Pardon me, but does this anarchic hippy gathering even have an agenda?

These aren’t shoes; they’re actually tiny footwear-themed piñatas.

Berlin is certainly a free city. Nowhere else will you find a place where doing what you damn well want is so widely accepted. You can dress exactly as you like, drink whatever you want at whatever time of day you want (nothing says ‘morning commuter’ like a crisp suit and a cold beer), take your dog through the shopping mall and protest for or against anything that takes your fancy. There is a strong and slightly unnerving hum of self-confidence buzzing under everyone’s skin; they know what they’re doing and they’re damn proud of it, whether ‘it’ is ironically wearing a beanie that looks like a tomato or eating an entire pack of vacuum-packaged bockwurst on the S-Bahn. For the most part it is wonderful. The people genuinely seem less anxious, less tightly-wound; colourful graffiti is splodged everywhere and yet most of it is simply exhorting the populace to remain free, unbound and unregulated, rather than to sexually assault their own mothers. There are squats and artistic communes and solidarity parties because Berlin is a city which has embraced the richness that abounds when people are simply allowed to do their own thing.

I was delighted to discover that, thanks to this communal spirit, there is a community garden just a stone’s throw from my flat. As a country lass it has taken only slightly less than a week for me to begin yearning to do a bit of good, honest digging. I would love to be the urban, espresso-drinking type, but sadly ever since I first pulled a beetroot out of the ground I have been more fond of the dirty heft of a shovel in my hands. I knew I wouldn’t be leaving that behind, because Berlin’s free nature means that the city is full of green oases between the skyscrapers; there are vegetable patches in the old airport, allotments besides the railway lines and flourishing agriculture on every balcony. 

And yet when I went along to their monthly meeting to find out about the place, I realised that the thing that makes Berlin so free is also sometimes exactly what stops it working.

I arrived at the garden to the sight of three middle-aged ladies whispering together, three hardcore punks with more piercings than follicles, one small child inexplicably wearing a legionnaire’s cap with Bart Simpson on it, and a writhing frenzy of fighting dogs. The dogs and the child all belonged to the punks. We sat down on the brick crescent surrounding the fire pit – I carefully swept the crust of bottle-caps and fag-ends aside before doing so – and the chief Middle Aged Lady began to chair the meeting. At least, I think that is what she was doing, although I couldn’t hear anything that was said for the first half hour of the meeting as one of the dogs was barking explosively throughout. I gleaned that this is a community garden without a leader or a specific structure; there are some community beds and some beds which individuals can have, and then there are some people who just show up and plant whatever they want wherever they want and we all just have to be ok with that. The main problem, sadly, was that regardless of whether the bed you tended was communal or personal, it would eventually meet the same fate. It would gradually fill with dog excrement; then people would steal the vegetables once they were ready to pick; then other people would vandalise whatever remained of what remained. 

This was when I realised that the whole ‘it’s a free world’ ideal so often destroys just as much as it enables in this city. It’s an open garden and there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t wander in and pick a few carrots or take their dog for a walk/rest stop. There is also no point in having a ‘leader’ or ‘key group’ taking care of the place, so no-one seemed to know whose beds were whose and which bits were indeed beds instead of scraggy bits of earth. We were told that some people plant their beds very nicely for weeks before then suddenly buggering off forever, and their beds are left untouched for ages in anticipation of their return, where others march gaily in and tear up someone else’s patch because they didn’t realise the planting there was very much deliberate. The charming punks declared that they had already bagsied the nice big lush hill – although I don’t remember them submitting their application – and they were now also going to take the other hill also, in order to grow potatoes. In absence of any committee or sense of reason, the Middle Aged Ladies had no way of telling them to piss off or ask nicely if they planned to take the two nicest parts of the garden for themselves. Then another woman showed up who said she worked in a Kindergarten and would like the children to be allowed to use the garden as their garden. Absolutely! Will they also require free refreshments and transportation? Another punk arrived and declared that apple trees must be planted in the garden immediately and was adamant even after being told that the last apple trees had actually been burned down by vandals.

Once all the completely unreasonable demands were happily accepted the Ladies moved on to the other items on their list of things to discuss. The next topic was a Danish band who had written to the group saying that they would like to play a concert in the garden on the Pentecost weekend, and would the garden group please see to it that drinks were being sold and posters distributed before the concert? Everyone of course agreed that there was no reason not to do this – it’s a free world, an open garden – and began discussing how we would provide mass alcoholic drinks sales as a gang of poor and carless people. As a voluntary group the drinks should of course be sold non-profit; rather, people should simply be allowed to ‘donate’ whatever they wanted to the garden in exchange for their drink, even if their donation happened to be a cigarette wrapper. One man noted that there are about seven ‘Spätkaufs’ (cheap off-licenses) to every square metre here, so there is no need to sell drinks on the premises. I suggested that this man may have a point and that also this was perhaps a completely insane idea, and that maybe it would be less risky to just sell homemade (cheap) lemonade and mojito mix or something. This, however, was the wrong suggestion to make. “But Rose, the people will want beers so we should get beers,” the Ladies protested. Then a girl opposite announced that she’d made an information placard about the garden and wanted ideas for how we could stop it from being stolen. Then it began to rain.

It’s a shame that this determination to be ‘open’ had caused this garden to be so closed. Closed to the plants, which became targets for the people who wanted to express themselves by vandalism. Closed to the gardeners, who neither had their own space to cultivate nor a shared space where everyone pursued a happy communal goal. Closed to the community, who by their own abuse of the garden prevented it from ever becoming a beautiful green space full of luscious vegetables which would become the view from their kitchen windows. 

The fact is, communities need leaders and committees and rules, sometimes. Because everyone should be able to do what they want; but someone has to take care of the big, central thing that we all want to do.

Rose T