A walk through the Gängeviertel: Hamburg’s stubborn old quarter

In the heart of the eclectic city of Hamburg, surrounded by gigantic, intimidating buildings made of glass, there is a small, retro, art-packed oasis, known as the Gängeviertel. This colourful open-air gallery hidden between dozens of constructions sites and located in one of the most impersonal and bleak areas of the city, has a pretty troubled past, just like the city that hosts it.

Strolling up Caffamacherreihe street, an old, brown building stands out from a forest of glass windows and holes in the ground. If you walk towards this small, slightly decadent building and then you turn left, you will be dazzled by colourful – and super odd – graffiti. An ultra-realistic, and to some extent, gross spider and some colourful concentric circles welcome you to the quarter; a red sign lying on the side says “Komm in die Gänge”: hurry up, get moving.

Up until nine years ago, nothing was moving around the Gängeviertel. The whole area had been laying in decay for years, and the demolition of the remaining buildings was imminent. Was it not for the action of a group of activists that had the quarter’s cause at heart, nothing would be left of the picturesque space we know today.

“Gängeviertel” means corridors quarter; indeed, it is very easy to get lost in the labyrinthine, vibrant alleys of the neighbourhood. Until the middle of the 20th century, the area of the Gängeviertel was home to thousands of working-class families. However, after the cholera epidemic of 1892, the city of Hamburg began renovation plans that required the demolition of the Gängeviertel quarter. A great number of modern skyscrapers wiped out almost the entire district. Only 12 of the original buildings are still standing.

“We tried to talk to the cultural department of the city of Hamburg, we had two main arguments: if they tore down all these old buildings to build more offices, there would have been nothing left of the old city in the area.

“The second point was that artists need cheap spaces to practice their art, they need a base for exhibitions, concerts. The artists working here have very affordable spaces for their art, but it’s also a meeting point for different cultures”, explains Sebastian Fuchs, coordinator of the Gängeviertel cooperative, who also hosts a screen-printing workshop in one of the labs.

These historical buildings had fallen into oblivion for several years, until in 2008 the City accepted the purchase offer of a Dutch investor. The days were numbered for Gängeviertel. However, on 22 August 2009, a group of activists occupied the area to save it from the upcoming demolition and to create a space dedicated to art and creativity. After weeks of negotiations, the City re-purchased the Gängeviertel from the Dutch investor, and a concept plan of urban development was presented to and welcomed by the authorities.

Today the “alleys quarter” consists of 12 buildings, some of which have been renovated by activists and artists operating in the Gängeviertel, with the help of the city of Hamburg.

Sebastian walks me around and inside the buildings as he greets and smiles at every person passing by. The age of the people hanging around ranges from 20 to 50, and they’re all busy in different activities; someone sits on an open-air couch, someone cleans the floor of the canteen, a dozen people are having a late lunch on a big table. The community repeatedly invites me to join them for food, as I timidly step back and let them enjoy their meal.

“The quarter wasn’t squatted for a long time, because we were negotiating with the city since the very beginning. There are other “leftist” projects in Hamburg that have no communication with the city at all, like the Rote Flora theatre. Their policy is to not negotiate with the authorities. Here it is different”, explains Sebastian.

The Gängeviertel feels like a parallel reality, an independent space disconnected from the rest of the world, stuck in a time that is very far from the modern HafenCity, but located in a space that is only a 20 minute walk from the spectacular and ultra-modern Elbphilharmonie.

The further you walk into its alleys, the more you’ll be surprised by your discoveries: the quarter includes a museum, a “free shop”, numerous couches and tables, a little store with the Gängeviertel merchandise, a library full of books and other objects that everyone is free to pick up; but also a cafe, a kitchen, a vegan restaurant called Nasch and the Jupi Bar run by volunteers with a “pay as you can” principle.

The headquarters of this space is the so called “Fabrique”, one of the renovated buildings which has more functions than I can list. “There are several non-profit organisations running in the Fabrique; there is a radio station, a dance studio, and we hold most of our workshops. There is a room downstairs where we have concerts, a bar, a canteen, and three art galleries that can be rented for free for artists to exhibit their art. But they’re already fully booked for the next year”, Sebastian explains.

