Ghosts in the street

In every metropolis there’s always a corner that embodies what the place is all about. The steady murmur of people and vehicles, the alternating rush and hush of traffic moving and standing still. Spend a day there, and you get to know the city. And how it’s changing. Episode 1: Hamburg’s Schulterblatt (shoulder blade)

It’s demolition time. The wrecking crew had shown up in the spring, heavy machinery in tow, and begun tearing through the concrete. Now holes gape from the walls and people stop to take one last look. “We can finally put those days behind us,” a woman says in passing.

They’re days everyone here would rather forget. And still can’t get out of their heads. Days that, some say, may have changed this district forever. And with it the entire city: The G20 summit that came to Hamburg in 2017.

Chaos everywhere you looked and lasting for days. Hamburg was a city under siege. And then there was the day the ‘Schanze’ was set ablaze. Huge flames licking the sky shot out of the building at the intersection of Susannenstraße and Schulterblatt. Vandals had attacked the drug store, boutique, supermarket, and bank at Schulterblatt 58. 

Now the excavators are here to dispose of the ruins. The bank will be rebuilt. But it’s going to be a while until all traces of the G20 summit have been removed. The sidewalk in front of the bank – cordoned off by construction fencing; the traffic lights at the intersection – switched off; two additional pedestrian crossings with lights have been set up a few meters away. The light changes once a minute, slowing traffic to a crawl. Taxis and delivery vans bump along the cobblestone street. Bicycle couriers and car-sharing riders travel alongside a mom who’s steering a cargo bike with two small children inside. They wave as they go past.

 

Part village square, part expressway

Schulterblatt is located right in the heart of Hamburg’s ‘Schanze’ district between St. Pauli and Altona. Sometimes it feels like a village square, sometimes more like an expressway. But it’s not the type of intersection you want to blaze straight through. This is a place where you stand still, look around and spend some time. A few hundred meters of street with graffiti everywhere. “Down with Imperialism!” chant the walls. “Solidarity with Rojava” they implore. “Shoulder to Shoulder Against Fascism!” It’s a place that lays claim to a laundry list of lamentable labels: “Riot Central”, “The Tourist Trap”, “Gentrification Ground Zero” or simply a bad neighborhood. 

But Schulterblatt is also home to 12 restaurants, 14 fast food vendors, seven bars, and two cafés. Coffee to-go in the morning, a beer after work in the evening sun, a hot slice at Pizza Pazza after clubbing all night. The food and beverage operators here know the street better than anyone. They’re here, day in, day out. They see guests come and go, everyone from locals and tourists, life-long residents and new neighbors to businesspeople and beggars. These restaurant owners are chroniclers of the neighborhood’s transformation. Some have been here for decades, others only months. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the best way to learn about the Schulterblatt of today and tomorrow is to patronize their establishments. This is the history of a street in three drinks.

 

10:00 am. Cappuccino at Herr Max pastry shop: €3.40.

Schulterblatt is pure rebellion. It’s the black sheep, the parallel universe behind the failures of the modern city, a wellspring of creativity. “Just look around you, all these people, all this passion!” says Christine Böer, as she continues her sketch.

At Schulterblatt 12, currently the home of a café known as Herr Max, pale yellow tiles dating back to 1905 can still be found on the walls, a last vestige of the location’s former life as a milk store. It’s been a popular pastry shop for several years now. Christine is petite and wears a beret. She has set up her easel in front of the display window. Now over 60, she worked as a sketch artist for the court for more than 20 years. During her career, she’s sat across a courtroom from people like Germany’s former President Christian Wulff, the politician Sebastian Edathy, and even Helmut Kohl during an inquiry into campaign donations in 2001.

These days, you won’t find her in court as often. She’s shifted her focus to capturing life in the city. The people here in the ‘Schanze’ are her latest project. Every day, she takes the bus from posh Pöseldorf, her easel tucked under her arm.

Her first character stands just behind the counter wearing a black dress, white apron, her hair done up in two small buns: Marla Regenbogen, as she prefers to be called. Her given name? Too boring. Marla has been working at Herr Max for a couple of months now. It’s her dream job, she says. Working here is about creating art: three-tiered cakes, icing figurines the size of a hand puppet. Mermaids and pirate couples, skull and crossbones, skeletons. A cake decorated with her sweet art can cost hundreds of Euro.

