BerlinMay Day 1987 began with beautiful spring weather. It was “sunny and warm with fresh flowers everywhere. A sea of red May carnations along the festively decorated Karl-Marx-Allee, banners in the red of the working class and in the colours of our republic. The mood was splendid in the huge crowd of over 650,000.” This flowery prose was how the newspaper Neues Deutschland described the traditional International Workers’ Day rally.

Like every year, hundreds of thousands of East Berliners assembled in the streets of Friedrichshain, forming three marching columns in Karl-Marx-Allee. They carried flags and banners on their way to Alexanderplatz. They marched past the VIP stands from which SED party boss Erich Honecker watched the parade. The Internationale blasted from loudspeakers.

Foto: imago images /Rolf Zöllner
The 1987 May Day parade in Karl-Marx-Allee. The GDR leadership and communist bigwigs look on from the stands - with Stasi protection.

This Kampfdemonstration, or “combat demonstration”, lasted no less than four-and-a-half hours. It ended with a thunderstorm. After the storm had passed, fireworks erupted over Volkspark Friedrichshain in the late evening, bringing the holiday to an end.

Less than four kilometres away, across the Spree river, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, a very different type of fireworks display was taking place at Görlitzer Bahnhof in Kreuzberg: a Bolle supermarket went up in flames and demonstrators prevented the fire brigade from putting out the blaze.

The traditional May Day festivities at Lausitzer Platz had escalated into a riot. At 11pm, the police retreated amidst a hail of stones thrown by the mob. Local residents sided with the demonstrators. Barricades and cars burned, stores were looted. At the end of the riot, after the police began intervening again at 2am, hundreds of people were injured and nearly 50 were arrested; one of those jailed committed suicide days later while in detention.

Photo: imago images / Rolf Kremming
A supermarket goes up in flames in Kreuzberg on 1 May 1987.

The two events on 1 May 1987, the year of Berlin’s 750th birthday, could not have been more different. On the one  hand, East Germany’s carefully staged celebrations in Friedrichshain. On the other hand, an revolutionary challenge to the West Berlin administration in Kreuzberg. Both demonstrations invoked the tradition of celebrating Labour Day.

Proletarian past

Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg had grown far apart despite having originally had a very similar social fabric. Both districts, created over the course of the Greater Berlin Act of 1920, were proletarian areas in the city's east. Before the Second World War, more than 300,000 inhabitants were crammed into 10 square kilometres. Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg typified the concrete jungle Berlin had become, with seemingly endless tenements and very few green areas.

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During the political division of the city in the Cold War, however, very different social conditions arose in the twin districts. Friedrichshain was in the Soviet sector and was a core district of East Berlin, the capital of East Germany. Kreuzberg was in the American sector and thus part of West Berlin.

Friedrichshain initially remained a working-class area and was home to large companies such as the VEB Glühlampenwerk Narva lightbulb factory and the Reichsbahnausbesserungswerk (RAW Franz Stenzer, the national railway repair works). Kreuzberg found itself pushed to the outskirts of West Berlin. The Wall surrounded the eastern part of the borough (SO 36) on three sides. This severed its commercial ties to the rest of the city and made it quite uninteresting from an economic standpoint.

Widespread destruction in the Second World War

Both districts faced similar challenges during the division. Nearly half of their buildings were destroyed in the Second World War. Hence, housing was a pressing problem in both Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. The urban development solutions were similar in both East and West and, until the 1970s, the policy was to demolish old, derelict buildings and replace them with modern housing estates featuring plenty of sunlight. The renewals, however, suffered significant delays in both districts.

In the 1970s, mass vacancies paired with a simultaneous housing shortage sparked a large squatter movement in Kreuzberg. The West Berlin district also became home to many Turkish “guest workers”.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kreuzberg turned into a laboratory where new forms of societal participation and autonomous modes of living could be tried out. The district became a bulwark of the alternative movement, attracting critical minds from West Germany who wanted to avoid compulsory military service in the Bundeswehr. As a result, Kreuzberg had a strong impact on the Federal Republic of Germany.

Alternative communities in Kreuzberg

The countercultural scene in Kreuzberg was especially militant in its opposition to West Berlin’s urban renewal plans. The city government's wide-ranging modernisation and transport projects, which included a motorway cutting straight through the district, were met with growing resistance from the 1970s onwards. The rejection of the planned utopias of post-war modernism went hand-in-hand with a new appreciation of the historical. Local history was rediscovered. Traditional Berlin tenements, many of which were slated for demolition, were suddenly seen as chic. Kiez, or neighbourhood, was also no longer an insult, but a positive term.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / Paul Glaser
Squatters and local residents at a 1982 block party in Kreuzberg's Cuvrystraße.

