The Berlin Stories
By Matthew Herzog
Kensington is a blackbird’s nest with shells remaining. Residues of the past exist not only in the emptiness of buildings but the industrial craft of their architecture. Near urban rocks of concrete you can find handmade brass doorknobs. You can see forests growing inside the abandoned Ninth National Bank and swaths of open field where row homes once stood. But what you will also find is a growing reoccupation of those shells. Open fields are becoming gardens, the Ninth National Bank is set for renovation, and handmade brass doorknobs are being collected by local salvage companies. In one particular example, if you poke your head through the gap between two buildings on Coral Street and follow the pebble trail to a large wooden door, you’ll find Little Berlin - a gallery celebrating ten years as both a cooperative exhibition space and a contributor to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
In accordance with chronology, it appeared fitting to meet the current members not far from the gallery's Coral Street location, in the building where it all began - Berks Warehouse. The large brick structure not only contains the residence of a member but if you leave their apartment, wind down some stairs, through an open lot and kick pass a set of doors, you’ll find Little Berlin’s first physical incarnation.
In the member’s apartment, amongst chips and conversation, I heard the crunching tide of the Berks Station nearby and a neighbor’s dog aggressively digging through what may have been carpet or plaster. Nothing in the space felt off limits and as I’d find over the hour there wasn’t a topic ill considered or off the table. I joined the conversation to look inside the artist collective and its environment. My collaboration with Abby is only a few months old so when I heard it was the gallery's ten year anniversary, I thought' ‘let’s talk to those who’ve been at it longer.’
Near the end of 2010, three years into Little Berlin’s timeline, the gallery moved from the Berks Warehouse to Viking Mill on Coral Street. It was an effort to save money and to expand their space. They joined hands with a range of tenants from other artists and makers to a bike works, metal works and recording studio. Since then, Little Berlin and the other tenants have found company with the recent addition of an ax throwing gym. Nearby a comic store/coffee shop called Almagam opened alongside a tattoo parlor and skate shop.
Member, Rebekah Flake, commented, ‘Things are happening north of Fishtown where you can make a go-of-it having kind of a strange and fun, mix between fun and alternative, lifestyle thing. Little Berlin was before some of that happened. I think we draw a crowd that actually suits the nature of these new businesses, the flavor of the neighborhood.’ Another Member, Ethan Patrick Sherman, was quick to point out, ‘But we don’t do late night DJ sets anymore. That was a big thing for a while just to make ends meet. Like, throw a huge rave until four in the morning... the neighborhood has changed. We can’t. It’s too risky for us… We’ve run up against these problems where [the] neighborhood is changing and our group is changing, and the dynamic of the organization is changing with that.’
Ethan raised a unique parallel Little Berlin has with its neighborhood. During their ten years over 40 people contributed to the gallery's evolution and character. Not only has Kensington experienced a rush of anomalous businesses, Little Berlin has experienced a continual pump of individual thought, curatorial direction, and a long list of exhibiting artists from across the world. In the midst of an economic/cultural shift, Little Berlin became a junction for the ideas and ideologies of thousands of creators including artists, attendees, writers, and poets. No wonder their last poetry reading came with the hope people would bring their own chair.
Eric Preisendanz chimed saying, ‘...To that degree, we sort of allow each other almost complete freedom for whatever we want to pursue. The areas that cause any complication ultimately come down to the sheer logistics of running a space… Other than that, the ability to pursue whatever you want, creatively, is one of the most attractive qualities of having an organization which is intentionally heliocentric. Nobody is in charge. Nobody is holding the wheel. We’re all on this page together. And, like it or not, we’re gonna make it work. Some weeks are harder. Some months are harder. Some events are easy. Sometimes we have really difficult cultural things that we have to learn and develop from. So, we’ve kind of understood, as we include ourselves in more and more Little Berlin endeavors, farther and farther away from our home bases... that what we represent is a really historic model for creative collaborations. I think we do a good job at it...’
As an outsider this feels conflictive. The anarchistic DIY ethos aligns with what Eric said but to invite complete freedom while operating as a unified front must inevitably contain complications. I noticed while speaking with the members present, only a few were actually talking. I wondered about individual roles, whether a hive can truly contain all the expressions of its members.
If you’re curious, it's rare members include their own work in Little Berlin’s exhibits. Those 40 alumni thought not about what they have to show. As Rebekah clarifies, they thought, ‘How can we shake up what we look at every day? How can I use the mantel of Little Berlin and its history and its space to invite artists in that I might be curious about or I want to see how these artists interact?’
