Art and culture form the matrix in which people come together

Christian Heise
At the age of nine, Christian Heise, a Brandenburger by birth, fled the GDR with his parents to the West via Warsaw. There he discovered his passion for skateboarding. In 2004 Christian returned to Brandenburg an der Havel and opened a shop for skaters. Since then, the 39-year-old has set many wheels in motion.

Readingtime: 11 Min.

Christian, in September 2019 you were in Warsaw. What was the reason for your trip?

I was invited to an event at the German Embassy held by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Belin Wall. Amongst others, the organizers invited former German-Polish refugees, whose life would have been completely different if they had stayed in the GDR. I guess I fit into the profile with my career as a skateboarder and my German-Polish family background.


You and your parents were among the 6000 GDR citizens who fled to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Warsaw. Why did you want to leave?

Our escape on September 13, 1989 was a spontaneous decision by my mother. Within a week she decided to go to West Germany, because my stepfather’s employment contract had expired at the Brandenburg steelworks at that time. Because of his heritage, he would then have had to return to Poland. But we didn’t want to go there. My mother took an old wedding invitation from the Polish branch of the family, removed the three-year-old date, exchanged it for a current one and submitted the “new” invitation to the visa authorities. The whole thing was reviewed by the Stasi, among others. By this time, the movement of refugees to the West was already beginning.


What was it like for you to suddenly leave your home at the age of nine?

It was a radical experience. Not only financially, even though we left behind our entire household and I was only allowed to take six toy cars with me. Relatives who later entered our abandoned apartment said it looked like we would be back in half an hour. Of course, it was hard to leave behind friends, work, our familiar environment. A few days ago, on my trip to Warsaw, I wondered how much my parents must have loathed the GDR if they could leave everything behind, basically out of the blue. To a certain extent, living in the GDR also meant a certain amount of safety. At the same time, the reprisals of the state were simply too strong – people want to be free.

I was only allowed to take six toy cars with me.

What happened when it became clear that you could leave the GDR?

We drove by car in the middle of the night to Berlin Ostbahnhof. I was told we were going on a vacation. I was nine years old at the time and my parents were afraid that my tongue might slip if I would be questioned at check points. Our whole plan almost failed, because at the train station my mother only asked for one-way tickets to Poland. After a slight nudge with the elbow from my stepfather, she corrected herself and bought return tickets, of course. Because of the excitement, we got on the wrong train. But before we almost were on our way to Moscow, we noticed our mistake, just in time, and changed to the train to Warsaw. After 15 hours on the train and a taxi ride, we arrived at the embassy. We spent over a week there.


Can you describe life in the embassy in Warsaw?

For me as a child, it was a huge playground. We slept in rooms with bunk beds that stood so close that you couldn’t walk between them. The lights were always on because the beds were always occupied by different persons. One slept for an hour, the other three hours – it didn’t matter whether it was dark or not. Another problem was food. At that time, martial law prevailed in Poland and the shops were swept empty. Everything for the refugees had to be bought on the black market. Here is a task for you: Get 200 litres of milk for infants on the black market! There was chaos, there were tensions, sometimes objects flew out of windows because people were overwhelmed, emotionally and physically – similar pictures can be seen in newspapers today in connection with the accommodation of refugees in Germany.


You were flown by plane to Düsseldorf in October 1989. What was it like to suddenly arrive in the West?

Terrible. At that moment I realized that I might never see my biological father again, who knew about our escape and stayed in the city of Brandenburg. Until then, the journey and our life in the embassy were really exciting for me. Our stay in Poland was like a holiday. At that time, it was not yet likely that there would ever be a united Germany. We learned about the fall of the Wall a month later through the news. It was a very moving time.

But you didn’t stay in Düsseldorf.

Everything was chaotic. At first, we were accommodated in a dorm for refugees in Unna, Nordrhein-Westfalen. Today, refugees are still living there. The accommodation consisted of several blocks, there was utter confusion everywhere. It was not the “Golden West”, the one that we had seen on television and we had hoped for. Then we found an apartment in Ahlen. There I was first downgraded from the third to the second grade at school, because it was believed that education in the GDR had less value. I stayed in Ahlen for eleven years, then completed an apprenticeship as a chef in Kassel and lived there for six years.


The GDR is romanticized by some people. They say: “Everything used to be better!” What is your opinion?

