Zurich alternative culture
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Political activism within Zürich’s youth movement during the 1970s culminated in major riots in 1980–81 and the police closure of the city’s autonomous youth centre. The counterculture regrouped around two large community squats, the activities of which have passed into the city’s collective memory. The first, known as Wohlgroth, took over an empty commercial building next to the train tracks on Zollstrasse; the squatters immediately erected a placard on the roof to greet trains rolling into the city with a huge imitation SBB station sign reading not “Zürich” but “Zu reich” (“Too rich”). At a stroke, this guaranteed them fame. The Wohlgroth developed into a thriving centre for arts, music and alternative culture, and such was its popularity that, after some years of hand-wringing at the loss of rent on such a prime site, the chief executive of the corporation which owned the building personally came visiting with the offer to donate another less embarrassingly visible building to the collective. His offer, needless to say, was rejected, and shortly afterwards the police evicted the place with tear gas and water cannon. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Wohlgroth, aside from their classic Zu reich prank, is that the neighbourhood has now become the heart of the city’s new subculture.

The second big squat of the early 1980s was of the Rote Fabrik, a former silk mill in a beautiful lakeside location south of the city, owned by the municipality. Whereas similar city-owned places squatted in Bern and Geneva have remained illegal and on the radical fringes of city life to this day, it’s a mark of discreet Zürcher pragmatism that in 1987 the Rote Fabrik collective voted to apply for legal status and an arts subsidy from the city council. This was granted, millions of francs flowing into their coffers shortly after. These days, although its alternative heart still beats, the Rote Fabrik is able to develop and stage avant-garde dance and drama that gets taken seriously by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the city’s most conservative newspaper. The flipside, of course, is that a mere mention of the place makes the committed radicals in Bern roll their eyes and start muttering about a sell out.

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