Kiefernstrasse, is an intriguing neighborhood in Dusseldorf, Germany, that attracts a lot of attention, from the media, and more recently, from tourists. It is also one of those special places in the world that reminds me how fast the world changes, and how much it has changed in my lifetime. It is a small area, with a rich and diverse history, one built on industry, tinged by anarchy, and saved by art.
Flip through social media, or watch a news broadcast, and there are shocking images of violence that often frightens us. But, what the young among us may not realize, and the older among us may have forgotten, is that the violence had a much broader spread, and was more pervasive just a few decades ago.
There were political and religious riots in places like Belfast. There were race riots in places like South Africa, and the US. And of course, there was the cold war propaganda. Perhaps most frightening, was the anti-government terrorist agencies, steeped in Marxist and Leninist philosophies, committed to what they called Urban Guerilla War. They fervently believed in the Anti-Imperialist struggle, against the American supported democratic governments in Western Europe. It was the Red Army Faction, which was determined to topple the Federal Republic of Germany, that allegedly once made a home at Kiefernstrasse.
But Kiefernstrasses history began long before that. Kiefernstrasse literally translate to Pine Trees Street, but a local would say simply, The Pines. Perhaps there were once pine trees in the area, but the area surrounding Kiefernstrasse was largely industrial for decades.
Construction of the apartment buildings on Kiefernstrasse originally commenced in 1902, taking 3 years before the first tenants took up residence. They were built to provide nearby housing for the employees of the Klockner Steelworks, in an era before automobiles. This was a common practice at the onset of the 20th century, throughout the western hemisphere.
For decades, times were good on Kiefernstrasse. Workers at the steelworks lived on Kiefernstrasse, with a degree of separation from the rest of the city. The street was surrounded by factories and warehouses. In this relative isolation, their blue-collar neighborhood, took on a strong community feeling, one of extended family, through two World Wars, and into the mid-1960s.
The Industry Fails
Then the in 1966 the FRG economy collapsed. The market was saturated with steel, and international competition had become stiff. Klockner was forced to reduce their steel industry by almost half, and the Dusseldorf factory closed down. By 1972, ownership of the apartments on Kiefernstrasse belonged to the city.
Over the next few years, city officials were developing plans for revitalizing the area with growth. The plans included demolishing the apartment buildings and using the location to expand industry. The city decided to terminate all existing leases and agreements. This resulted in many of the tenants vacating the premises by the early 1980s.
The city plans were temporarily laid aside due to a drastic housing shortage in Dusseldorf at that time, and a flood of refugees from Africa. Social Services decided to place these refugees in the rundown apartments on Kiefernstrasse, as there were few other options. In that same time frame, other city dwellers who were unable to find appropriate housing began settling into the vacant apartments, as squatters.
Over the next two years, a series of legal battles took place. Representatives of the squatters negotiated the right to remain on the premises. The original settlement agreed to this, but no expansion was allowed. Current squatters could stay, but no new ones would be allowed.
But the housing crisis grew worse, and residents evicted from other areas of the city convened on Kiefernstrasse. Again, the city attempted to force these new squatters to vacate. The community rallied local support, acquiring hundreds of signatures for petitions to allow those now staying in the apartments, to maintain their residency. Again,through the legal system, the residents won the dispute.
Terrorism Throughout Germany
Disruption about the street calmed for a period, while all around the country, it was anything but calm. The Red Army Faction, RAF, had resurged, and their terrorist acts were increasingly violent and deadly. The RAF had performed acts of terrorism since the early 1970s, including bombings, kidnappings, and even hijacking a Lufthansa jet. Through the 80s their actions became more personally pointed. A series of executions and assinations began, including Karl Heinz Beckurts, president of the Siemens corporation, which was involved with SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, aka., Star Wars,) and an attempted assassination of General Alexander Haig.
Suddenly it was all over the news that police had conducted a raid on the Kiefenstrasse squats. Two high ranking RAF members were arrested. Helmut Linssen, the General Secretary of the Christian Democratic Union, a major political party in the Federal Republic of Germany, referred to Kiefernstrasse as THE center of terrorism in the FDR.
Throughout the mid-1980s a series of raids upon Kiefernstrasse took place and a number of RAF members were arrested as a result of the different raids. Residents barricaded themselves inside the neighborhood, in attempts to keep law enforcement out.
The are stories and images of these events, the bombings, assassinations, and raids, that I still remember from televised news, in my youth. News agencies worldwide reported on these events, documenting them for all of history. The government established the facts, with loads of supporting evidence cited.
However, ask a resident of The Pines who is old enough to remember those times, or even a younger person who has been told the tales, and they will tell a different story.
Another Side of the Story
Many residents of that era, and some to this day, believe that the accusations of RAF involvement at Kiefernstrasse, was a government ploy. They believe it was a city and state conspiracy, developed by spoiled members of government, and possibly industry leaders, who could not accept their plans having been foiled.