I think this is an enormous problem. Because not everything was better. If you worked in a collective, then a lot of things were good. But if you said the wrong thing, you were excluded very quickly. I cannot tolerate that right-wing populists are now using slogans such as ‘Complete the Turn’ in their election campaign, because what is now called the Turn, ‘die Wende’, was and is very important for Germany. Of course, reconciliation with the past continues, as does the reunification of the Federal Republic, but romanticizing the past is a sham, an attempt at deception in my opinion.


At what age did you start skating?

When I was eleven years old. At that time, you were considered exotic at school when you came from the East. Some parents would not allow their children to play with me. But with the skaters, it didn’t matter where you came from, how you looked and what you wore – the only thing important was and is that you skate and have fun. It changed my life. In 1991, skateboarding became very popular. My stepfather took me to the Skate World Championships in Münster. There were participants from all over the world. For me, this was the West as I had imagined it to be. Freedom on the skateboard. That was the moment when I felt that I had arrived.

Freedom on the skateboard. I felt that I had arrived.

In 2004 you returned to Brandenburg an der Havel. Why?

Years before, I realized that I was missing my hometown. I visited Brandenburg regularly and got to know local skaters. As a result, first friendships developed. This had the same effect as in 1991 in Ahlen – my second arrival (laughs).


What were your first impressions of the city after your return?

It was dreary. It was not the Brandenburg an der Havel of today. I was unsure if I would stay at all. Many street names had changed after the Turn, which did not make living here any easier – I was lost without a city map in the first few weeks (laughs).


By contrast, what are your first childhood memories of the city of Brandenburg?

My childhood in the city was great. We lived at Neustädtischer Markt, there were always lots of children in the streets. We could move around freely, and we spent the whole day outside. It was, in my opinion, a very active society, something was always going on. There were sports clubs, holiday camps – as a child I felt protected. At that time, however, the state always had a hidden political motive. I can remember a children’s party in the swimming pool on the Marienberg, where we were playing between tanks, jeeps, and rocket launchers. As children we thought that it was an adventurous playground, today I see it all in a different light.


And now? What would you say about the development of the city?


I think that Brandenburg an der Havel lost a lot of its charm in the years after 1959. The city unfolded in many directions without a master plan. In addition, there was a great deal of uncertainty: How will the labour marketdevelop, and where is Brandenburg an der Havel as a community heading? These uncertainties have long lasting effects on the city. In the meantime, a lot of things have also changed for the better and many things have stabilized. I think the city has found new self-confidence. Many citizens identify (again) with their city, and the surrounding area. Word has gotten out that the city of Brandenburg is beautiful and worth a visit.


Would you call Brandenburg an der Havel your home?

Absolutely. For me, home is not just a place, but rather a feeling. A sensation depending on how comfortable any person feels in a certain place. Where friends live, where you can live according to your habits and practice your hobbies. I have all that here. There are a lot of possibilities in the city of Brandenburg. There is no use in complaining or getting used to what already exists. I think it is essential that people start to do things, that they tackle changes. And I have the impression, that people living here are beginning to understand this.


As a skater you got see the world. You have regularly participated in the Canadian Skateboarding Championships, for example. Have you ever considered leaving the city of Brandenburg, perhaps for good?

For a while I had thought about moving to Münster, but I don’t want to move there anymore. The desire to emigrate to Canada, however, is present. I could live there and work in the Canadian skateboarding industry. Maybe I’ll do that for a while. However, I am certain, that I will always return to the city of Brandenburg – this is where I feel at home.

Here I feel at home.

What do you most like about the city?

I really appreciate the frankness of the Brandenburgers. I like that people say directly what they think. I have not met a single person in West Germany who does that so freely as the people do it here. I also like that the city is the perfect size: not too big, not too small. You can easily reach everything on foot or by bike. And you always meet people you know and can talk to. You never feel alone here – a great feeling.


In 2007 you opened your own shop, selling everything related to skateboarding. Can a shop that serves special interests of a subculture work in Brandenburg an der Havel?

For years, people have been telling me, that such a business would not work here. It was said that there are not enough young people who also have the financial means. This was also an argument in a start-up seminar I attended. But I wouldn’t accept defeat before I tried. So, I opened my first location at the main station, which was a success from the beginning. After 9 months, I already had to rent larger spaces.

You see, what is called subculture is becoming more and more important. Meanwhile, the city has also become aware of this trend and has opened spaces for skaters and graffiti artists. The clientele has also changed in the meantime: In the past, introverted young people wearing hoodies visited my shop, today it is parents or grandparents who come with their children and grandchildren. And everyone wants art. Not only graffiti, but drawing, skating, it has become important to participate in something and to present yourself to the world.


