Hamburg is a city that can make many claims. It is the second largest city in Germany. A city of wealth, although not ostentatious.Today, Hamburg is a bustling cruise port, tourist destination and second largest port in Europe. It is also the proud owner of a quirky history involving but not limited to a Great Fire, a Cholera outbreak and almost complete destruction in WW2. Hamburg knows how to bounce back, recreate and thrive. And if you want to see this creative spirit and Hamburg grit in action, head to the Gangviertel or Alleys Quarter.
The Alleys Quarter is a free to visit space that embraces free thinking and colourful living, and that is definitely reflected in the aesthetic of the area. Think bunting, abundant use of colour, pretty planting and creative re-use of materials. An old toilet reborn as a planter raised a smile for us, but the adapt-create-reuse philosophy doesn’t just apply to the visual appearance of the area. It’s a concept the community is founded on.
The area was originally a working class neighbourhood, but living conditions were cramped and hygiene conditions inadequate. Following a Cholera epidemic in the late 1800s, the city decided to clear the area. Some of the streets survived this, only to be lost in WW2 or in the redevelopment of the 1950s-60s that followed. A few remnants of the old district remained, unused and largely forgotten.
In 2009 squatters moved in and gave the old buildings new life. The buildings welcomed the new residents ,and over time the people of Hamburg have too. In time , residents have become more settled and developed the area. Plans to sell of the area to investors who would demolish the buildings have been thwarted, the area has seen kind, community centred regeneration. Spaces have been created for living, for exhibiting, for creating. The alleys have been put on the map as a place where heritage is valued, creativity is embraced and visitors are welcome.
As well as preserving a little piece of old Hamburg and providing a space of artists and creatives, the alleys are home to some impressive murals, cafes, independent outlets and a bike shop. The idea of the area is to make culture and art accessible to all, regardless of economic status. Rental prices in the area are kept fluid…those who can, pay a bit more so that those who can’t can be subsidised. It’s an interesting and refreshing concept in a city where money talks and you see people carrying designer bags as casually as they do a take out coffee.
The future of the area still isn’t entirely certain. The ultimate goal is to become a self-governed community. It’s focus is currently steered by a cooperative association but it still relies largely on volunteers and donations to keep things going. I think they’ll get there.
I’d encourage anyone visiting Hamburg to make time to check in here. It’s a different face of the city; a free and pleasant thing to do in a destination that can hit the travel budget hard. Every visitor is also a show of support for those who took on the David-and-Goliath task of saving the buildings and seeing off the developers in the first place ,and a step towards securing a long-term future. Because urban spaces shouldn’t just be about the commercial or sold without thought to the highest bidder. And if anyones in any doubt about that, a few hours mooching round here will definitely challenge your mindset.
If you want to know more about the Gangviertel and the ‘Right to the City’ movement , have a look at das-gaengeviertel.info (German language but worth the effort to Google translate) and Recht Auf Stadt (English).
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