By the time of their biggest expansion, the Gängeviertel covered huge parts of Hamburg’s Alt- and Neustadt and the area of the contemporary Speicherstadt. Merchants and senators considered the urban underworld a blight on the rising trade metropolis. Right after the lift of the Torsperre in 1860 that allowed for the development of former suburban areas like Eimsbüttel, St. Pauli, St. Georg, Barmbek, Hamm and Horn, they called for the demolition of the inner-city slums. The development of new neighborhoods made the displacement of the city’s poor possible.
The demolition of the Gängeviertel commenced on the islands Kehrwieder and Wandrahm, when the Speicherstadt was constructed. In 1871, Hamburg had become a province of the German Reich and in 1881 the city entered the German toll union, which made the establishment of a free-port necessary. The construction began in 1883 and dislocated more than 20,000 people from their homes. By 1888, the first parts of the Speicherstadt were finished. The construction, however, continued until 1927.
At the same time, the restructuring of the Neustadt started: from 1890 to 1893, the Kaiser-Wilhelm- Straße was built to connect the inner city with the Holstenwall. Even before that, the brothers Wex had cut their private streets Wex- and Brüderstraße through the Gängeviertel and thereby displaced many of the former inhabitants. The cholera epidemic of 1892 and the wildcat strike of harbor workers in 1896- 97 were further catalysts of the restructuring process in the Neustadt.
Restoration in the southern Neustadt began in 1901 and went on until 1913. The original goal was to allow the current inhabitants to stay in their neighborhoods and to improve the overall living conditions. To this end, the senate paid for infrastructure and development of the area – a project that cost the city 19 million marks. However, the senate didn’t reach its goal, since many of the former inhabitants were unable to pay the rising rents in the area and had to move out of the city. By the time the works had finished, only 13,000 people remained in the area, where more than 20,000 people used to live, most of them small merchants and city employees instead of harbor workers.
Meanwhile, the planning for the Altstadt started, where the Gängeviertel had the worst reputation of all. Social ideas played no role at all in this project. Instead, the connection of the new town-hall, which had been inaugurated in 1897, with the main train station, which was under construction, had priority. Hamburg wanted to create its “city” with pompous shopping streets and large boulevards. To this end, the former Gängeviertel in this area were completely demolished after 1907. The question of replacement houses for the former inhabitants was completely ignored – city officials rather discussed paving and size of the new streets. The secret plans for these streets however, were sold by city officials to speculators in a breathtaking case of political corruption. During the first years of construction, 16,000 people lost their homes to the shopping streets, which characterize Hamburg’s city today, while a few estate agents and politicians got rich from the project.
After the extensive demolitions in the Alt- and Neustadt, only the Gängeviertel of the northern Neustadt remained. Here, no concrete plan of how to develop the area existed and demolition came in several small steps: For being a working-class neighborhood and a stronghold of communists and social- democrats alike, the Gängeviertel became a target for cleansing and restructuring during the Third Reich. In the name of the “Volksgesundheit” (national health), large parts in the area Kornträgergang/Rademachergang were restructured – the largest development project of the Nazis in Hamburg can still be visited there today. The relatively broad streets and the straight architecture were the antithesis to the chaotic Gängeviertel. Allied bombardments further destroyed huge parts of the neighborhood and only a small area around the Valentinskamp survived the war. Here, more houses and streets fell victim to the modernization projects of the 1950s and 1960s, strikingly illustrated by the construction of the Unilever headquarters. Today the last remains of the neighborhood can be found south of the Valentinskamp and in the Bäckerbreitergang.