This model has fostered events that included wood chippers, interactive suspended sculpture, cress and radish costumes, ‘Almost a fire, once.’ as Ethan added. The model has been a foundation of learning and exploration as each member starts with fundamental questions like, where is the broom?, how do I turn on the lights?, working their way up to larger questions around the logistics of getting artists together, will their work literally fit in the space? Ethan said, ‘I was a member for a year and a half before I put an exhibition together. I’ve worked in galleries and put shows together. It probably took six months before I felt comfortable.’ Rebekah followed saying, ‘It’s an at-will collective kind of thing. For some people, you might have a very ambitious vision and then you have to adapt it to what’s realistic considering who our team is and what our space is, and what’s possible… There’s no board. We’re a board of saying, ‘yes.’ We’re here to support each other’s ideas. There’s no, ‘Oh no, the President of the University wouldn’t want that to happen. Our clients don’t want that kind of art.’ We know these pressures are out there in the so-called art world. It’s really to preserve a space where that kind of authority figure really doesn’t exist. You can really personalize your shows. You can create the art world you want with your practice, or whatever you want to explore, without oversight.’
Since the fulfillment of an LB membership isn’t to create a venue for their own work (a frequent criticism of the co-op model), the incentive to work together appears in the form of personal curation. It sounds like LB’s white cube serves as a public canvas, whereby members can paint their ideas using other folks' work. At the very least, it is a safe space for experimentation in line with other DIY spaces in Philadelphia offering a platform for progressive projects.
‘Philadelphia is also a transitional city.’ Member Eric Anthony replied. ‘A lot of people come to Philadelphia to test out whether they do urban life, be a working artist. That’s something exciting about Little Berlin.’
What Eric and the other members of Little Berlin highlighted was a heliocentric no-profit model that both mirrors and contradicts the environment in which it is hosted. Historically, artists arrive in Philadelphia for school and leave for New York or Los Angeles - a transience paralleled by Little Berlin’s shifting membership. LB’s financial model runs on the ‘sweat equity’ of its members, as Eric Preisendanz said, as well as the fiscal equity concurrent with many DIY galleries. The exhibition space utilizes an architectural environment built by an industrial boom and cheapened by the neighborhood’s financial depression in the turn of the 19th century. Creativity around inflexible budgets is a necessity, a skill with which Little Berlin, its members, and immediate neighbors have in abundance. As one friend suggests, ‘Well, there’s no money here. In a way there’s not as much to lose when there’s no monetary loss hanging in the balance.’
And while LB prides on unity, the neighborhood has a long history of cultural divides and ebbing neighborhood lines. The Nativist Riots in 1844 fueled by anti-catholic sentiment put a growing Irish-Catholic immigrant population against protestant residents. Not surprisingly, though a little off topic, the K&A gang, formed by Irish-Americans after WWII, was a criminal organization that controlled much of Kensington up until the late 20th century. If you’re curious about a 1982 flashback to Kensington, check out this video here.
Economic and ethnic divisions have altered Kensington's geographic definition repeatedly over the course of the neighborhood’s now 285 years. It is hard not to consider the historical landscape of where I was, next to what was being said.
‘We’ve seen this in Brooklyn. We’ve seen this in other neighborhoods.’ Rebekah said. ‘Realistically, how long can the warehouse stay there? We don’t have answers to that question.’ Eric Preisendanz followed saying, ‘We have the greatest national attrition of 25 - 45 year olds. Philly, as a metropolis, has the greatest growth in that section. It’s real estate. There is only so much space here.’ Ethan then commented, ‘I was born in Fishtown. It was in the height of Oxycontin. It wasn’t a good place to be but it was fine. It doesn’t make sense to stay here if you are considering your children’s future. Depending upon your resources.’
Ethan’s perspective straddles two sides of the artist/gentrification seesaw. He remembers the neighborhood - pre-novelty shop, post-drug drenched. And now he is a part of an artist space, the ultimate signifier that shit’s about to go to Starbucks. I wonder how he feels about his role in the shift of the neighborhood, but maybe that’s putting too much on one person.
Rebekah followed with, ‘Well, that’s the thing. People coming in have different kinds of resources. One cool thing about our collective is that we try to stay in the moment. We’re aware of these topics. But because it’s transient, like, in two years half the collective might be totally different people with different goals. So what we think about in six months, what kind of show in September, what do we want to do, who are we, what skills do we have, where are we in our lives…. You have to stay that way to not be burdened with like, ‘where might this go’ but like ‘what can we do, as this population, with the circumstances we’re in right now?’
The setting of Little Berlin is evolving, feeling almost as rapid as its membership. I’m left wondering how LB’s identity is formed, changed, and continued while it shifts hands. Can a collective memory be captured through space and context? Does it need to be? As environments alter, as collaborations shift, as resources change, what can artists make with the circumstances they’re in? Well, if you’re Little Berlin, you build a model as flexible and vigorous as its neighborhood, one that utilizes perseverance, intention, and for the betterment of the psyche, humor.
