The BMW Guggenheim Lab’s residence on the border between New York’s East Village and Lower East Side didn't go by without disruptions. But for the most part, the neighborhood around the site gave the temporary urbanist project - whose mission is to "inspire innovative ideas for urban life" - a friendly reception.
Not so in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, the next venue for the Lab. According to Bloomberg News, organizers have cancelled what was to be the second of nine stops on a global tour:
"This decision was made as a consequence of threats to the project," the BMW Guggenheim Lab said in a statement. Police and local authorities said there was an elevated risk, it said.
Left-wing activists used the Internet to urge protesters to “derail” the project, according to the daily Tagesspiegel newspaper. Their protest was that the project would accelerate the gentrification of Kreuzberg, leading to higher rents and new luxury residential developments, the newspaper said.
Organizers said the Lab, scheduled to open May 24 in Kreuzberg with the theme of "Confronting Comfort," will relocate to another, unspecified, location. From their statement:
The Foundation regrets having to make this decision, as the purpose of the BMW Guggenheim Lab is to create a space for public discussion, open to the widest possible range of views. While we welcome vigorous debate, we cannot risk the possibility of violence, as raised by a small minority.
At least one public meeting in advance of the Berlin project drew vociferous opposition, as seen on this YouTube video. One commenter on the video wrote (translations from Google Translate): “It’s not even about ‘art and culture.’ Guggenheim is just a Potemkin façade.” The video’s original poster wrote: “What is forgotten in all the study of the trend theme of ‘gentrification’ is that the lab itself is a symptom of the problem.”
On the Lab’s Facebook page, commenter ElJay Arem had this to say (sic): “Its bad news, as failing of such a project demonstrates the lacks in our society for open discussions, an empathic dialogue between different groups of interests.”
While the Lab was in New York, I attended several events there (full disclosure: the Project for Public Spaces, where I was employed at the time, helped organize one evening of programming at the space). They were all perfectly enjoyable, though they didn't offer much depth or insight. The best thing to come out of the Lab’s tenure is that local groups are hoping to create a long-term community center on the formerly rat-infested lot where it was hosted.
As someone who has watched this part of New York change completely since I was a teenager, I wasn’t surprised that any “confronting” of “comfort” seemed designed to make sure that no one actually ever felt truly uncomfortable. Across the street from the Lab’s New York site is a massive Whole Foods. Flashy condos, swank restaurants, and boutique hotels have replaced flophouses up the street on the Bowery.
And nearby Tompkins Square Park, site of anti-gentrification riots in the 1980s, is now surrounded by co-ops – many of them in former tenements - that sell for between $900 and $1,200 per square foot. The cry of "die, yuppie scum" that rang in these streets has long since been forgotten.
Are the people of Kreuzberg right to worry that gentrification will change their part of the world forever? Yes. Threats of violence, needless to say, are no way to deal with that. In an ideal world, efforts like the BMW Guggenheim Lab would provide a constructive forum for talking about what we lose when we become more “comfortable.” Too bad this isn’t an ideal world.
Top image: the BMW Guggenheim Lab's installation in New York.