The planned wholesale redevelopment was halted to preserve alternative living arrangements and lifestyles within the neighbourhoods. Instead, new forms of communal decision-making were tried out and numerous local projects launched. An important result of this change of heart was the concept of “gentle urban renewal”, which spread to areas far beyond Kreuzberg.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / Paul Glaser
Slogans and flags at Friedrichshain's Strausberger Platz in 1979 marked East Germany’s 30th birthday.

Subcultures also sprouted in Friedrichshain. People occupied apartments illegally. A scene arose that increasingly questioned the East German way of life. One example were the masses featuring blues music that pastor Rainer Eppelmann performed in the Samariterkirche from 1979 to 1983. An East Berlin counterculture developed underneath the umbrella of the church that was at odds with the official opinion held by the ruling communist party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED).

In the 1980s, the old buildings in Friedrichshain were reassessed. Tenements were no longer to be torn down in favour of prefab high-rises but were to be spruced up through a “complex reconstruction”. This change in policy was not only due to economic factors: the SED had lost sight of the future and relied increasingly on the past. The idea of the neighbourhood was also rediscovered in East Berlin. Once again, the Berlin tenement became the dominant residential unit in both districts.

The summer of anarchy

When the Berlin Wall fell on the night of 9 November 1989, people streamed across the Oberbaumbrücke. The bridge was the sole link between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg and had previously been a heavily guarded border crossing for visitors from West Berlin. From here, East Berliners explored neighbouring Kreuzberg whose multicultural life stood in stark contrast to homogenous East German society. Today the bridge is a landmark and the symbol of the unified district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

Kreuzbergers were drawn to the eastern district as the collapse of SED rule resulted in lots of free, open space. In the brief “summer of anarchy” between the fall of the Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990, about 130 buildings were squatted in East Berlin, 90 of them in Friedrichshain alone.

The stronghold of the squatter movement in East Berlin was Mainzer Straße. In May 1990, about 250 activists who were mostly from the West occupied a dozen empty buildings in the Friedrichshain street and transformed them according to their own ideas. This resulted in a leftist house, a women’s and lesbian house and a "queer tower". An entire row of buildings was transformed into a one-of-a-kind area for experimentation.

The conflicts in Mainzer Straße soon escalted. The old inhabitants were irked by their new neighbours’ lifestyles, even by the banners that adorned the crumbling facades of the squatted buildings. Meanwhile, neo-Nazis from Lichtenberg attacked the leftist alternative squatters, who transformed their buildings into fortresses.

Foto: dpa picture alliance / Peter Hammer
4 Mainzer Straße in Friedrichshain resembled a battlefield on 14 November 1990. Several police officers and squatters were injured during evictions.

There were also conflicts amongst the squatters: while those from the East hoped for legalisation of their housing situation through rental agreements, those from the West, who were more radical, rejected all negotiations.

Following German reunification on 3 October 1990, the responsibility for policing the eastern part of the city was transferred to West Berlin’s police, after which the squatters faced officers from the west who were experienced in dealing with squats. On 14 November, more than 3,000 police cleared out the occupied buildings on Mainzer Straße. Berlin saw the most intense street fighting since the Second World War. The result was the collapse of the city government, a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.

The former squat houses on Mainzer Straße have long since been thoroughly renovated. No crumbling tenement buildings remain and empty flats are few and far between. Gentrification took hold. The students and artists who rediscovered the neighbourhood could no longer afford to live in the pre-war buildings. International investors used the alternative scene the neighbourhoods were known for to advertise their properties but then ended up damaging it through rising property prices.

Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg began a single administrative district in 2001 and today it’s one of the most expensive residential areas in the city. Huge rent increases occur when new leases are signed. This process is upending a social fabric that has existed for decades. For most of their history, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg were the poorhouse of Berlin. Anyone who made something of themselves moved away as quickly as possible. Today, it’s the other way around: the area's hipness is driving up rents. Last year in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg average rents per square metre amounted to €13. Only Mitte was more expensive (€13.45), while the traditionally swanky Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf was more affordable (€12.65). 

A bourgeois zone has emerged in the old working-class districts. All that remains is their historical reputation for alternative culture. A hundred years after their formation, the twin districts on the Spree – separated for decades – are no longer recognisable.

Dr. Hanno Hochmuth is a historian at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History (ZFF).