Marla hates it when people call her place of work a hipster café. It’s not like she spends all day making flat whites for trendy young people. No, people from all walks of life come here. You’ll find a group of retirees from the neighborhood meeting regularly for breakfast and perhaps a couple of tourists at the next table down. Turkish, English, and even Hamburg’s own unique dialect can be heard.

 

“Here people live just as they want.”

Christine is as enthralled with Marla and her delicate beauty as she is with the offbeat vibe of this place, and the people in it. “Schulterblatt is all about passion. Here people live just as they want,” Christine says.

Schulterblatt is Hamburg’s creative nerve center. For decades, ad agencies, startups, and office collectives have been moving to the street and its surroundings. New people bring new money, and new ideas. The neighborhood is growing. But so are people’s standards. And that’s causing its share of troubles.

 

1:00 pm. An apple fizz at Bruno’s cheese shop: €2.40

The small counter houses dozens of cheese wheels—Tomme de Savoie, Bergchäs, rosemary manchego. Behind it stands Bruno Blockus. Now in his late 60s, he’s been here for 28 years. Looking out of the plate glass window, he sees cars being towed, illegally parked vehicles being fitted with wheel clamps. In the mornings he watches the caravan of delivery vehicles supplying all the surrounding shops. And observes how tourist buses weave their way through the narrow streets, barely missing parked cars as they stop a short distance from the Rote Flora theater, a left-wing meeting point and cultural center with a storied history. After a few words on city politics, they continue on their way. 

He loved the ‘Schanze’. Back then. But he doesn’t want to talk about it. No, not now, he says with a dismissive gesture as if swatting at a fly. But then starts to anyway.

People used to have a good time here. There had been a fish shop and a butcher on this street. It was like living in a small town. In the evenings, everyone sat down together and ate Eisbein (ham hock). We laughed and partied, comforted each other when times were bad. Everybody knew each other.

The ‘Schanze’ was Hamburg’s workshop, where the working class lived. They stood in factories during the day—building pianos, assembling Montblanc typewriters, working in the rubber processing plant or the machine shop. But the workers moved away long ago. There aren’t even many students left. Who can afford to live here now? He gestures at the building across the intersection, above Pizza Pazza. All those apartments are empty, have been for years. Sometimes construction workers will show up. But no one ever moves in. Some tycoon is just sitting on the investment, Bruno speculates. And it’s ruining the neighborhood.

 

Ghosts in the street

Bruno knows a lot of fellow shopkeepers who just couldn’t keep pace at some point and had to give up their businesses as rents continued to rise. It’s why this place is so full of ghosts and memories. The ‘Schanze’ is now a haunted neighborhood. The rents landlords are demanding are so high you could maybe earn enough to pay them if you were on Jungfernstieg, Hamburg’s most exclusive shopping street. But not here!

He can’t live from just selling cheese anymore, either. Now he makes half his money serving salads and Flammkuchen (a regional white pizza) to outdoor tables. He was lucky to get a concession from the city for the outdoor seating. They haven’t been awarding any new ones for years now. It’s all part of a losing battle against the partying on Schulterblatt.

If you talk to people on the street, it’s always the same story. A woman in her mid-thirties is sporting a black jacket with a St. Pauli skull and crossbones logo and pushing a baby stroller. She’s coming back from her grocery shopping, irritated by having to dodge the tables and benches of the food vendors just to get to her door. “It really sucks,” she says. “You’ve got the gentrification, these hordes of tourists. And then the Rote Flora, the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.” It’s just too much. “You can’t park here, you can’t walk here, you just can’t live here anymore.” And with that she disappears into the dark stairwell.

 

7:00 pm. Chambre Basse, gin tonic, €8

15 steps lead down to a basement cocktail bar you might expect to find in New York or Paris, but not here under house number 73 and next to the Rote Flora, a temple to the left-wing resistance movement. Until just a few months ago, hip-hop could be heard blasting from this basement club, then known as Kleiner Donner, every weekend. But just a few meters away there was some folks’ bedroom. And although they’ve lived in and known the ‘Schanze’ for years, they are also getting older and more sensitive. The music from the club was just too loud.