‘Dedication, too.’ Ethan said. ‘You have to be willing to give more than what you get. That’s the only way this organization works. People are willing to put more energy in to help out other members or the community…’
‘There’s an amount of ‘be polite’, ‘be punctual’, ‘communicate.’’ Rebekah offered. ‘We do our best to read emails, keep up, identify problems, be honest with one another. All of those things; check your personal stuff at the door, treat our meetings with respect. And that really helps to allow a space for experimenting because we’re not experimenting with the way we do basic things we need to get done… Real simple things, being on time to clean the bathroom. We just do it. Hanging a giant lesbian witch puppet. We just gotta get it done.’
Eric Preisendanz commented, ‘The long hours. The late meetings... It is DIY in the part that we’re not sitting on a big huge five figure nest egg, but the lack of that huge bank account means that we are given so much. We have so much incredible access to people that refer to us from somebody that’s heard of us that read a zine. The spider web is really crazy. Being able to develop creative exhibitions and partnerships based on the awareness that you’re coming from a place where you do it regardless of the other person. It’s an internal fortitude that becomes the foundation of any collaboration outside of Little Berlin.’
I appreciate the can-do attitude. Collaboration is not easy, especially when it isn’t your day job and no one gets paid. As members of a unit there will be moments you just want to scream, “Not another Google excel spreadsheet.” I write this not from personal experience (Abby I co-edit these pieces and she scares me) but as part of an anecdote from a friend who quit a local co-op gallery. I’ve even heard simpler arguments like painting a wall too punctually led to a rash of emails.
The group continued on this discussion of collaboration. They talked on the strategies of curatorial work, on sharing resources with other DIY spaces, even mentioning their direct engagements with the community including a community garden. Rebekah referenced the only member not present that night, Will Owen, and how he took proceeds from hosting dinners and donated it to local soup kitchens. Take this charity in whatever John Green way you wish but know, it was in 2007 that the Kensington Soup Society closed its doors after 163 years in business - having been the last remaining major soup kitchen in the city. According to the Philadelphia Historical Society, KSS not only offered food and housing, but between 1900 and 1960 it offered coal to the neighborhood’s occupants. Say what you want about Kenisington, but they look after their own.
To ask about perpetuity in a neighborhood that has survived by creativity and flexibility is a little naive and hard to answer, but for the sake of curiosity I inquired about the future of Little Berlin in the midst of an uncertain and didactic climate. It seemed especially appropriate as this wasn’t just any night of the week, this was the eve of announcing their new members. The group was primed for a meeting with me and a meeting to look at all the applicants in their recent call for members.
‘There’s going to be change in terms of the city and what happens.’ Rebekah mentioned. ‘It’s not like we’re planning anything. But we have conversations that come out of discussing non-profit and what would the mission be. Let’s not take on the model but think about how connected are we to the space itself vs the curatorial mission vs the DIY aspect.’
Becoming a nonprofit is not just mind numbing with endless paperwork but a shift in the control of its ideology. Right now, LB can be what it wants. It can change, endlessly, without conflicting with a greater ideological narrative. I wouldn’t say nonprofits are without creative leeway but remaining separate has its advantages. Vox Populi is only a few years senior of LB but has experienced an established tipping point when one goes above board and gets a Board.
Eric Preisendanz finished saying, ‘From there too, the evolution of who we are is that from certain points, all artists from Little Berlin have their income stream, whatever that might be. And, they might go on professionally and say, ‘I’m gonna take what I learned from this collective and work in a non-profit.’ Or, ‘I’m gonna take what I learned from this collective and install shows, be a preparator, be a curator, be a working artist.’ If you track the members and the alumni and what they're doing now, probably, they learned and gained some confidence and gained some knowledge through this. It does something on its own already.’
Whatever happens with Little Berlin in the next ten years, or Kensington in the next fifty, one thing could be hypothesized, it will be informed by the community.
On the short walk from the warehouse apartment to the Berks Station, I saw stucco walls and smoke stained curtains near ornate doorways and refined sandstone surfaces. Paupers in a princess’s house. If I had walked further I would have found a wavering ratio, occupancy less in homes than corners and back alleys, neo-classical fortresses made of stone near pawn shops, discount stores, and bars - all with their original advertisements from the 1980s faded in a few ways. If I stepped further, I would have seen satellite curiosities like the Ax throwing shop mentioned earlier and young twenty somethings clapping heels and toppling Jenga towers. Whatever economy is introduced, whatever changes people allow, or whatever investments currently being undertaken, Kensington may just be destined to follow it’s up-and-down history. But as we’re seeing through the lens of celebrating ten years of Little Berlin, it’s possible that within that destiny one can bring about a culturally prosperous artistic and creative climate. And although I gave authoritarianism a minor slap today, the future of Little Berlin is one time may very well be the only authority to tell.