Now online: Blogging Jesenská. Zsuzsa Balazs, Budapest, makes the start

An American journalist visits the former border between Eastern and Western Europe and finds the Iron Curtain turned into a Green Belt. A Dutch correspondent who wants to know how European ancient culture is brought into the 21st century gets the answer in a cheap art store in Vienna. A Serbian reporter explores the music scene of his country and discovers that pop music can be mainstream and subversive at the same time.

These are only some of the topics you can read about in the new Milena Jesenská Blog to which former as well as current Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellows of the IWM are contributing.

The Milena Jesenská Fellowship programme was established in 1998 to enable journalists to work on larger projects of European social, political or cultural relevance and thereby to strengthen investigative journalism and press freedom. Since then, more than sixty journalists from twenty countries have joined the Institute’s scientific community. The Milena Jesenská Blog provides a new platform for these journalists, enabling them to exchange ideas with a wider public. Starting today, we will publish their posts in regular intervals.

Read today the first contribution by Zsuzsa Balazs, editor at the magazine HVG in Budapest. She was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM from January to March 2011.


Zsuzsa Balazs

Reclaiming Public Spaces

The urge for answering alienation in European metropolises has given rise to different types of grassroots actions. Examples of these social movements are squatting initia-tives, which are increasingly less tolerated by governments and city councils. Zsusza Balazs has visited the few remaining squats in Berlin, Budapest and Copenhagen.

“Subversive action for regaining public places is becoming very rare in Berlin nowadays. One of the main reasons for this is the very fact that they were so popular in the early 1990s. Thousands of tourists came to the city just to see the most famous squats of Berlin”, claimed Friedrich von Borries, urban designer and architect. I interviewed him on my fieldtrip to Berlin during my stay at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Every once in a while during the last couple of years, news on officially closing the last Berlin squat travelled through European newspapers. But there always seemed to be one more remaining, which later could be cleaned of its residents, surrounded by media attention. There still are quite a few operating squats in the German capital, but – according to the members of Borries’ team of architects – they are not open to the public any longer.

One of the biggest ones, the so-called “Köpi” on Köpernickerstraße, seemed to be very busy on a cold Friday afternoon at the end of February. A group of punks were decorating the concert hall for an upcoming performance, while another bunch of inhabitants were cooking pasta for the expected visitors. However, in contrast to my expectations of seeing people of all ages attempting to build a better society for all Berliners, there were no underground art exhibitions, no canteens for cheap coffee and hot food, no room for regular concerts, or any sign whatsoever of wanting to use the space as means of reshaping the social life of Berlin. They did not want to talk to journalists, the only thing they had to say was assuring anyone interested that “Köpi stays”.

Squatting could be an active and somewhat extreme form of the desire to take possession of public space and to redistribute seemingly free and unused places of a city. In the capital of Hungary there were a couple of vague attempts at the beginning of the new millennium to create the squats of Budapest, and, thus, not to be left behind other European cities such as Barcelona, Paris, Berlin or Copenhagen. In the end, Budapest was left without a single empty house taken by socially conscious groups of civilians. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the movement had already lost its charm and glamour in the cities, where there once used to be a flourishing squat culture. By the year 2000, authorities throughout Europe regained most of the illegal squats, though the most famous ones got legalised. The Alternative Art House on Rue de Rivoli in Paris was even renovated for 10 million euros by the City Hall of the French capital, between 2006 and 2009.

For the time being, “Christiania” in Copenhagen – like Köpi – also stays, even though the municipality has tried to empty the 34-hectare territory and get rid of its 850 residents. Eventually, Christiania and the Danish government concluded an agreement that enables the inhabitants to buy most of the land on which they live from the state, after years of negotiations. The area, which had been taken over by civilians in the mid 1970s, was and still is the Danish symbol of self-organised social space. Once belonging to the military, the area was abandoned and later occupied by residents from the surrounding neighbourhood. They originally wanted nothing more but a playground for their children. Today, many visitors to Christiania look only for community and space for their activities, such as skate boarding, chilling out with friends over a cup of a regular latte. Since the mid 1990s, Christiania has even been paying fees for water, electricity and refuse disposal. Nevertheless, there have been frequent raids by the police, mainly because of open drug selling in the area, as Fleming Mikkelsen of the Danish Centre for Youth Research explained. The hash market was officially closed in 2004, but in reality the stands are still in the market area. The dealers freely sell hash and weed in the heart of the so-called ‘ Freetown’ in the middle of Copenhagen.

Other subversive, or in other words ‘guerilla’ methods of space-gaining activities are visible all over Europe. Taking example from their American forerunners, urban playground activists turn streets into a board game and green guerilla groups create illegal gardens as well as parks in the middle of the urban jungle. Just like squatting, these social activities also have their unique forms in European cities, drawing attention from the inhabitants for shorter or longer periods of time.

The Milena Jesenská Blog with all posts can be found here.

IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & the IWM. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the IWM.