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Scene in Berlin

Progress and polarization in Berlin's Pankow

When the Berlin wall came down, it didn't only fall on a dubious political regime, but on an understanding of the world and a way of life that many in the district of Pankow found altogether easier to enjoy.

The leafy district of Pankow began life far beyond Berlin's city gates - as a mere settlement around the shallow waters of the Panke river from which it takes its name. But it was a settlement with potential, and by the mid-1600s had been deemed fit for nobility. A manor was built, rebuilt, extended and architecturally honed until it was palatial enough to comfortably wear its new name, Schloss Schönhausen.

It could be argued that the palace and the gardens in which it still stands lay the foundations for Pankow's modern-day incarnation as a popular pocket of green within striking distance of Berlin's cultural repertoire. So popular in fact, that locals fear it is only a matter of time before it becomes too urban, too built up to deserve its "green" badge.

The past five years in particular have heralded a boom in the construction of the locally maligned Luxuswohnungen, or luxury apartments, which unlike regular Berlin housing stock, come with standard issue under-floor heating, elevators and subterranean garages. Pankow's old factories and breweries have been converted into top-notch brick and glass complexes, while its allotments, low-rises and even communal squares and spaces have been decommissioned to make room for the new. New homes and newcomers.

A balance at tipping point

Change is inevitable, not least in Berlin, which is still finding its feet after its tumultuous ride through the 20th century, but I have yet to meet an Ureinwohner – a native Pankower – of any age who regards the brand of change at work in Pankow as anything other than highly selective.

A construction site in Pankow. Copyright: DW/Tamsin Walker

Fences and construction sites are increasingly common in Pankow

With a sense of foreboding they bore witness to the rapidly rising rents and changing cultural scene that forced many East Berliners out of the districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in the post-1989 years.

All things considered, it has taken a long time for the diggers and cranes to roll the couple of kilometers up the hill from Prenzlauer Berg to Pankow. But now they are there, they seem reluctant to leave until they have replaced the gaps between buildings with bigger ones between residents. So far, they are doing a thorough job.

Ask around and locals of all ages will say the same thing: Money has moved in and is dealing them a bum hand. Many can't afford the sudden explosion in rent prices, and would be even less able to buy – even if they wanted to. "I had never considered the need to own my home," one local woman told me. Like many, she says she has never had much relationship to ownership, but that in the past few years she begun to feel that in not buying her apartment, she is regarded as unimportant and unsuccessful.

Inorganic change

Pankowers are not resistant to change per se, but they perceive what is happening around them as exclusive homogenization.

Luxury apartments under construction in Pankow

The suburb's streets are undergoing a modern transformation

The new properties are wildly priced and are being bought by people who have the wherewithal to trump the existing modus operandi, by supporting the new slate of private schools, expensive shops and so on. Although there is the potential for these top-end new arrivals to be woven into the existing fabric of the community and therefore make it a more eclectic place to live, it doesn't seem to go that way. Not in Berlin.

"The problem," one woman told me "is that change doesn't happen organically enough. It is just dumped down in our midst, and we are expected to fall into line behind it. Not with it, but behind it." Consequently people begin to feel marginalized, and from there it is only a matter of a few short steps before they leave their homes and streets to the exclusive homogenizers.

It's a fate that has befallen countless communities in the past – not least Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. I hope it doesn't come to that in Pankow. Not just because it's pretty nice the way it is, but because this is Berlin. This city is too clever, too welcoming of the outsider and too quintessentially quirky to lose this reputation to a drive for profit. Oder?

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