Building new lives and ways of living
Dublin, Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Brussels
Christina Arnold sat sideways in a battered chair, one leg hooked over an armrest, a glass in her hand. As the sun set on a warm Sunday afternoon in West Berlin, she softly but resolutely rejected the conventional values of older generations.
"You can't just talk about the consumer society," she said, a small figure in baggy red trousers covered with once-bright dots, striped multicolored socks, old sandals, blouse, and ancient blue jacket.
"Either you are on one side, or the other. . . ."
Christina's mood swung between humor and defiance, enthusiasm and bitterness, at what she sees as a society empty of her own ideals of creativity and sharing, warmth and emotion.
She is one of West Germany's thousands of young "Haus besetzers" -- house squatters. In West Berlin they made world headlines last November by moving into more than 100 run-down 19th-century factories and apartment blocks, camping in them, and defying police.
But to Christina, and the 20 or so others in her group on Mariannen Strasse in the Kreuzberg district, it's a lot more than just finding a place to live in a city where 70,000 people are on government lists for new accommodation while 800 old building stand vacant.
Christina is one of many middle-class young Europeans, children of comfortably well-off parents, now trying to create new life styles of their own. I found them in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and elsewhere. They are active in Zurich and Basel, and in many other cities in northern Europe.
They don't like the present. They see little more than bombs, recession, unemployment, and consumerism in the future. Their answer: to try to cut themselves adrift from what they see as excessive nuclear power, discipline, hardness, technology, materialism. Squatting is now a symbol of direct action against a state seen as heedless and uncaring; against a system that build bombs but cuts back on social services, that pulls down old buildings to erect new ones with huge rents.
The new point about Christina and her friends is that they are nonideological , nonpolitical. The impassioned social arguments of the 1967-68 student rebellion across Europe is not for them. They have no attachment to communism or Marxism, or even the so-called "green" environmentalist movement that now has nine seats in the West Berlin House of Representatives.
The squatters include workers as well as students, punks as well as idealists. They laugh at politicians and deeply distrust the establishment and the press. Christina didn't want to speak to met at all when I first walked into the room, which serves as a canteen in the occupied factory.
The building is typical: an apartment block on the street, where workers once lived, then a courtyard, and the factory building behind. Several young people with shoulder-length hair sat in the courtyard. A baby sat in an old supermarket shopping cart. Small chldren played and called to each other.
In the bare canteen area, a dozen young people sat around a table. Christina was mildly annoyed. "I can't talk to you now: Our time is precious, our relationships with each other. . . ."
When I mentioned the name of this newspape, she hesitated. "Well," she said at last, "I have heard of it. I suppose I could talk to you. . . .Come back tomorrow at 6:30 [p.m.]." With that, she and her friends were gone.
The next afternoon she was more relaxed.We talked (in English) for more than an hour in the fading light. We sat in a courtyard adjoining the factory building, used as a school sports ground during part of the week, but taken over by Christina's group the rest of the time. The group has built flower beds edged with old bricks and decorated one wall with the tops of beach umbrellas and a design made of ropes.
Again and again Christina showed her intense concern about countering materialism and hardness with creativity and self-expression.
"We cook every Friday for anyone in the area who wants to come, enough for 40 , and we charge only 5 marks [$2] each. . . . In the cellar we have a room for theater and for a disco.
"Upstairs, a group works on electrical repairs, and on metal handicrafts -- candleholders, that sort of thing. We're setting up a kindergarten.I hold a class in meditation and another in tai chi Chinese exercises. . . ."
She came to West Berlin six years ago and began studying drama at a university. She had fought for student rights in the 1970s, and for independent youth centers. She and about 20 others began living in lofts and looking for an old factory where they could be together.
"We wanted to show how necessary these old buildings are," she said. "I love this area. I want to find my place here. This buildings are necessary and beautiful, not ugly or unimportant.
"We went to the owners. We offered to repair the building. They refused. It had been empty for years. We did get a contract for rent after a historic-buildings group supported us, but that ran out last October. Now they could throw us out at any time."
SQuatter after squatter told me the same story: Landlords let the old buildings fall into ruin (some said they hired gangs of youths to go around smashing holes in roofs to hasten the process). By law they were then able to demolish and rebuild. But the economic recession has been so bad that hundreds of buildings lie vacant for years while owners wait for better times.
After a major demonstration through Berlin last December (about 20,000 people and some smashed shop windows), the Social Democratic government of the city decided not to take a tough line on evictions. But it then lost the next elections. The new Christian Democratic administration under Richard von Weizsacker has moved cautiously -- though there have still been evictions in Berllin and Frankfurt. Violence was followed by arrests.
In Hamburg, a student told me: "Squatting is very important. It's happening in Frankfurt, dortmund, Essen, and Cologne. First, there's a move for a youth center, then for a place to live, now it is another way of life."
A Hamburg newspaper reporter who has studied West Berlin estimated there are as many as 180 occupied buildings, each containing 10 to 50 people. A daily newspaper has sprung up around them (Tageszeitung), which plans to publish in Hamburg as well as Berlin.
Berlin government spokesman Peter Jakob said that in mid-May squatters were in 142 buildings. About 20 students were in jail. Thirty faced trial.
