A wagenplatz is a German alternative community of alternative living which grew on the back of the new age movement of the 1960s. The communities are built on illegally occupied from many years ago or derelict areas and are found all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The closest group of people that I could compare them to are the traveling Irish communities here in Britain or the Roma gypsies in other parts of Europe. The word ‘Wagenplatz’ means wagon place, and each person or family lives in their own wagon. The wagons they use vary from old wooden mobile huts to shipping containers or even motor homes. Each community has its on philosophy and identity, but the fundamental idea is to live tax free and care free.
**Taking photos is forbidden and rude in these sites, so I don’t have any of my own pictures.**
My experience came unknowingly, in Cologne (Köln), when I thought I was staying with a normal couch surfer in a normal home. I met my host at the main train station in and she told me that she lived in a kind of caravan and that I could have my own to sleep in for two nights. I was a little confused at where a caravan could be left in a city centre like Cologne, but she said it was walking distance so we walked there. We walked through the city streets and it felt like just any other city in Europe. Cyclists, traffic, Kebab shops, Lebara mobile convenience stores, ladbrokes betting shops and then out of nowhere, a gate to a new world. Right on the main road in between Cologne’s two ring roads, a caravan site. My first surprise was that the gate was open. Anyone could have just walked into the community, and as I was to discover, outsiders do often times walk in for a beer or to hang out.
Upon entrance, I could see just 30 – 40 wooden wagons, abandoned cars, a few caravans and potted plants all over the place, but as I got shown around, the complexity and ingenuity started to blossom. The most impressive feats were the wifi, hot shower, electricity in each cabin, herb garden, fresh water supply and a flushing toilet. Other impressive components were the music stage, running bar serving cold beers, a urinal which also lead into the sanitation system, a working table saw and a post box which was actually delivered to and not completely blanked. It was hard to believe at first how they had created this almost utopian paradise, but it did take 25 years to do so and there are still many challenges which haven’t been faced.
This particular site was themed on working as a union and living together. Other wagenplatz had different philosophies, but I was told that all of the original founders of wagenplatz were left wing socialists and activists which sought alternative lifestyles and ways to live off the grid as a group. On this particular site, everyone except for one person was actually employed either part or full time in Cologne city centre. My host was actually a videographer who had worked all over the world, and a good one at that. The other residents were generally artists, carpenters, musicians, caretakers and other handyman jobs. They chose to live here for different reasons, but the perks were obvious. There was no rent, no water charges, and electricity was the only fee which was around 35 euros a week. The site itself made money by hosting events (mainly punk rock) and charging people to buy beer (still very cheap at 1.30 a bottle) on special campfire nights. The site was also open to visitors to come and have a look around, but generally they were shunned by the local community and only visited by the punks and other members of wagenplatz.
Life here was simple and very relaxing. There were plenty of chores such as cleaning the site, working bar shifts, gardening your herbs and so on, but compared to the rat race outside, they were living easy. They made me feel very welcome during my stay and I was more than eager to get stuck into some chores. Cutting wood was the main task, as the heating system required that you made a fire in the stove and fed it enough fuel to last through the winter nights. I started my own fire one night, it started all wrong, but once I get a helping hand, the room was nice and toasty. The comforts were few and far between unless you really planned the day well, but comforts are actually supposed to be like that. That is how we once lived, on a the tip of a needle, never knowing when the hunt would return, the fire would light, the well would dry. Wagenplatz were mixing modern day comforts with our primal instinct to work for ourselves and our local communities, something most of us have lost.
The second Wagenplatz I visited wasn’t so glorious. It was quieter than the one I was staying in (which was downtown with trains one side and traffic the other), but it wasn’t on the power grid, so they had to use a generator, which makes quite a racket too. I was told that this particular site was ‘more punk’ and that the residents just got fucked up all day and partied all night. From what I saw, it was exactly the case. They had a makeshift bar similar to the site I stayed on, but it was in better shape. Inside, there were about 10 people, of which a few were so high they couldn’t make an intelligible sound. We chilled in the bar with our 1.50 beers and I looked for comparisons with the site I was staying in. They didn’t have it easy out here, that was for sure. The toilet didn’t flush, it was a pitfall toilet which could be smelt before seen, that’s for sure. The wagons were not protected or huddled in a tight village sense like the other site, and the generator gnawed endlessly. I was told it was a relatively new site at around 10 years old, and they were not able to enjoy the same privileges as their predecessors because of tightening laws.
The future for these communities didn’t seem to alarm anyone I met, but I believe there are credible threats. For one, the reason that they didn’t have to pay for water is because it was ‘hot-wired’ from the company which owned the land next to it. The next issue was that the ‘company that owned the land next to it’ actually owned the land that the site was on as well. The only thing keeping this whole alternative system is the landlord of the property. Europe is facing a war at the minute with gentrification and elitism. It is a war that cannot be won without activism like wagenplatz. I genuinely believe that wagenplatz are a concern for those in power because what they have created is essentially a completely independent way of living. The only hiccups being the monopolization of water, electricity and other essential parts of our living. The ruling class have more influence than ever. They can turn the everyday public with their constant shit-stained stream of right wing propaganda. The far right in Europe are Wagenplatz’ biggest enemies and Wagenplatz don’t receive much good press as a result. In fact, they prefer to stay out of the mainstream media wherever possible and they are doing a good job. One slip up and these guys will be treated as the new class enemies of the rich. The ‘scroungers’, the ‘freeloaders’, the ‘commies’, whatever they can call them to make people hate the people on ground level and stop looking at the rich and upper class. You may even be thinking that it’s not fair that these people get to leave relatively tax free and get their water paid for by their neighbor.
Concepts like wagenplatz need to be rewarded and supported. They stand for unity and fight for the helpless. They welcome many travelers into their wagons and will never charge you if you stay the night. They even care for refugees which our own governments leave to drown on our shores. This is how change happens, and this has been going on 25 years at this particular site and longer in others. If you would like to visit a wagenplatz in Cologne, I can put you in touch. I hope you enjoyed this blog.
Change is coming…