Bethanien Lied

It started like this: a friend in Arizona told me that the son of some friends of his was here in Berlin, working for a composer I’d never heard of, and suggested I get in touch. I did, and he turned out to be a smart guy, and he told me he was working on some concerts. I asked him to keep me in the loop.

Well, the first one was last night, so the dancer and I went. It was a nice evening, so we walked there. Always nice to get some exercise.

I knew in advance it wasn’t going to be any normal thing. For one thing, it was being held in a squat, New Yorck Reloaded. For another, it was a concert of music by Cornelius Cardew, one of those composers who sounds a lot more interesting on paper than I had any reason to believe he’d sound in person.

Some background is in order here. First, Cardew. Cardew (1936-1981) was one of the leading British avant-gardists of his generation, and was an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen for several years. At some point, he became seriously politically radicalized, espousing Maoist principles. In the mid-70s, he was awarded a DAAD grant and came to West Berlin. One of the causes he became involved with here was that of the Bethanien Hospital, a children’s hospital in the Kreuzberg district which the city had decided to close and turn into an arts center. The surrounding community was alarmed because they figured they needed a hospital nearby, and Cardew, not unexpectedly, took their side. It was, after all, the side of The People. DAAD, being a government-funded organization, was not amused.

The Bethanien Hospital, and the part of Kreuzberg it inhabited, was in a sort of pocket in the East-West line, a bulge surrounded on many sides by the Berlin Wall. Thus, the real estate wasn’t particularly valuable, and there may well have been good reasons for moving the hospital facility to a more central location. At any rate, an arts center it became, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, and it was a prime venue for avant-garde artists in all media.

Now, the other half of this story is Yorck 59. This was a squat at Yorckstr. 59, also in Kreuzberg, albeit a different part of it. (Back in the old days, Kreuzberg was a large Bezirk — borough — and was divided into two postal zones, Kreuzberg 36, the part nearest the Wall and where Bethanien stands, largely Turkish and radical young Germans, and Kreuzberg 61, closer to Tempelhof Airport and a good deal more gentrified. I used to say that people paired off in K36 and when the first kid came, moved to K61. Yorck 59 was in K61).

Now, as I understand it, there is a thing known as the Berlin Plan, which was successfully used in K 36, among other places in the city, and imitated and reproduced elsewhere, most notably Amsterdam. This was a situation where the city attempted to locate the owners of abandoned buildings which had been squatted, and, once they’d accomplished this, ordered them to make improvements by a certain deadline or lose the buildings. Many of K 36’s buildings had been abandoned for years, and the owners were either unable or unwilling to maintain them. Once the buildings came into the city’s possession, they worked with the squatters. The squatters had to make improvements themselves, which they were often highly motivated to do because they were living in the buildings. The city, which was rolling in money in those days, gave them grants for these improvements, and then helped them buy the buildings on ridiculously easy credit terms. Some of these former squats are model residences today, pioneering green building technologies like passive solar electricity and the like.

But for some reason, the Yorck 59ers didn’t buy into this. Maybe they were ideologically opposed, or maybe their landlord decided to play ball with the city. At any rate, last summer they were forceably evicted by the police, and so they relocated to the empty buildings of the Bethanien. The walls of Berlin bloomed with posters about this, screaming about the fascist lackeys of the state and the like, and some enterprising anarchists printed up signs in an identical typeface to that used on the street signs of Berlin and overnight loads of streets became Yorckstr. (Of course, if you were lost, this was annoying, but these people seldom think about details like that).

And now, ironically enough, the cash-strapped city has decided to sell the Bethanien complex to a private developer, who wants to turn it into a multi-use, for-profit development with offices and small companies renting renovated space in the old brick buildings. Thus, the arts center — and the Yorckers — have to go.

So what we had last night was a “solidarity concert” in which the members of the Zwischent

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