Marooned within the industrial estates of Düsseldorf’s Flingern neighbourhood, the residential street of Kiefernstraße has always been something of an anomaly. The five and six storey apartment buildings were erected in 1902, designed to house workers of the nearby Klöckner steelworks, and together they formed a typical, nondescript street, 360 metres long. Or at least it would have been a typical street had it not been isolated from the urban and residential fabric of the rest of the city, surrounded as it was completely by industrial units. In this period, it was purely the street’s isolation that made it somewhat strange.
Things changed in 1975 with the closure of the steelworks. The tenants of the apartments, one by one, started to leave. The buildings were already neglected and in a state of disrepair, and no one wanted to live in such a remote, outlying street now that the steelworks had shut. The city council purchased the street in its entirety, and made plans to raise the apartment blocks and build more industrial units in their place. Meanwhile, in the brief interim period prior to the street’s planned demolition, the council decided that the apartments that had already been abandoned could be used to temporarily house refugees.
Refugees, mainly of North African origin, moved in. And then came the squatters. At first there were 60 of them, mostly comprising of people who had been squeezed out of social housing elsewhere in the city. The squat, obviously, was illegal, and the authorities quickly launched a legal case against the squatters. The squatters, though, fought back, forming an action group and garnering local support for their cause. A settlement was reached and the squat was deemed legal, on the provision that it was to remain just 60 people strong and not expand.
The squat, however, continued to expand, starting an impasse with the authorities who were still determined to eventually demolish Kiefernstraße. Taking the initiative, the squatters began to make repairs and improvements to the sorry looking apartments, and before long they had the moral authority over the council and the support of the public. How could the city authorities evict a community from the buildings that they had worked so hard to renovate? Demolishing the apartment blocks of Kiefernstraße now would appear heatless. So the buildings remained. The squatters had won.
In the 1980s, the anarchy and lawlessness of Kiefernstraße allowed the German, far-left terrorist organisation, the RAF, to establish roots there, from where they planned attacks on the police. The street was declared ‘the centre of terrorism in the Federal Republic of German’, and was regularly raided. For a time, it was even permanently cordoned off by the police. However, by the end of the decade, the terrorism problem had been cleaned up, and just the refugees and squatters remained.
Today, the street is still home to squatters, although no longer exclusively. Bohemian professionals – including doctors and lawyers – have moved in, and live side by side with the squatters. The small, graffitied street is now home to people of over 40 different nationalities, making it an incredibly diverse quarter. No longer just residential, the street today boasts a Kulturbureau, a music studio, a night club and a children’s club. The area of Flingern around Kiefernstraße has also seen a degree of gentrification in the past few decades, with commercial and residential buildings springing up, leaving Kiefernstraße no longer as isolated as it once was and far more integrated into the wider city.
Much of the street art is political and evocative, representing the alternative spirit of Kiefernstraße’s recent history. The street claims to be the ‘largest graffitied wall’ in the world, and is therefore now something of an off-beat tourist attraction, especially during the weekend it holds a yearly street festival.
It is fair to say that the street has seen many chapters and changes in its fortune during its brief 115 year history. What, then, its future looks like can simply not be predicted.