Alternative Theater

In Cluttered Chaos of Berlin’s Shanty Squatter Town, Distilling Art from Anarchy

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • In the midst of a rapidly gentrifying Berlin, a shanty town of sorts has established itself in Kreuzberg. While some residents choose not to conform to mainstream society and live there by choice, many others are poor refugees and homeless people.
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  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Cuvrybrache is a collection of huts and tents on a wide open space next to the River Spree in Kreuzberg.
    • The land is owned by a Munich investor who wants to build apartments there.
    • A theater group is performing a moving play there on Saturday.
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    Audio

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Dominique Wolf
Theater director Dominique Wolf who is putting on a performance in the Cuvrybrache. Source: Doris Spiekermann-Klass, Tagesspiegel.

 

A collection of huts and tents on some wasteland by the River Spree has become Berlin’s own favela.

The Cuvrybrache, or Cuvry Wasteland, has grown up over the last two years on an area the size of a soccer pitch and is home to around a hundred people. Its residents are a mix of refugees, Eastern European migrants, including many Roma and Sinti families, homeless people and non-conformists seeking an alternative lifestyle.

This Saturday a theater group will perform a play that moves about the space and explores life in one of Berlin’s least conformist communities.

The shanty town is in the heart of Kreuzberg, a traditionally counter-culture part of the former West Berlin, once home to left-wing squatters and punks. In recent years rents have risen sharply in the area and it has morphed into a major party and tourist destination with clubs, hostels and bars lining the streets.

The Cuvrybrache has divided opinion in Berlin. Some see it as an anarchic place lacking in sanitation or infrastructure, rife with drugs and violence. Others are more positive, regarding it as one of the few free spaces left in a city that is rapidly becoming less alternative and more gentrified.

The land is owned by Munich-based investor Artur Süsskind, who wants to build apartments on the spot right next to the river. He says he wants to build 250 apartments, 10 percent of which should be affordable housing. Since it is private property, the local district government says it is not responsible for sanitation or waste removal there.

Frequent rumors have it that the space is about to be cleared by police. Residents of a nearby tent camp were evicted in May. It had housed refugees who had marched from Bavaria to Berlin to protest restrictive asylum conditions.

Another group of refugees who had occupied a former school in Kreuzberg were involved in a tense stand-off with police last month after the district government ordered the building cleared. Hundreds of protestors came to show their support and stop the eviction. After a week the situation was resolved when the authorities ordered the police to back down and said the refugees, many from Africa, could stay in the school.

The area where the Cuvry favela now stands had also become the focal point of protest in recent years. Back in 2012 the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a temporary cultural space that toured different cities around the world, wanted to set up at that location.

However, some local residents and members of the city’s left-wing scene objected to the corporate-sponsored project. There has been strong local resistance to commercial and real estate development plans for the area along the River, known as Media Spree. The Guggenheim lab ended up choosing the less controversial area of Prenzlauer Berg, in the former East Berlin.

It’s likely that any attempts to clear the Cuvrybrache would also be met with protests.

For now its residents can focus on something entirely different:  The Berlin slum community is to get its very own theater production.

The actress and director Dominique Wolf is producing a show in the midst of the huts this coming Saturday, one that intends to show a different side to the Cuvrybrache and its residents.

“I’m currently recording the voices of the people here,” she told Tagesspiegel. “It will be possible to hear them via loudspeakers.” People should say what is on their minds, she says. “That they want to have garbage taken away. Or that they want to be able to shit in a normal toilet.”

The theater piece “Wolfsfrieden,” or Wolves’ Peace, is about removing stereotypes and building ties with the local neighborhood. It will be a piece of moving theater with the audience asked to walk between huts to watch scenes from everyday life. The residents will sit at a 20-meter-long table in the middle of the space eating food donated by a local cultural project. Beer is being provided by a restaurant where Ms. Wolf sometimes works as a waitress.

Ms. Wolf says her model is the Opera Village, an arts education project created by the late German film and theater director Christof Schlingensief in Burkina Faso. She is also inspired by legendary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Cuvrybrache
The Cuvrybrache, a shanty town that has grown in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Source: William Veder, Tagesspiegel.

 

The theater director has been regularly visiting the Cuvrybrache for the past two months and has become something of a PR advisor to the people living there. With big media interest in the Berlin favela, many residents who had been ready to speak to journalists before now feel they have been exploited and portrayed in unflattering ways.

When it comes to the theater project, Ms. Wolf keeps an eye on who is speaking to whom. She wants to avoid feeding into a kind of voyeurism or poverty tourism.

Artur, from Albania, is one of the few residents still willing to speak to the press, though he declined to give his full name. He has been living here for five months, before that he slept in subway stations.

“I have something to eat, a place to sleep and the sun is shining,” he said.  When he is asked if there is a community here, he is reluctant to agree. He knows about community from prison, he says. Do people help each other out here? “If someone needs first aid, a piece of bread, a sip of beer, a joint, then I give what it is in my power to give.”

Martina, a young non-conformist from Frankfurt, who also declined to give her full name, lived here for four months last year and came back in February. She said things have developed for the better, saying it’s now possible to get a shower or collect water at a local non-profit facility. She said people who before had been lost in drug-taking had begun building a life for themselves. “On the River Spree, it’s a top location!”

Neither Artur nor Martina want to deny that there are still problems. There is a lack of hygiene and frequent thefts of belongings. And many of the Roma and Sinti children don’t go to school or kindergarten. But that is just one side of the coin. And they are happy that Ms. Wolf is hoping to show a different side. Something more nuanced.

The theater piece is offering a new experience to the audience, she says. “What comes of it, we will have to see.”

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