Is there a recipe for your success?

In the end, it only worked out with the skate shop because I don’t just sit in the shop and wait for people to come in. I also set up an online shop from the very beginning. In addition, you must address people on the streets. Networking with other shops and non-commercial institutions helped a lot, simply to get things moving. It is possible to create something meaningful if we learn to think positive and pull in the same direction. Graffiti artists of the city, for example, had been divided for years. Then there was a round table discussion where it became clear that we, as a small town, must sort out who has which options and responsibilities. And then, after eight years, we organized our first graffiti jam together.

It is possible to create something meaningful if we learn to think positive and pull in the same direction.

In your projects legal surfaces are provided for sprayers. What are your thoughts on illegal spraying?

We had a really good graffiti scene in the city in the 2000s, with a very high-quality standard. This was because there were a lot of areas where spraying was legal. There was an exchange between the artists, which is extremely important, but can only happen at such places. In these areas, a certain code of honour is taught to younger artists, i.e. not to spray on trees, new walls of houses or on churches … These meeting places disappeared at some point and the exchange between experienced artists and beginners no longer took place. As a result, the quality of the art as a whole declined. In my opinion, spraying has become an act of rebellion against the city and is not a form of art anymore. Something like: “If you do nothing for us, we won’t do anything for you”.


In Berlin there is a niche for every subculture, the city is known worldwide for its street art. Why should young people who are interested in such things move to Brandenburg an der Havel?

Here, for example, there is room for studios. Brandenburg an der Havel is much cheaper, and you can work in a quiet environment and therefore be more productive. Work-life balance is also better in Brandenburg an der Havel. Here you can relax after work and go out in the evening. The variety of cultural events is increasing, so that you can choose between several events on the weekends. That was not the case in the past.


People of many different nationalities attend the skate contests which you organize. Would you describe Brandenburgers as cosmopolitan?

Through such events the wind of change blows into the city. The contest is a great opportunity to create new networks. Cosmopolitan? In this regard the city has at least two faces. Some time ago, a fellow skater from the USA visited me. He wanted to go shopping in the city and failed. For example, he was not served by the baker because the employees didn’t want to speak English. However, my American friend had no problems at the döner shop. The employees there were willing to communicate with hands and feet and that worked out (laughs). If we want to become a cosmopolitan city, attracting tourists from all over the world, then there is still a lot that must change.

Nevertheless, the hospitality of the Brandenburgers always overwhelms me. For the Skate Contest 2019, I was looking for places to crash for visitors and participants. There was an incredible amount of positive responses to a post of mine.


What are your wishes for the city?

I would like to see more varied offers for leisure in the city centre. For example, a skate park or places for artists. Of course, the city should acknowledge interests of young people. For the past three years, I have regularly had visitors from the Pfalz in my shop who think it is much nicer here than at their home. We need more places where people from outside can exchange ideas with Brandenburgers, regardless of age. For example, a real pedestrian zone or Stein Straße without traffic. In addition, the city centre has to become more attractive, with more cafes or restaurants for people to meet and relax. This is normal in so many other cities. Unfortunately, we are still a little bit behind.

The city should acknowledge interests of young people.

You have visited numerous places around the world. Is there anything that sets Brandenburg an der Havel apart from other cities?

Definitely: water. The city alone has 58 bridges. In the meantime, water tourism has developed rapidly and you can see all kinds of watercrafts: houseboats, canoes, SUPs. I have already thought about getting a kayak (laughs). I’ve only been on a board all my life and doing sports with my legs – since I live only 600 meters from the water, this would be a great way to even things out.


Speaking of which, what will you do if you should not be able to skateboard at some point?

I already have a lot of ideas. In any case, continue to connect people and keep things moving – everywhere in the city of Brandenburg. The city has to keep an open mind for change. And it seems there is an increasing willingness to do so. I don’t want to skate all my life. This used to help me express myself and I used it to integrate into society, but now my interests are changing. I could imagine, for example, taking up teaching. In the past, I have started many projects with refugees with whom I can easily connect because of my experiences in the past. I would like to continue to act in this field because there will always be refugees. We have never had peace in Europe for so long, but the situation can quickly become fragile. That is why we should invest much more in the exchange of peoples: travel much more, understand more. Because communication and exchange are important. And everything that has to do with art and culture. Art and culture form the matrix in which people get together to diminish prejudices. This is Brandenburg an der Havel for me: Standing up for each other, being there for each other and making a difference.

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