Manteuffelstrasse 40-41 was located at the corner of Oranienstrasse in the heart of Kreuzberg 36 in West Berlin. In the winter of 1980 Kreuzberg was a vibrant and combustible mixture of senior citizens who survived World War II in their coal-heated apartments, students, artists, alternative and radical types of all kind and the growing Turkish community.
The groups had one thing in common, anger. So they fought. If not with the police then amongst themselves. Instandbesetzung!: The 'Hausbesetzer Movement was at the front lines.
I made contact with Kreuzberg's squatters movement through Ulrike who designed costumes for dance and performance. I was invited to a party at Mariannenstrasse 48 around the block from Manteuffelstrasse at Heinrichplatz where the different social forces intermingled: anarchists plotted anti-strategy in a burned out building across from two popular bars, 'Elefanten' and 'Rote Harfe.' Kraut and Rüben was a health food store where the 'bio' people bought organic vegetables, brick-hard loaves of seven grain bread and something called 'quark,' a tasteless 40% fat cream cheese.
SO36 was the hippest venue on Oranienstrasse for borderline entertainment, performance, live music, the punk scene and dancing for gay and straight. There were Turkish clubs, coffee shops and Lebanese-owned Italian restaurants. There was an around-the-clock party atmosphere and a tangible element of fear often interrupted by piercing police sirens raging through the district to break up fights between rival Turkish groups or arrest 'hausbesetzers' who had taken over property owned by land speculators and the City of Berlin.
Mariannenstrasse 48 had been squatted a week before I arrived on the scene to check out a small dance and yoga space called 'Der Gelbe Raum' because it was painted yellow. I walked through the courtyard ('hinterhaus') as:
blasted from speakers dangling precariously out the window over a long plywood sign scrawled in black paint: 'BlockSchock Cafe!'
I met Nanni, Markus, Antje, Bernie, little and big Thomas', Oskar, Barbara, Bea, Wolfgang, Tillman, Pit and Micky, Helga and Luka. They were celebrating having 'besetzted' this 'kultur fabrik' and planning for the future. I was at the right place at the right time. In the cellar discussion had already started about hand-laying mosaic tiles over the raw cement floor and starting a performance club. In a smaller room adjacent to the cafe, Rainer was describing his plans to install an authentic Wilhelm Reich 'Orgon Box' where you lie in a coffin-like wood enclosure partially filled with water and re-channel your psycho-sexual, spiritual and political energy.
Looking around at the partying crowd, I knew I would fit in. All I needed was a pair of black leather pants and a few lessons in rolling my own.
Most of the squatters were students from West Germany. They attended the tuition-free Free University and wanted to be city planners, engineers, architects, anything to do with renovating the urban landscape and the vacant buildings in Kreuzberg.
After completing the hand-laid mosaic tiles in the cellar and opening the cabaret it wasn't long before hard core squatters set their sights on another building. The movement demanded another action and Mariannenstrasse wasn't big enough for everyone to live in.
More than 150 houses had been squatted in West Berlin by January of 1981 and the plans we made one night in 'Der Gelbe Raum' were to add another to the list: a big house.
I was nervous. Mariannenstrasse suited my needs for a cafe, theatre and I often slept in 'Der Gelbe Raum' being one of the few who actually didn't have his own apartment.
On another cold raw February day in 1981 we walked through the new entrance-way created by destroying a heavily bolted metal door and sledge-hammering through concrete barriers. Antje and Luka ran up the creaky staircase to the third floor and hung a banner out the window spanning half the facade: 'Instandbesetzt!', which freely translated means, "It's our house now, motherfuckers!'
Manteuffelstrasse 40-41 was a 'Kreuzberger Mischung" house: spaces to live, work, manufacture and produce, storefronts for small business or a bar, a former stable and lots of space. 35,000 square feet, 20 apartments, 4 loft spaces in the rear courtyard .
Every window was broken. There was no electricity, heat or running water. Some staircases were rotted out and the roof was heavily damaged.
We stayed warm that winter burning black coal, twenty or more sleeping toe-to-toe and head-to-toe, smoking joints, eating quark and sustaining the solidarity and passion necessary to fight the elements and the police.
I began having trouble staying warm, sleeping
and eating. The 'actions' were endless: replacing windows, installing plumbing,
lugging tools, rewiring electricity and maintaining the party line wore me down.
I continued to carry toilet bowls, sinks, pipes and fittings, destroyed old walls, built new ones, chanted slogans of the squatters movement, ran from the police and coveted my anonymity. I already felt invisible but needed to accentuate it. Squatting this house was like being in a 'homeless community,' except everyone had an apartment to go to when it got really cold except me.
When I was alone, curled up to a coal burning stove, I didn't have to hear anymore tiresome anti-American cliches mouthed by middle class West Germans who came to Berlin to leave mom and dad, get out of military service, and study for the next ten years.
My vocabulary amounted to four words which I repeated in various order: "Guten morgen, guten abend, Tschüß, Auf Wiedersehen", or "Good morning, Good night, See you later, Farewell."
When I wasn't working on Manteuffelstrasse I went to Lichtenberg, East Berlin where my friend K and her family provided the hot food, security and stability that my West Berlin lacked. Returning to Kreuzberg after day trips to the East, I took walks to the Wall which was only ten minutes from Manteuffelstrasse. I wanted the Wall to come down very badly and it was apparent that squatting houses in West Berlin was not going to make that happen. I became agitated. I had to do this alone.
I went AWOL from Manteuffelstrassse. No one noticed. I took a sleeping bag, candles, and diary. I went without sleep for days, arms wrapped around a tree trunk near Wilhelmstrasse and Anhalterstrasse at the base of the Berlin Wall. My fantasies, incantations and isolation brought me closer to madness than I'd ever been.
My visits to the squatters and East Berlin became less frequent. I simply roamed the city. My desolation and alienation was more intense; my energy dwindled and dissipated.
I returned to the dilapidated rooftop at Manteuffelstrasse with a plan: JUMP! Spring from the rooftop, or one flight below where a wall facing the courtyard had been blasted away. That was still high enough to do the job. End it all or at least draw attention to my private drama. Inside the ceaseless rhythmn of renovation and revolution my calls for help were barely audible.
I was disappearing. One day I felt comatose and
another like a bonafide corpse. I didn't eat at all. I wandered through
the community kitchen drinking tap water and relighting cigarette butts. How hopeless
could this be? I bit my nails to the cuticle, felt guilt, worthlessness and shame,
as if everything was wrong and nothing could ever be right again. I had
I went back to the rooftop every
day to leap. Get it over with! JUMP!
I'd gone beserk, collapsing in a heap like old concrete and plaster in the courtyard. My body, once that of a dancer and performer felt like a rain swollen beam from the rafters of Manteuffelstrasse. I was a slug and my body ached. I complained of hurts that wouldn't stop hurting: ankles, headaches, twisted back, strained muscles.
I couldn't concentrate, complete a sentence or decide which socks
I was euphoric when I arrived in West Berlin now I didn't know what was real and was ready to check out. Auf Wiedersehen!
On the flight back to New York I couldn't care less about my dangling unfastened seat belt. Is it possible to crash land so that everyone survives but me?