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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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. . . ."