Innovative projects launched by Berlin's housing bureaus to revamp neglected parts of the city and encourage artists to move in are bearing fruit -- but also triggering local resentment.
"For rent" signs do little to boost a neighborhood's image
It might border Berlin Mitte, home to much of the most sought-after real estate in Germany. But the run-down district of Wedding is a far cry from the back-to-back cafés, galleries and designer stores of central Berlin. With an ever-increasing immigrant population and up to 15 percent of its commercial space empty, the neighborhood has something of a reputation as Berlin's badlands.
Steffen Skuza owns a local pet shop in the area. As far as he's concerned, the Degewo Group, which owns many of the tenement blocks in Wedding, is indifferent to the neighborhood's decline because at least tenants claiming housing benefits can be relied on to pay their rent.
Wedding has become a ghetto
"A lot of the original residents have moved away in the last few years because this neighborhood has gone downhill so much," he said. "Degewo doesn't care who moves into its properties so long as the rent gets paid. It's become a ghetto."
Reclaim the shops
Degewo, however, insists that urban renewal is its first priority. And whatever its tenants say about its reliability as a landlord, it's found inventive ways of dealing with the neighborhood's unused apartments and commercial space, in the process helping to change Wedding's pitiful profile.
Three years ago, it entered into a partnership with a local initiative called "Kolonie Wedding," a project dreamt up by Wedding's "Quartiersmanagement," one of Berlin's 17 local EU-funded offices responsible for urban development.
The scheme invited young artists to cross to the wrong side of the tracks and rent empty shop fronts at no expense other than running costs for a trial run. Degewo's willingness to accept reduced rents adds up to support of some €70,000 ($93,700) a year.
The artists get cheap studio space, an opportunity to exhibit their work and a longer-term aim of obtaining a permanent lease, while the area -- including the house-owners -- reaps the benefits of the gentrification so often heralded by the arrival of art galleries.
Lukas Born from "Kolonie Wedding" said he feels that the Degewo initiative is exemplary.
"They've understood how to improve a neighborhood's reputation," he said. "They're using empty commercial space as an instrument in a way other housing bureaus aren't, and it's a very legitimate move."
Ushering in gentrification
Similar projects are now up-and-running in other Berlin districts previously overlooked by urban developers.
Central Berlin is thriving
A sister initiative, the "Boxion" project launched in 2001 in the Friedrichshain district of former East Berlin, was a major contributing factor to its emergence as Berlin's current "in" neighborhood. The resulting slew of local art galleries, boutiques and graphic design studios put Friedrichshain firmly on the cultural map. In 2003, "Boxion" expanded into the neighboring district of Kreuzberg with the opening of "Project Wrangler," which entailed the opening of five new projects, including a legal practice.
The housing surplus
Over a decade of ambitious, well-subsidized city planning has left Berlin with a surfeit of shop fronts, which are either too expensive to attract tenants or too off-the-beaten-track in modern, mall-ridden Berlin.
Thorsten Tonndorf from the Berlin Senate for Urban Planning said that 23 new shopping malls have been built in Berlin since 1990 and many more are still in a planning phase.
Berlin has seen a building boom in the last decade
The problem is that in the last decade, the building boom failed to go hand-in-hand with an economic boom and consumer spending habits took unexpected turns, he added.
"What we never expected were such structural changes to the way people shop," he said. "We expected to see existing structures retained." Instead, people headed in their droves to the malls and one by one, small local retailers were forced to close shop.
Making a virtue of necessity
Today, some 160,000 apartments in Berlin stand empty. As Lukas Born from "Kolonie Wedding" pointed out, Degewo has little to lose by lending artists free space.
Further Degewo projects include offering 500 apartments in Wedding at a 50 percent discount to students for two semesters and an upcoming campaign romantically entitled "Wedding Dress." A fashion competition judged by a jury, the project will afford 15 winning designers free local store and studio space.
"These are very long-term projects that aim to attract a different demographic to Wedding," said Birgit Hoplitschek from Degewo's marketing department.
Skuza, the pet shop owner, didn't seem convinced.
"Degewo is just blowing its own trumpet," he said. "It's only interested in media-friendly campaigns when in fact, as a landlord, it does nothing for its tenants."
"When I wanted to move into one of Degewo's subsidized spaces I was beaten to it by an artists' collective," he added. "They might like artists, but they weren't ready to give a pet shop a chance."