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Scene in Berlin

March 25, 2011

In Berlin, don't mention the "G" word - gentrification. But is Berlin really about to turn into Manhattan? Deutsche Welle's Stuart Braun has his doubts.

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Image: DW

The world has become very parochial about Berlin. Every week another commentator mourns the new upward mobility of this mythical metropolis, this last bastion of tolerance and transgression now overrun by iPhone-wielding colonizers.

Last month, The Economist was lamenting "the smartening-up of the old freewheeling Berlin," while Der Spiegel has since run three stories on the gentrification of the German capital.

The conquerors have arrived in many guises: Swabians and Bavarians, moneyed migrants from the German south who have pushed out the GDR grandmothers and jobless to refurbish their cool Ost apartments; rich kids from leafy West Berlin who are spending their parents’ inheritance on charming old real estate in Kreuzberg; or the scourge from beyond, the trust-fund foreigners, techno tourists and transient artists (gasp!) who come to pay top dollar for good times in this Babylon on the Spree.

Something must be done. Berlin must be saved. But is it too late?

Much ado about nearly nothing

The Berlin gentrification debate is a classic tale of good versus evil. And it is often a bunch of hype.

The German daily Der Tagesspiegel recently tried to diffuse those blaming party tourists, the maligned "Easy Jet-set," for the death of Berlin as we know it. But, really, it's the fault of the government for selling off public housing.

Mainzer Street in the Friedrichhain district of Berlin
Don't worry, Berlin hasn't turned prettyImage: Renate Hildebrandt

Berlin was once flush with empty, eviscerated inner-city buildings. But compared to Paris or Amsterdam, there’s still plenty of room to move. After reunification in 1990, it was hoped the city would add another million people; instead, the population is in decline. Building projects remain in stasis. Unemployment is rife. Berlin's debt is upward of 70 billion euros, and the city is broke.

That's why the government takes desperate measures like selling off public housing stock, even if much of it was abandoned at the time.

Finding an apartment these days in hipster district Kreuzberg is tough. Diddums. But there are tons of apartments four subway stops away.

Not a land of opportunity

Beyond these happening inner-city zones, life across most of the metropolis is positively bucolic. Compared to Frankfurt or Hamburg, much of Berlin is still a wasteland.

In the "gentrified" neighborhood of Neukölln, the central Hermannplatz station remains a haven for the poor and marginalized - the leftovers of a long broken city. This is no Shoreditch like in London, and no Harlem, which has been enveloped by Manhattan's top end. While young white artists are labeled the shock troops of gentrification in Neukölln's "little Beirut," this time there are no bankers and corporate lawyers to follow in their wake.

There's a good reason for that: Berlin is no land of opportunity. For every traveling hipster with a laptop and paintbrush who sets up home in the capital, another winces away defeated and depressed to mum and dad in Vancouver or Barcelona.

Der Spiegel recently described how gentrification is forcing some families from Neukölln into high-rise ghettoes on the edge of the city. But this is also the fault of a failed social housing policy. In London and New York, the process is systematic, comprehensive and deliberate, part of a contrived policy of urban redevelopment that creates massive displacement. This is not happening in Berlin.

Tenants have strategies to stay

In my hometown of Sydney, gentrification is especially brutal because landlords can kick out tenants from one day to the next. This has fuelled one of the biggest property speculation booms in history. But in Berlin, property prices in real terms have been in a holding pattern for 20 years. This is partly economic, and partly because tenants have rights.

Berliners are very active when it comes to tenant rights, which are some of the strongest in the world. There is awareness that one should "pass on" old rental contracts - it is only when new leases are signed that rents can be significantly increased. Such strategies are part of a tradition dating to the 70s and 80s when squatters and activists in Kreuzberg stood in the way of wholesale redevelopment of their borough. Now a lot of those squatters own buildings, and have a long-term stake in the urban fabric.

Property developers encircle, but it's hard to implement blanket renewal. The districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg have been victims of significant property speculation. But bordering Berlin's main corridor of government and high culture, these old East Berlin hoods were ripe for renovation.

Manhattan skyline at dusk
In Manhattan, the bankers followed the artists - not so in BerlinImage: picture alliance/abaca

No Spree-front glass citadels

Let's not forget that Berlin is the capital of the richest country in Europe and has largely resisted sanitized, globalized and wholesale urban renewal. Most of the glass citadels that developers dreamed would envelop the Spree River will likely never be built.

Instead, Berlin is growing organically - into a creative city that relies on tourists and transients, but that also celebrates and protects the distinctive, laid-back aura of the Berlin Kiez, as each local neighborhood is known. There is a commitment to the sense of freedom that helps Berlin resist becoming homogenized. People can still drink on the streets, open bars in their apartments, or put on techno parties in the local park.

Still, it's hard when they shut down another squat. Some smash windows in banks and boutiques in retribution. But that just animates journalists to tell the world that Berlin is like the rest. But it's not true.

The 90s are now over, so let's move on.

Author: Stuart Braun

Editor: Kate Bowen