Eviction Noticed: Gentrification in Berlin shutters a bombed-out building where artists had squatted since the Wall came down
On a bright Saturday afternoon, a small crowd gathered along Oranienburger Strasse, a stylish, café-lined street that runs through Mitte, Berlin’s historic central district. A makeshift soundstage on the back of a flatbed truck was parked in the shadow of a hulking, five-story building, its façade blackened with grime and slathered with graffiti. Strings of petitions drooped to the street from top-floor windows, billowing past a banner asking, “Where Shall We Go Now?” Come Tuesday morning, the several dozen avant-garde street artists of Kunsthaus Tacheles, some of whom had been squatting in the building for more than two decades, were finally to be forced out. In the dim hope that their eviction might be delayed, as it had been so many times already, the artists had organized the early-September demonstration—half angry rant, half street party—to appeal for public support.
Tacheles was born in the anarchical early days after the Wall came down in 1989, when East German police lacked authority but their West German counterparts had yet to assert theirs. Drug dealers and prostitutes patrolled the streets. Here and in other inner-city districts in the former East Berlin, squatters occupied scores of abandoned sites—including, in February 1990, the pre-World War I building that would come to be called Tacheles. Its first inhabitants were the members of an East German free-jazz band, which lent its name (Tacheles is Yiddish for straight talk) to the community that formed around it. Musicians, artists, radicals, addicts, and dropouts from both sides of the Wall quickly took up residence and set about creating a counterculture utopia inside the power vacuum.
Tacheles encapsulated the euphoria of the new age and symbolized “the emergence of Berlin from its long years of darkness,” a reporter wrote in The Guardian (UK) after visiting the ruin in 1992. In time, as the city awoke from its Cold War slumber and reinvented itself as a modern European capital, Tacheles lost its edge, becoming a kitschy anachronism known more for its success as a tourist trap than for its art. Still, the impending eviction of the artists and the auction of their crumbling gallery to private investors would come as a loss for Berlin—one more piece of its past spiffed up and resold as the city sheds its bohemian image.