Mark Naison: Culture is Politics in the Bronx and Berlin
I just came back from another amazing trip to Berlin. I was there, with my wife Liz, to give a speech on Bronx Music and Migration at a Conference on Berlin and New York sponsored by the House of the Cultures of the World, but also was able to spend three additional days touring the city, talking to conference participants, and reconnecting with friends I had made on my last trip. Thanks to the efforts of conference organizer Susanne Stemmler,and the amazing staff of the House of The Cultures of the World, we were given tours of Berlin neighborhoods, and an explanation of the city's remarkable history that will forever remain etched in my memory. I will give you a brief summary of some of the things we learned about the city because there is much New Yorkers can learn from the Berlin experience
For me, the tone for the entire visit was set by a pre conference bus and walking tour led by an architect and community organizer named Matthias Heyden. Matthias was part of a whole group of artists and revolutionaries who came to Berlin after the fall of the Wall to try to create a new society which retained the egalitarian traditions of socialism while opening up space for free expression in politics and the arts. His tour took us to many of Berlin's best known historic sites, from the Brandenburg Gate, to the Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum, the Pergamon Museum , to "Checkpoint Charlie," but he also took us to abandoned apartment buildings, factories, and warehouses in the formerly Eastern Sector of the City which had been occupied by young artists and musicians and turned into galleries, studios, and discos under a remarkable city ordinance that allowed for temporary occupancy of vacant stores and buildings by cultural groups FREE OF CHARGE until those facilities could be rented to commercial users! This was Berlin's response to the wrenching economic dislocations that took place after the fall of Communism. Rather than leveling abandoned factories, stores and apartment buildings, or selling them off to developers at a fraction of their value, which was done in New York after the fiscal crisis of the 70's, Berlin created a formula for grass roots occupancy which has helped turn Berlin into a mecca for young artists from all over the world. In neighborhood after neighborhood, young migrants to Berlin have reclaimed abandoned spaces, created cooperative living arrangements, generated new enterprises and,in more than a few occasions, reached out to disfranchised youth living in immigrant neighborhoods or in depressed sections of former East Berlin. It was inspiring to see how people throughout this remarkable city, which has an extremely high unemployment rate and a nearly bankrupt local government, were using culture as an engine of economic development and a vehicle to organize and unite communities. Music, theatre, dance and the visual arts, all seemed to be thriving. Rather than sinking into depression and despair, Berlin, under prodding from political activists and creative urban planners turned its deficits into assets by attracting young people with cultural capital willing to take advantage of the city's low rents and abandoned commercial spaces.I think New York has a lot to learn from Berlin's approach!
Now for the Conference. The House of World Cultures an organization created by US foundations and government agencies during the Height of the Cold War, created this gathering as part of a three month long New York/Berlin cultural festival. The Conference brought together academics, urban planners, community organizers, artists, and political activists from both cities for presentations comparing the history and cultural life of two cities known for their cultural vitality. My role was to give a paper about the role of immigration and migration in shaping musical creativity in the Bronx, a subject of great interest to Berliners who have seen their city transformed by immigration, and have watched Berlin become one of the world's great musical centers. with hip hop, dancehall and techno all thriving, along with ethnic musical traditions of Africa, Turkey and the Middle East.
My paper began with a discussion of two Bronx neighborhoods, Morrisania and Hunts point, where a mix of African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Puerto Ricans, who migrated there from Harlem during and after World War II, created, a unique culture of live performance music, in which mambo, be bop, rhythm and blues, doo wop and calypso not only thrived individually, but influenced and cross fertilized one another. I talked about the many clubs and theatres along Boston Road Westchester Avenue and Southern Boulevard, the great music programs in the local public schools, and the influence of street corner singers and congueros who created a music soundtrack to the rhythms of daily life. But I also spoke of the role of public housing in cementing the Bronx's multicultural character and creating spaces for cultural creativity. Not only were the first public housing projects in the Bronx thoroughly multiracial, having Blacks, Latinos and Whites, living together in the same developments, but they all had community centers which sponsored talent shows and musical performances. When Bronx neighborhoods suffered arson and abandonment in the late 1960's and 1970's,these centers played a critical role in maintaining and reinventing local musical traditions. Most of the early Bronx hip hop jams, led by pioneering dj's like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambatta, Charley Chase, and Disco King Mario took place in the community centers and public spaces of bronx housing project and subsidized middle income housing developments created under the Mitchell Lama program. The Bronx's legacy of cultural creativity, I argued, was not only a reflection of the immigrants and migrants who came into its neighborhoods it was fostered by enlightened government policies which created affordable housing for the Bronx's working class and middle class residents of the borough.
To reinforce my argument that culture is political, and that cultural creativity is responsive to government initiatives ranging from liberalized immigration laws to the construction of affordable housing, I played a video at the end of my presentation that brought all these themes together. Called "Which Side Are You On," the video was produced by a South Bronx revolutionary hip hop group called "Rebel Diaz", composed two Chilean immigrants , an MC and DJ,, and a Puerto Rican rapper and poet. The video, which begins with a famous Depression Era labor song, shows how hip hop can become a vehicle of expression for the world's struggling people, whether African Americans fighting police violence, immigrants resisting exploitation and deportation, or peoples around the world challenging the power of the US Government , and how hip hop rhymes and beats can convey powerful messages Many of the more than 300 people in the audience, most of whom were Berliners had never seen hip hop linked to politics with such powerful words and images . But some people in the audience drew legitimacy from this video for their own community work. People from three important Berlin organizations, the Street University, Gangway Berlin, and the Kreuzbeg Museum came up to talk to me about possible Bronx/Berlin exchanges and collaborations that would link the youth of both cities. And several community organizers and planners from New York came up to ask me if they could get groups like Rebel Diaz to participate in movements like the campaign to stop the Atlantic Yards construction project in Downtown Brooklyn.
A trip to East Berlin the next day, organized by my friend Susanne Stemmler, further reinforced my determination to linkages between artists and cultural workers in Berlin and the Bronx. Susanne took me and Liz to an abandoned transformer station near her apartment building, where a reknowned Berlin dj and break dancer, Akim Walta, had created what he called a "Hip Hop Stutzpunkt"- a combination music studio, publishing house and community center where young people of Berlin could express their creative impulses and develop income generating businesses. What Walta and his friends had done with this five story building, without any grants or subsidies, was truly remarkable, as was his determination to make sure that young people from Berlin neighborhoods participate in every one of his enterprises. One of his outdoor festivals that Susanne attended attracted hundreds of Berlin teenagers, demonstrating hip hop's power to mobilize disfranchised youth is as great in Berlin as it is in the Bronx
After visiting this remarkable community center, and feeling the love and energy that Berlin youth workers like Olad Aden(Gangway), ,Gio De Sera(Street Univesity) Martin Duespohl ( Kreuzberg Museum) and scholars like Susanne Stemmler put into their work, I was more determined than ever to create some kind of institutional linkage between people who work with youth in Berlin and the Bronx. I have already set up several meetings with Bronx organizations to explore this possibility and will return to Berlin in May to meet with community organizers and cultural workers there who might want to partner with us.
I can't wait to go back! I love Berlin!