Squatters are by no means all as intellectual as Christina. Not many streets away, I climbed to the roof of another factory-cun-apartment block and stood with a bearded taxi driver, Vernaccio (he would give no other name), as a half-dozen young men spread tar and laid down asphalt strips to make a weatherproof seal.
They, too, said they had tried to move in legally -- for 18 months -- but the landlord had refused. Now they occupy 10 apartments, renting two at commercial rates to ensure constant supplies of water, electricity, and heat.
"Down with NATO," said scrawled graffiti on a wall.* Not half a mile away I could see the roofs of East Berlin. But the squatters don't seem to think about East Berlin or communism. They insist they are not political. They want to be left alone.
Neues leben in alten Fabrikenm -- New life in old factories -- proclaimed a sign in Vernaccio's courtyard. His group drives taxis to bring in spending money. It has set up a kindergarten and a language school called "Babylonia." It runs its own workshop on one floor, and does its own repairs.
Back in the Mariannen Strasse courtyard, Christina denied she was out to change the world:
"If you vote, you change nothing," she said. "I'm not interested in communism. I do my own thing. Living here is how I show what I believe in.I can't change anyone who has his eyes set in another direction." She shrugged.
How did Christina and her group buy food? "I receive 450 deutsche marks a month [about $180]." Who from? A pause. "From my parents. It isn't much, you know. . . ."
Had her parents visited the factory?
"Yes. They didn't like it, of course. Would they keep the money coming? A warm smile. "Oh yes. They will. They wouldn't cut it off. . . ."
How long Christina and Vernaccio and the thousands of other West Berlin squatters can go on is an open question. The threat of being evicted and jailed gives their life a dangerous edge they find simulating.
In Zurich, many young people have rebelled in their own way against what they see as the unremitting discipline and clockwork efficiency of Switzerland.
Young people feel crowded, shut in. Unemployment does not seem to be a problem: The Swiss have virtually full employment. But cheap housing is in short supply. It seems hard to dissent in Swizerland -- to find room to live nonconventional life styles.
There is squatting in Zurich, but the city has moved quickly to allow young people to live in city-owned buildings awaiting renovation. It has taken other steps as well.
A running battle with police has been fought since May 1980 over a youth center in Zurich. The center has now reopened after being closed because of drug dealing. Police are leaving it open, but insist on the right to raid it to search for and seize drugs.
Many Swiss youths are simply not prepared to make the sacrifices their elders have done. The great majority of dissenters are nonviolent.
"What has the movement achieved?" asked Anna, one of a number of young people interviewed by the chronicler of the rebellion, Nicolas Lindt, in a new book entitled "Only Dead Fish Swim With the Stream."
Mr. Lindt describes the Swiss youth movement as "a melting of the pack ice, a more alive Zurich, conflicts brought out into the open." Lindt has also said, "We feel we have not come into the world to work." His generation wants to "be," while it feels other Swiss want to "have."
In Bern, a federal commission on youth as said it was significant that "only very few of the youth have publicly distanced themselves from the activists. . . ." The report, widely quoted in West Germany, pointed to families and a society where people no longer had the time to talk to one another and lacked warmth and involvement.
How does the future look to other young Europeans?
Working-class young people worry, not because they reject the values of their parents, but because those values seem doubly difficult to maintain at a time of inflation, recession, and high unemployment.
Andreas Stolze, a theology student in Hamburg, told me he believed it was the open dissenters who attracted the headlines and the television cameras. But the future also contained many of what he called "inner dropouts."
"These people still go to the pub and raise children and hold jobs," he said, "but they have no interest in society. . . ."
Said one well-informed Swiss journalist in Bonn: "Blue-collar people want cars and homes and the things everyone else has. They're upset if the system won't allow them to get these things."
Christoffel Zumpolle, who works in an electrical supply business in Amsterdam said:
"It's too early to tell if this generation will rebel against its parents' ideals. Young people talk too much. If they want to work with their hands, there are jobs to be done. . . ."
But not all young people in Europe are "inner dropouts" or reject society's values, or squat in abandoned houses, or throw rocks into shop windows on the main shopping streets.
I met many young people (and not only in conservative Ireland) who wanted a home and family and car just as their parents did before them.
Europe is full of people working so hard they don't have time to rebel or even to theorize. As Christina Arnold and I talked in the Kreuzberg area of West Berlin, Turkish migrant workers traveled to and from the menial jobs West Germans prefer to leave to others.
Turks lined up outside video shops to exchange Turkish videotapes for next week's viewing. Turkish travel agents did a roaring trade in cut-rate trips back home to Ankara and Izmir. Whole families set up restaurants and carved endless kebabs off huge lumps of meat for Berliners to savor. Cars careened through the streets, horns blaring, as families celebrated weddings. Immigrant workers are hard at work (or looking for work) all over Europe.
This series of reports has tried to focus on those young people who question the values of their elders. This correspondent learned much by talking to them. He disagreed with many of their views about the United States and the Soviet Union. He found some of his own values under serious scrutiny. He detected naivete in some places, ignorance in others.
But he met some extremely intelligent and sincere individuals, and encountered qualities the world sorely needs -- openness and enthusiams, idealism and independence, intelligence and commitment.
Qualities like those could yet form the bridges between old and young that the world also needs to build.