I found utopia on my morning run. Or, more accurately, the lettering “UTOPIA” in children’s toys hanging over my head and an anti-fascist communal village.
Next to the Berlin water canal deep in the city is a makeshift village called Wagon Planet. At the entrance is a wooden cascading stair that doubles as an audience space for performances. In front is a stage and connected indoor theater where they host music and performances. To the right, a bar/ cafe with a cellar covered in images of laborers.
As I enter, two small brown rabbits skitter into the trees. I hear children to my right and head in that direction passing a structure that appears to be a common community space. I find out later it is actually a structure with plastic walls (seen below) that are pulled up to be a sort of cover for rain so audiences can sit and watch performances no matter the weather.
Past that structure, nestled into the ardent green of forest, is a playground surrounded by mismatched cabins and uniquely shaped trailers. The homes range in design from cabins to circus wagons, to an oversized FedEx truck to a spatious self built fancy wooden wagon. Of all the spaces I’ve been to, this one has the largest child population. There are around 20, some from the community, others from the surrounding city, and all appear to be 3 months to 7 years old. They play together while being watched by various adults. I feel a bit like an invader, no one acknowledges my presence so I continue through the space to explore. I follow a winding path through the forrest dotted with homes. Each person has built their own space so different aesthetics are clear but an overarching theme of organically, naturally made without hired help persists.
In a clearing further down, a man is working in his woodshop building what appears to be either furniture or a canoe. Across the clearing, two people are sitting at a table in front of their home having a conversation. Again, my presence is not acknowledged. I continue along the forrest path and am spit out on a typical berlin street lined with apartment buildings and restaurants. I turn back around to reenter and see a sign fastened to one of the trees, the first sign I have seen in both German and English, that explains that this is their home so please respect their space and no photographs. Ahhh, ok so I’m not the first person to come through wanting to learn more.
I make my way back towards where I entered and find a free clothing shop where two women are going through clothes. One of the women hands me a silk beaded bustier top and tells me this suits me. I laugh and ask, “what is this place?” She doesn’t live there. She is there to buy some dog treats from a man in the van who has just pulled up selling cuts of deer – furry hooves, bones etc. She explains that this space was founded 26 years ago (around when the wall came down), is anti fascist and has political origins. Important concepts of spacemaking, nature, community are addressed through practice. In a sense this is a different, more family oriented version of Kopi – founded after the fall of the wall, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and in essence a trailer park. It is also very reminiscent of the conscious political and environmental nature of the space in Spain. However, in contrast to the heavy, dirty, dark, punk aesthetic of Kopi, this space is more light and whimsical. And unlike the rural space in Spain, Wagon Planet is settled into a major city.
The space feels really nice, but definitely closed to outsiders. Dogs follow and bark at me. The woman from the clothing shop tells me to come back in two days, then I will find a friend of hers who speaks English. When i return three days later (went to a performance art conference on the day she asked me to return) a woman in a black eared hat on a bicycle acknowledges me as the girl seeking and tells me to come the next day when they will have a café and music event. She tells me to bake a cake.
Everyone in the space appears to be old friends. I am honored to be invited and taken by surprise at how the presence of children makes this space feel solid, nurturing and appealing, more so than you any space I have visited as of yet. It hadn’t occurred to me: all the spaces i have visited so far had a slight feeling of impermanence, lack of roots. Here there is a feeling of roots because of the children and the space is necessarily more insular and protective, providing a feeling of safety, growth and reality.
When I arrive the next day I buy a pastry. The woman who is selling the cake and tarts is very kind and answers my questions. She is from Norway and has made the sweets in her wagon. I sit alone and eat the tart, she comes over, offers me some coffee and sits down, red wine in hand, willing to answer all my questions.
Wagon Planet was founded 26 years ago on the other side of the train tracks. A few years into its existence the government notified the community that they wanted to create a public park where the community was situated and suggested that they move to this plot of land across the train tracks. The community relocated and stayed as squaters until about 10 years ago (just like Kopi) when the government cracked down on squatting. The community negotiated a contract with the government and now pay a small, mostly symbolic amount of money each year to stay on the land. Every 10 years they renegotiate their contract with the city so they are preparing to do so again very soon. The space is all off the grid with its own solar panels and water source.
She has been a part of the community for about 10 years. She is an architect and artist and initially came to the space because she was doing a collaborative project with an artist living there. She was there so often they began asking if she wanted to live there. I ask if there have always been kids in the community and she says yes, she remembers a young child asking her a lot of questions. She laughs and explains that at the time when she first came to the community she was a lesbian, never thinking of kids and now her 5 year old son is playing with my kaleidoscope on my lap. Her boyfriend lives with her and works in television.
Every member of the space works in berlin for wage and also in the space for no wage. For example, she has an atilier in the city and designs and builds the common structures in Wagon Planet. There are three divisions of work – ecology, art, infrastructure. In addition to your communuty work, members must build their own space and maintain their private garden. There are mandatory weekly meetings to discuss issues or make decisions. Most decisions, like what band to host or event to have, are decided by 2/3rds vote. The decision to bring in a new community member must be unanimous and deliberation often takes months. She explains that “it is like a theater, everyone must play a role.” So they have to consider if a potential member will fill the role that they need at the time.
She makes a point to let me know that, “it is important that every person bring themself.” Each member must bring in their own personality and culture when they host an event, design their home, or participate in group meetings. This is a fundamental part of the space because they require every member to present a new perspective or voice to the community. For example, a member who is a clothing designer is hosting a flea market next week and a member from Ghana is hosting a Ghanaian music concert tomorrow. The Wagon Planet community also believes that it is important to be involved with and host events for the surrounding berlin community.
I ask if there is a hierarchy and she says in theory no but that there have been a few strong women who have come in and tried to run things. If there ever needs to be a final deciding vote, they look to the person who has been in the space the longest. He also is the one to break up fights if they occur in the weekly meetings. This man has the role of interfacing with the government if they send a letter or require a meeting. The community is very cooperative with the government. In turn, the government offers grants to pay artists. She says that they actually have rejected several grants from the government because they want to be independant, but they accept grants that will cover hosting musical and performing acts to come through.
Inside the space reserved for rainy days I find photos on the wall of what appears to be other locations in different parts of the world. I am fascinated by this and believe that they are documenting spaces much like I am, but do not get a chance to ask anyone more about. If I return to berlin or if you end up in wagon planet, please ask.
This place is a bit guarded. Perhaps because I do not speak the language but I am definitely treated as an outsider. Understandable. They do answer all of my questions and it seems they are sizing me up one by one to see if I might be a good fit for the space. But I am leaving soon and will not be in Berlin long so not a solid candidate.
What we learned:
- Important for each member to “bring themself” to introduce new ideas and experiences to the community.
- How spaces organize their politics with weekly meetings and group consensus. Some form of hierarchy necessary when disputes arise.
- Space is like a theater, everyone person has a role.
- Intergenerational spaces have a more solid feel.
- Working with the government is possible if the government values the work and service you provide.
- Remain involved in the community – this space is involved in the larger city of Berlin as well as being a separate, autonomous community with its own form of government and infrastructure.
- When people create their own homes, the community becomes an open air museum of personality.
- Spaces can still incorporate nature in big cities.