Berlin Lab

The Marathon of Transformation

Sharing the music at Berlin’s Bearpit Karaoke.

Have any of you ever felt powerless to change the way your city works?

It’s a feeling that many of us, myself included, are all too unfortunately familiar with: that we are small citizens standing in the looming shadows of bureaucracy, status quo, and mountain ranges of seemingly immovable and permanent infrastructure. It can seem, at times, as if there is simply no way around the obstacles that keep us from realizing the dreams we have for our cities.

But that isn’t true. Proof of our power to effect change could be found in the marathon of inspirational, transformative projects that were presented at the Lab Saturday afternoon.

When I asked Lab Team member Rachel Smith why she had brought these speakers together for a seven-hour marathon of twenty-minute introductions to their projects, she said, “I’m most interested in people being a part of the change that can happen in their cities. I wanted to showcase projects that people could do themselves or be inspired and enthused to do themselves.”

The projects presented on Saturday illustrated beautifully and comprehensively the power and potential of simple citizens with a will to make change. These people and projects spoke so wholly for themselves that I’d like to pass them on here as examples of what is possible. So, without further ado, here a few samplings from the smorgasbord of inspiration:

In September, 2010, and February, 2011, two earthquakes hit Christchurch, New Zealand. With 185 deaths and hundreds of buildings leveled, the city was left riddled with gaps, both figuratively and physically. But within seven weeks of the first quake, Coralie Winn, who lost her job in the quake, gathered her friends and started the project Gap Filler—a initiative dedicated to temporarily filling empty spaces with creative interventions.

The interventions themselves are poetically wacky and wildly varied. A public dance floor with a sound and light system run through a converted coin-operated washing machine now takes the place of a former car rental lot, for example. Another space hosted a handmade ten-pin bowling alley. Another, an art exhibition. Another, a golf course. But even more fascinating than the projects themselves is the transformation they helped create within an aching landscape and community. Gap Filler presented the project through a fantastic video, which you can see above.

Those of you from Berlin may already know of Joe Hachiban, the founder of Bearpit Karaoke. The very fact that most Berliners probably already know of this is a testament to its insane and wonderful (albeit totally bizarre) success. On Sunday afternoons, weather permitting, Hachiban rolls into a stone amphitheater in a public park in Prenzlauer Berg called Mauerpark with a custom-built, bicycle-transported karaoke system. Since he began in 2009, the DIY public karaoke has become so popular that today, on any given Sunday, one can literally find thousands of people gathered around the amphitheater watching average Joes belt out songs. It has been such a successful transformation of space that the government recently retracted an effort to put a stop to the event as it stands so strongly “for the cosmopolitanism and tolerance of the district.” But I think Rachel perfectly summed up the importance of this example of bottom-up city-making in a blog post she wrote about Bearpit Karaoke last fall:

“Government agencies and marketing bureaus across the globe strive to find ways to get people into parks and using public spaces. Some spend millions with extravagant firework spectaculars, while others import international music acts or host an almost continuous string of farmer’s markets and craft fairs, many of which fail to deliver a certain je ne sais quoi

The real reason that people turn up every week for Bearpit Karaoke isn’t because they don’t have access to iTunes. It’s because they want the buzz of being part of something fun, the supportive applause that comes from peer-to-peer performances, the serendipitous connections with people they wouldn’t normally meet. I guess that’s why karaoke really has the potential to transform our public realm.”

See proof in the video above, and the hundreds of others available on Youtube.

Another cool project came from This Big City, which started as a small school project but quickly and sort of accidentally exploded into a massive digital online community of idea-sharing around city transformation. The thing that I find so especially applicable about This Big City is that it almost operates more as a public space than a publication. In a way, it’s like a digital Mauerpark Karaoke stage, or an online swap box for conversation about the city. The content comes from whichever partners have interesting things to say, and it’s open for anyone else to take and use elsewhere through a Creative Commons license.

Though Peach runs it on his own, the blog has more than 100 contributors and 60,000 followers, and his monthly tweet chat #citytalk can engage with up to 30,000 people during any given month. Build a platform people are hankering for, and they will, indeed, come.

Last, but certainly not least, artist Dida Zende participated on Saturday. This made me incredibly happy because he is probably the coolest person I’ve met here in Berlin. Dida has transformed abandoned gas stations all around the world into artistic, creative, cultural, and community hot spots of activity through his project FIT (Freie Internationale Tankstelle), bringing life back to the abandoned and hollowed-out street corners the stations once occupied.

One of the stations is just around the corner from the Lab and has become my favorite spot to stop for a nightcap on my way home. Every single time I stop by, I know that I will meet new and interesting people doing fascinating things, and find myself drawn into a good conversation. As someone new to Berlin and craving community, I can personally testify to the effectiveness of this beautiful, yet wholly practical intervention, which truly lives up to its mission: “to reclaim the abandoned architecture of filling stations and to rebrand their original function as sources of fossil fuel. . . . To tap into an inexhaustible resource: the life force of human creativity.”

These are just a few of the many projects presented last weekend that I found truly moving and inspiring. I hope some of these invigorate you as much as they did me. It doesn’t take much to change our cities through space and community. Anyone can. We just need to do what these people did—go out and do it.

. . .

Photo: courtesy of waxorian, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License

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