centers for local creativity be available to people in a city -- actually, the more, the better, allowing people to fulfill their potential, and contribute to the uniqueness of the local scene. Good, cooperating examples for such places, all over the world, help people to understand that affordable commercial space is as important as affordable housing. These examples will inspire people, to initiate, participate in, and support, places like this in their own neighborhoods.

Here's one way to get perspective on the tiny example that our story revolves around. 

Berlin is a gigantic, vibrant city. And it's very dense. Below is Berlin's Mitte district, and the little red rectangle shows a bit of the Hackesche Höfe neighborhood:

Below: the contents of that rectangle, a sliver of a neighborhood in the former East Berlin:

... and this L-shaped splinter of the sliver is Rosenthaler Straße 39. Blink and you'll miss it. But step inside, and you'll see a very complex world indeed:

After the war it was owned by the East Berlin city government, but had been neglected, along with much of this area. After unification, in the early 90's, a group of artists rented the place and re-habilitated it. They opened studios, offices, projects, galleries, a bookstore, cafes, pubs, clubs, restaurants ... all kinds of community activity, very inventive and high-quality. 

The group uncovered the building's role in history, as people do when they really care about a space. One of the most amazing stories in the building is the 'broom and brush workshop for jewish deaf and blind', whose founder, Otto Weidt, worked tirelessly, in the heart of Nazi Germany, to hide and protect his employees and their families from capture.  

The artist group announced this history to the public, in part as a way to prevent the building from being sold off to modern developers, who would have stripped and demolished both this older history, and the newer history of the building -- a cornerstone of the post-wall music and art scene. One of the Otto Weidt workshop survivors stepped forward, and the resulting interest brought stability to the center, as well as two major tenants: a museum about the workshop's history, and one more: an Anne Frank foundation museum in the heart of Berlin.

The family of the original owners of the building were found, had no interest in owning it, and asked the city to sell the property on their behalf. An ambitious and unsympathetic private developer bid the price as high as he could, hoping to take the building out of non-profit hands. But, wIth all the community and international support they'd raised around the center, the coalition of art, localist small business, and non-profit groups successfully lobbied the City government to purchase the building.

Left: The Anne Frank Zentrum, open every day in Berlin's museum district, is part of the Haus Schwarzenberg building, which means that it's surrounded by curated graffiti and outdoor sculpture -- and by visitors, conversation, and parties, all the time. As a result, the museum is unusually inviting and communal.

For the artists, who obviously want this to continue as an art center, the "museum direction" provided many positives, but also a worry. On the plus side, of course there is the increased stability of the non-profit organizations involved -- it is no longer possible to tear the building down, for example. Also, the museums provide additional streams of tourists and locals that help to bring the center to the attention of many tens of thousands of people each year. It should be said that the non-museum projects also bring streams of tourists ... it takes some effort, when sitting at one of the cafes, to try to figure out which attraction any given group of arrivals is planning to see ... they are often looking at everything. Many just come to 'people watch', and in particular it's quite amusing simply to watch newcomers take photos of the thousands of tiny bits of street art scattered on every surface.

The downside of the museum participation is success: Haus Schwarzenberg is in a larger museum district, and there are many museums that would pay handsomely to move into the complex. This would displace the projects that need affordable rents. It's the mix that makes this place so mind-spinningly attractive, but the city of Berlin can't argue that, for example, affordable studio space for experimental artists is more important than some non-profit corporation dedicated to a good cause. On the other hand, it was the poor artists that saved the center in the first place.

There are many high-end, well-managed office-and-museum blocks in Berlin. The 90's experimental history of this complex is unique, but mostly because it's still relevant and successful. There are still artists working extremely hard, all over the world, to push forward ideas and technical innovation, and those that interact with this complex are particularly dedicated to their visions. They come here, and help to keep the center a "living museum" of experimental art, in a way that "living museums" of long-dead cultures only dream of reviving.

To see how this works, and to provide a sense of scale, let's look at just one project: one exhibition, which lasted for one month, in just one of the Haus Schwarzenberg public galleries.

Part two of this story will be published in 2015.

Below: the public amplifies every project in Haus Schwarzenberg. They take countless photos, including funny photos of themselves and other people, in strange and playful environments, and they tell their friends, and make their photos public -- all because the place is so extraordinarily thick with interesting art already. So, when a new exhibition opens in the gallery of the non-profit Neurotitan Bookstore, it gets thousands of visitors each month, and draws the attention of the German press.