The legal system may have shut them down, but there were other means to accomplish the task of clearing residents from The Pines. The government deployed the most drastic measures possible to achieve their goal, to force the residents to leave.
The world may never know the truth surrounding these events. Many have long since forgotten, but those in the Kiefernstrasse community remember.
Punk Rock is Born
Throughout the 1980s, while all of the turmoil was happening, Dusseldorf was birthing the German Punk Rock scene, a genre built upon ideas of anarchy. Ratinger Hof, in Dusseldorf would be the most influential club, but Cafe NixDa had also opened at 23 Kiefernstrasse. Several punk groups that would rise to some level of fame would play at Cafe DixNa.
Perhaps the most famous group coming out of Ratinger Hof, sometimes playing at Cafe NixDa was Die Toten Hosen. Literally translated, Die Toten Hosen means the dead pants, but figuratively translated, it means, there is nothing going on here.
A Quieter Time
In 1989 the Cold War wound down, and the Berlin Wall fell. Although the terrorism did not come end immediately, the power the RAF had once waned.
Things became quieter, more peaceful on Kiefernstrasse, and that peace would last for almost two decades. Residents made their apartments into homes, working cooperatively to improve them. They installed plumbing and electrical fixtures, replacing those that had long been non-functional. They repaired walls and doors, making their homes safer, and more attractive.
The community grew even more diverse. As Germany became a more desirable place to live, more immigrants came. Some made their homes on Kiefernstrasse. Residents had meetings in their community center. They learned diplomacy and negotiation, through working together to solve their conflicts between those of differing backgrounds and beliefs. Again, it was beginning to feel like a big, extended family.
But as 21st century commenced, residents grew increasingly concerned about the pending end of their leases in 2008. They realized they needed to take action, and the methods of the past were no longer the norm of the day. Again the community rallied together, and a brilliant plan was born.
Advertising for Artists
On August 20, 2004, a two-week event commenced. Famous artists from around the world, including Os Gemeos, from Brazil, and Arie Dyanto, of Indonesia, as well as Dusseldorfer Klaus Klinger, gathered on Kiefernstrasse. Local youth from the neighborhood, and around the city showed up to work as artists assistants. Those not artistically inclined set up street parties and musical performances to entertain. For two weeks the street was consumed with a frenzy of activity, as they embarked upon their project.
When the two weeks came to an end, and the work spaces were cleared of equipment and supplies, their creation would be something unique, and unheard of before. It would once again put The Pines in the spotlight, but this time for being something special.
What was once an eyesore awaiting a likely demise, had become a colorful work of street art, one where something new was discovered from every viewpoint.
The result would become known as the largest graffiti wall in the world for years, and a tourist attraction for the city.
When 2008 rolled around, the city renewed the leases with the option for further renewals. the residents of Kiefernstrasse were no longer in fear of losing their homes.
In the area surrounding the street, the old factories were torn down, and new buildings went up. Rather than the industries that the city had originally desired, some new apartment buildings were built close by. Then restaurants opened, a specialty shop center and a regional courts building was opened. Some professionals even made offices in the area.
Over the years since the original transition of Kiefernstrasse, the "wall" has been expanded. Residents add to the street art, some by painting their vehicles or trailers to match, others by adding thoughtful pieces to trees, and windowsills. Each year , a huge street celebration with food and musical performance continues to take over the area for a few days.
The punk rock club, now called AK47, still hosts performances, and is the last remaining punk rock club in Dusseldorf. There is also a music studio, a meeting place, a children's center, and a culture bureau.
The community is very proud of their neighborhood. They are proud of the industrial heritage of their homes, believing that the wealth and prestige of Dusseldorf was built upon the backs of the factory workers, many who once lived in these same homes.
They are also proud of all they have accomplished: they have rennovated and saved their homes, and honored their history, and they have created soemthing unique around the world.
Yes, their work of art neighborhood is one of those things, but building a cooperative community from citizens of 40 different nationalities, is truly amazing.
Kiefernstrasse is a place that you must see to believe, and experience to understand. Walk through the neighborhood, talk to the locals.
If you can make it to their annual street party, usually held the second weekend in September, it will be an experience to remember.
My very good friend Monty Meerstein, of the Meerstein Express, sometimes perform at the Kifernstrasse Street Parties. Any fans of quality musical performances will enjoy the Meerstein Express.
You can learn more about Monty here: My Travel Companions.
You can watch a live performance video on this post: The Meerstein Express
Anarchy Lives On
The spirit of anarchy is still strong on Kiefernstrasse. As I type, their community website has a call to action for members to "Reclaim your City," and a call for solidarity in acts against racism that they believe the city has supported, and of course the building above, gives it's message loud and clear.
As I noted at the onset of the article, Kiefernstrasse reminds me of how much the world has changed in my lifetime. But, it also reminds me, that some things never change!
Visit the Kiefernstrasse Culture Center Website here: https://kiefern.org/