“The ground floors of the buildings are usually open to the public, while upstairs there’s mostly private studios of artists. The definition of an artist is quite open I think, it can be anyone who does something with a meaning”. He used to be a computer programmer, and now he holds the screen printing workshop and deals with most of the bureaucratic matters.

If you still can’t wrap your head around what the Gängeviertel is and does, all you need is Sebastian’s concise description: “Before we were lots of artists doing stuff; now we are more of an infrastructure for other people to use”.

What fascinates me the most about this space, is the peaceful coexistence of old and new; the buildings are ancient, with an old story to tell, like the one of the German composer Johannes Brahms, born and raised in the Gängeviertel; however, the initiatives, the workshops, the activities held in these old buildings are everything but outdated. The Gängeviertel is young and full of life.

It could be argued that since artists need to pay rent to live and operate in the Gängeviertel after the renovation of some of the buildings, the quarter’s new regulations seem pretty far from the goals of the original squatters. Eight years ago, everything was free and there were no entry fees. Criticism is around the corner: has the Gängeviertel become commercial?

Julia, the co-owner of the Nasch restaurant, gives her opinion on the matter: “The rent is not like in the rest of the city, it’s just a small rent.  People working here need to pay rent, bills, taxes, so you can’t just say ‘go on and use this photo studio for free’. Most of the money comes from the ‘pay as you like’ principle, but people working in the bar, organising concerts and events are not paid, it is all voluntary work. At the Jupi Bar everyone works shifts for free”.

“I have this café here which is a different thing, we have normal prices. But I am also part of the Gängeviertel, so I work shifts at bar for free too, because having a place like this also means that you should contribute to the overall project. You can’t just have a restaurant or a studio here and don’t help the cause”, she explains.

“If you print something, you should give some money for the colours, for example. People can decide what they want to pay. We encourage people to pay a fair minimum to run this place”, Sebastian adds. “We have a bar and at the end of the year we have to pay taxes, even if you don’t have a fixed price for your drinks, and these are some of the things the Gängeviertel cooperative has to deal with”.

The goal of turning the alley quarter into a socio-cultural centre, however, seems to have been fully accomplished. The Gängeviertel offers workshops, movie screens, concerts, art exhibitions, and many other unique activities; walking around the buildings, I come across a bunch of colourful, very strange-looking bikes. “It’s for the bike workshop”, Sebastian smiles as he shows me around.

In 2012, the German UNESCO Commission awarded the quarter with the title of “site of cultural diversity”, and regarded it as a successful example of urban development that promotes cultural and social participation through the preservation of public spaces and democratic city policies. However, the future of the quarter remains uncertain.

“After 8 years we are quite known to the public, we are pretty confident that the city won’t cut us, we have negotiations about long-term projects. But you never know, the property can always be sold to someone, and we want to stay here for much longer”, Sebastian says.

The first question that comes into my mind after hearing all this is, why? Why would people work shifts in a bar for free, work so hard to restore some old, forgotten buildings? What does the Gängeviertel give back to its people?

“People here can play and experience stuff, and it doesn’t have to be finished or a concept that works necessarily, you can just try all kind of stuff. It’s very interesting to see people making art together on a non-profit basis. This open space for all kinds people, this sort of utopia of a better world, working and living together in one area, is the concept we believe in”, Sebastian answers quite exhaustively.

The Gängeviertel has evolved a lot since the start, there are no doubts about it, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The people operating in the quarter originally used to be anonymous, more radical and almost exclusive. Today, the community promotes the events through a very active Facebook page, and welcomes the advent of wanderers and tourists. It is in fact also thanks the quarter’s popularity on social media and among tourists looking for something alternative in Hamburg if these buildings are still standing, and the Gängeviertel community is well aware of it.

When speaking to the people that are living and working in the quarter, it is evident how much passion and work they put into this project every day, and I am amazed by their determination in pursuing their goal which is “a self-managed and open Gängeviertel”, as their website explains.

On my way out, I stumble across a man hovering on a ladder, busy painting a beautiful lilac pattern on a wall. “I heard about this place from a friend, and I had nowhere else to practice my graffiti on, so I just came here and started spraying”, he explains. “There you go”, I think, as I am still dazzled by all the colours around me and all the extraordinary things I’ve seen during the day – and maybe by the smell of the spray paint too; “This is exactly what the Gängeviertel is about”.