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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Challenge and Change in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg

by Julie Chamberlain

Social, economic and political issues faced in one part of the world may not be exactly the same as those faced in another, but they sure can be very similar.

This spring I had the opportunity to spend a few months in Hamburg, Germany on a graduate study tour and internship supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). I spent the first two weeks with twelve Canadian graduate students, meeting with academics, politicians, activists,

When the other students left, I settled into an internship at Haus der Jugend (Youth Centre) Wilhelmsburg, a child and youth-serving organization in the south of the city, and set to learning about the issues and challenges facing neighbourhood residents.

Wilhelmsburg is the largest of a cluster of islands in the Elbe river, part of the city-state of Hamburg, and yet removed from it in material and symbolic ways. Connected by bridges, tunnels, public transit and public administration, Wilhelmsburg is distanced from other parts of Hamburg through its characterization as a “problem area,” a racialized space of low incomes and discontent.

Almost 50,000 people live on the island, which is home to part of the port of Hamburg, heavy industry, farmland, a major highway and rail line, as well as residential neighbourhoods. The strength of Wilhelmsburg is its associations, says Uli Gomolzig, executive director of Haus der Jugend Wilhelmsburg. There are many community associations based on interests and backgrounds, some of which are very active and tight-knit. What is missing, to his mind, are cross-cultural ties and understanding: there is too much social distance, for example, between the majority Turkish population and people from other backgrounds.

This is not the only concern facing Wilhelmsburg: the island has high rates of school dropout, unemployment, and poverty. Much of the housing in the area is subsidized through the Hamburg system of affordable housing, and landlords' level of care and attention is varied. According to the Haus der Jugend, seventy percent of youth in the neighbourhood come from “migrant backgrounds,” a census term meaning that they have non-German heritage. The racialization of poverty that we see in Canada, and the interlocking of racialization, impoverishment, and space that we see in Toronto neighbourhoods, are mirrored in this urban environment 6000 km away.

On the one hand there is some visible official neglect in Wilhelmsburg: while I was visiting, a burnt out car sat out front of the Haus der Jugend for weeks before an insurance company – not the city – took it away. Several people commented that it would never have taken so long to clear away if it had been in a different part of town.

On the other hand there are massive amounts of resources pouring into spatial planning and design projects focused on Wilhelmsburg. The Hamburg International Building Exhibition (“IBA Hamburg”), and the International Garden Show will both culminate in 2013 after years of work, comprising over 50 building and garden design projects. A lot of eyes are on, and in Wilhelmsburg, in tour groups wandering the neighbourhood, and around future building sites, and in extensive marketing mobilizations for the projects. But what will be the benefits for neighbourhood residents? There are criticisms that the projects are disconnected from the pressing needs and aspirations of residents, and fears that instead of contributing to well-being, the investments may push people out of a last oasis of lower rents in a very high rent city.

Haus der Jugend has been working in Wilhelmsburg for decades, offering after-school programs, sports and movement opportunities, games, lunches, and homework help, as well as supports for parents and adults. The centre has seen the neighbourhood change over the years, and like many Toronto organizations, faces a funding crunch in stark contrast to the extent of community needs. Yet perhaps the hardworking team will be an anchor for the community as they weather the changes coming Wilhelmsburg's way.

Julie Chamberlain is a master's student in Adult Education and Community Development at OISE, and coordinates the Mt. Dennis APCOL case study. She is currently developing a thesis project exploring race and resident representation in the IBA Hamburg urban planning project.

For more information, see
Haus der Jugend (in German): www.hdj-wilhelmsburg.de
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