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Seymour Gris: Without RAW Friedrichshain is lost

Berlin's beloved cultural complex has been sold. What's next for the Tempel then? The Greens want to make sure it's preserved, but that's easier said than done.

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Graffiti art in an outdoor cafe at RAW Tempel. Photo by Genial 23 (Wikimedia Commons)

Is a bright new capitalist future finally dawning over Friedrichshain? Tuesday, March 10 it was announced that Big Property had bought the one really special, incredibly awesome, precious thing about the grimiest, most tattooed, most pierced, most grafitti-smothered, most alternative and defiant neighbourhood of our city: RAW. Most of that sprawling mix of clubs, bars, art centres, outdoor cinema, climbing centre, skatepark and other cool stuff flourishing in the ruins the former railway maintenance workshop on Revaler Straße has been purchased by the Göttingen-based real estate developer Kurth Immobilien GmbH from the previous owner, an Islandic holding company, for a cool €20 million.

The same old familiar debate we’re seen across the city since Reunification has already reignited: should we protect unique alternative cultural spaces (that contribute so much to the appeal of Berlin or do we allow investors to build flats (which the city desperately needs)… or broker some kind of messy compromise in which (hopefully) affordable housing and irreplaceable alternative culture are allowed to co-exist side-by-side.

Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain’s district council is firmly in the hands of the Green Party – and they’ve stressed that it’s crucial to maintain RAW-Tempel’s cultural biotope. Hans Panhoff, the Green councillor for urban planning, was quoted by taz as sayingI told the investors: if you buy this site, you can’t just negotiate your way around the occupants. You won’t be able to make fast money, but will have to develop a long-term vision together.” Sounds okay. But is it realistic?

Kurth will want to see a return on its €20 million investment. Blocks of flats are probably the only way money in that order of magnitude could be earned. And let’s not forget: the Greens of Friedrichshain have succumbed to investors in sensitive deals before, the most scandalous being the permission given to build a residential tower in the former Death Strip at the East Side Gallery.

Christoph Casper of the Initiative für den Erhalt des Kulturensembles RAW, which represents the current occupants, doesn’t seem especially optimistic about the possibility of a compromise deal: “The focus of Kurth’s activities is the development of commercial and multi-storey residential units. That really doesn’t fit to RAW.”

The battle lines are being drawn. The SPD, not an unformidable force in city politics (the mayor, Michael Müller, is one of theirs after all) is gung-ho about solving the city’s housing shortage. Sven Heinemann, an SPD representative in the state parliament from Friedrichshain put it bluntly: “The SPD wants the development on the RAW site to go in the direction of residential flats.”

Despite the news, at least one of the occupants doesn’t seem especially panicked. A spokesman for Cassiopeia Club said they had a binding contract till 2019. In other words, it will be a while before the bulldozers roll in. “Long term,” he added, “the site could look very very different though.”

The hardened veterans of RAW-Tempel and an overwhelming number of Friedrichshainers aren’t going to accept a radical new development plan without a fight. Of course the city needs more flats. But it also needs culture, alternative social projects and green spaces. The full-on residential development of RAW-Tempel would be a massive loss for the district and the city. RAW won’t capitulate easily. Things are going to heat up in Friedrichshain this summer.