The modern battle for Berlin

You might well miss the poster-covered door of Kalabal!k amongst the ripped and peeling faces of musicians gone by. A single shutter offers a glimpse to the dingy bookshop within, where a few youths peruse the works lining the walls. For a bookshop, there are surprisingly few actual books, making you wonder what other pursuits might take place behind the barred windows.

The air in this part of Berlin is thick with revolution. The last 100 years have seen various governments, dozens of riots, political and social upheavals galore. The graffitied walls of Kreuzberg could be the scene of any politically charged social conversation.
Today the electric atmosphere has one very specific target: Google. The multinational corporation that has its fingers in so many pies across dozens of industries announced plans in the summer of 2016 to open a campus in Berlin’s edgy district of Kreuzberg. The news was not received well by the majority of local residents, many of whom were already territorial at the perceived gentrification of their community.

“It was not so much about the campus,” said leather-clad Emrah Bora, a campaigner sprawled across two low-slung chairs in a bookshop corner. “It’s what would happen to everything around it. Rent is already too much in Berlin. If more people come to the city for jobs with Google, there’ll be nothing left of what came before.”

Yet Google’s plans were not to open one of their legendary campuses that essentially function as their own private towns, such as their American workers might recognise. Instead, their plans described a 3000 square foot campus that was dedicated to fostering the start-up community that Berlin is so renowned for. The aim was apparently to provide spaces for tech start-ups and entrepreneurs so that they could grow their businesses within a professional environment.

The location: Umspannenwerk, an old industrial building filled with modern innovators seeking a collaborative creative workspace. Google’s investment or invasion, depending on your outlook, would have bought extensive investment and dedicated spaces for up and coming entrepreneurs to develop their ideas. The practical operations of Google itself in the area would have been limited.

“In the last five years the start-up scene in Berlin has grown…and turned into a leading European ecosystem” a glowing Google press release reported at the time. “We are therefore convinced that the future for further growth potential for business owners is now, and we want to do our part for that.”

It all sounds like a promising start – so why are the Berliners so opposed?

Behind the apparently angelic goal of Google to aid Berliner startups, some locals suspected foul play. Such battles for Berlin communities are not new in the capital. 1968ers is a common term for political activists across Europe, yet the German sect reached cult levels that are still fawned over today. The current activist crowd that fills Kalabal!k every other Saturday could have walked straight out of a meeting with rebel journalist Ulrike Meinhof or a demonstration with militant leader Andreas Baader. From Emrah, who constantly plays with a packet of cigarettes despite never lighting a single one, to the group of heavy-lidded young women so invested in their debate it takes three
attempts to convince them to glance up from their conversation, the energy in the room is palpable even now, nearly two months after Google gave up the fight. The corporation bowed to the furious demonstrations of the Kreuzberg residents and retreated from Berlin with their tail between their legs.

Instead, Google’s campus is now referred to as the House. Rowan Barnett, Head of Google for Startups, Germany said: “From the beginning our goal with the Campus was not only to create a space for startups, but also to open the space up to social organizations. We are delighted that with the House for social engagement we can make a substantial contribution to strengthening civic engagement work in and around Kreuzberg. Betterplace and Karuna are the ideal partners for this, they stand for social responsibility and innovation in the social field, and we are convinced that they
will create something very valuable here.”

Here Barnett refers to the two NGOs that Google is making way for. The corporation will still be footing the bill for the rent and utilities of the 3000 square foot space, but the inhabitants are something quite apart from the tech giant.

Betterplace, Germany’s largest donation platform, helps non-profit organizations find supporters for their social causes, while offering donors the opportunity to discover a suitable aid project. They function essentially as a networking platform for this in the non-profit arena. Their new office mate, Karuna, is actually made up of two charitable organisations – KARUNA social cooperative and KARUNA Zukunft für Kinder und Jugend International e.V. Their focus is on the immediate inclusion of marginalised and at-risk homeless youths in Germany. KARUNA has a history with Google already, having won the Google Impact Challenge twice. They see a future in digitising the social sector, and
created the help finder WebApp for street children with this in mind.

These two organisations stepping in does not mean that Google’s presence is entirely gone. Rather, they have revamped the face of their Berlin body with local names and appearances. Yet the fact that Google still pays the bills effectively still puts them in the driving seat, a fact that was not lost on the protestors themselves.

The point still stands however, that Google, at least publicly, was faced down by a rag-tag group of local campaigners originating from an unsuspecting anarchist bookshop. Determined to save face however, Google Germany spokesman Ralf Bremer maintains that it was not the demonstrators who changed the company’s plans.

“It was clear after a few months that this wasn’t going to be a pure startup campus, but with two pillars: startups and NGOs,” he told Deutsche Welle. “That became more and more concrete when we spoke to Betterplace and Karuna, until we decided that it would be better to make the whole space available to them. There was a small group that was very loud, who didn’t want to speak to us, and they have nothing to do with the concept now, obviously.”

This small group is the very same one headed up by the fierce-eyed bookshop owner. She greets visitors to her bookshop with a cursory raised eyebrow. A woman of few words in person and refusing to give many personal details, her dark demeanour perfectly matches the aesthetic of the store that she runs. Even her website has an auspicious lack of any form of contact information, preferring instead to post lengthy discussions in advance of each event. The vehemence with which Kalabal!k calls together their Anti-Google followers makes it quite clear that they are not done with the would-be campus yet.

“The images of the Google bosses in Berlin, as Rowan Barnett now passes as the ‘social angel’; the key of the substation of any social initiative, are blurring with the negative output that has been articulated in the streets of Kreuzberg in the last two years. Google the responsible ‘Big Brother’, who not only knows what is good for humanity, but also for the inhabitants of Kreuzberg and Berlin.”

These stark letters stand out on the plain website; paragraph after paragraph rails against the perceived invader. Both self-congratulatory and yet still cautious to accept victory, the post continues: “The change to Google’s plans was not won in the offices, but on the street.”

Here, indeed, is where the true mark of this battle is made. Whether or not Google has won or lost, whether Kalabal!k and its disciples truly drew blood or just forced the corporation to put on a mask, is essentially irrelevant. The Campus-House still stands, the community still glowers from the streets, Google still watches from the web. The enduring spirit of Berlin is what is at stake in this battle of wills. While the world watches for outcomes, eyes ought to be following the moves. Berliners are
fundamentally a people who fight for their community to the end, even after a victory has apparently been had. In the 1930’s, the government reconvened in Weimar to avoid the relentless riots in the streets. In the 1960’s, the absence of Hitler and the Nazi party did not stop anarchists from protesting the ongoing presence of fascism in the courts and the government. Now, the lack of Google’s logo above the front doors of Umspannenwerk is not enough to sate Kreuzberg’s anarchists’ desire to maintain autonomy within their community.

You might well miss the poster-covered door of Kalabal!k. It’s not just the posters and graffiti that help it blend into the grime and the buzz of Kreuzberg. It’s that every corner has a battle to fight, every bookshop has an owner that glares. The very nature of this city of separation and reunification, of destruction and rebirth, is one of intensity. You cannot be a part of Berlin without being a part of revolution. In this way, Google can never truly make a home here. Rather, it can rent an old space, foster technological advance to spread throughout the world. The true ownership of this city will still always lie with the people who bare their teeth to outsiders for the pure reason that they are outsiders. Whether invader or investor, it’s safe to say that if it’s not of Berlin, its shadow is not welcome to lie on the cobbled streets of Kreuzberg.

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