Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An explosive struggle has pitted developers against the city's ultra-left.
Hamburg doesn't make for the most obvious urban battleground. Germany's second largest city is also its richest, and the historic port has been widely praised for urban transformations that have set the bar high. In recent months, however, the city has descended into one of the most embittered, fractious redevelopment turf wars in all of Europe.
Things got so bad that last Saturday, Hamburg's chief of police declared the large area of the city where developers, police and residents are clashing a "danger zone."
The zone covers three inner city neighborhoods on central Hamburg's western fringe, highlighted by police after a series of violent disturbances in recent months. Police believe that demonstrations by local leftists in the area are so out of control that they need to increase officer deployments to saturation levels to avoid becoming targets. Stepping up stops and searches, police have confiscated bats and masks and handed out travel bans to over 80 individuals they suspect of intending to carry out violent protest.
Tensions are high here partly because of the area's longstanding role as the seat of Hamburg's counterculture. Long one of the city's poorer quarters, the zone contains St. Pauli, a red light district where the Beatles lived and played in the early 1960s, and the ex industrial districts of Sternschanze and Eastern Altona. Their late 19th century tenements falling into decay, these areas were partly resettled by squatters from the 1970s onwards, who restored neglected houses and fought to prevent the blithe destruction of historic buildings by developers. Even for those unfamiliar with Germany, it’s not hard to guess what has happened to the area's old tenements more recently. Following a pattern replicated across the West's wealthier cities, rents in the area have shot up, social housing projects are being replaced with mixed developments, more upscale businesses are moving in and the poor are moving out, willingly or not.
The area's more radical residents are not accepting their displacement without a fight. So far, this fight has coalesced around a squatted, non-profit arts and community center dubbed Rote Flora ("Red Flora"), a former theater "occupied" (to use the German term) and run since 1989 by Autonomist groups. The group occupying Rote Flora have been trying to buy it from its owner, but Flora has nonetheless been slated for demolition, a six-floor concert hall to take its place. The fight to prevent eviction has become explosive, an axle around which debates about the future of Germany’s cities in general have been spinning. On the 21st of December at least 7,000 people demonstrated outside the community center, the occasion degenerating into a riot in which over 100 police and an unknown number of protestors were injured.
A week later, police claim three of their staff were injured by stone throwing demonstrators outside a red light district police station. Now struggling to maintain order within the area, authorities say they have no choice but to keep law enforcement and searches at emergency levels.
As you'd expect, demonstrators see things differently. They claim that police are exaggerating and partly fabricating reports in order to legitimize firearm use, get permission to use tasers and increase staff numbers. Speaking through a lawyer (see the previous German language link), they insist that the demonstration at the police station never actually happened. Instead, they see claims of their violence as a cynical way to create momentum for a campaign to flush them out of the area.
While this might seem to be stretching credulity (there’s no CCTV footage to confirm or refute either side) there’s some evidence that Hamburg police claims are not entirely well founded. Police have since admitted, for example, that one of the three staff listed as injured outside the police station was in fact hurt in an unrelated incident. Caught up in all this are locals not aligned with the Rote Flora groups who are nonetheless anxious about their neighborhoods' transformation, disturbed by both the demonstrations and the heavy police presence alike. Whatever the truth of who did what, the city’s current state of emergency shows how much Hamburg is still struggling to create a development model that placates the needs of everyone who lives there.
Top image: Florian Bausch/Flickr