The spirit of tolerance and freedom made Berlin attractive to residents, tourists and drifters alike. But gentrification and its effects are testing that tolerance to its limits. The stakes are high in the capital.
Berlin was "over" before I arrived.
Four years ago, admist snowfall and public transport strikes, the gentrification process had long been in full swing. Those who considered Berlin home would rant about the loss of their city to investors, the death of Kiezkultur, the emergence of Yuppies and the influx of the international hipster crowd slumming it in the city for a year or two.
It takes time, especially as a foreigner, to orient yourself in these debates. There's the sense of frustration you feel when people start to criticize the city you are only just growing to love. Then there's the defensiveness you feel as a recent arrival when the gentrification issue is raised: At some point you have to ask yourself what your own role is in all this.
Paying the price
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians and city bureaucrats have sought to market the city as an attractive tourist destination. The annual number of visitors to the city broke the 20 million mark in 2011. But local residents have long been paying the price: Cheap hostels, holiday apartments and trendy bars have sprung up.
Rent prices in Kreuzberg, where per capita income remains one of the lowest in Berlin, have risen quicker than in any other part of town. As such, residents on the lower end of the income scale are being forced from their neighborhoods to districts on the outskirts of the city. Debates on the gentrification of the city have been raging for years.
High time, then, to provide an exploratory forum for these ongoing debates. The Guggenheim Foundation, sponsored by car manufacturer BMW, planned to open a temporary "laboratory" under the title "Confronting Comfort: the City and You" with the dubious aim of finding solutions for developing urban comfort.
But opposition from local residents has put an end to that. They argued that the BMW Guggenheim Lab would only have served to raise the profile of Kreuzberg and in turn lead to a rise in the desirability of real estate in the area - further exacerbating the problem of gentrification. Aside from that, residents pointed out that debates on the gentrification of the city have been taking place for years without the need for such a "spectacle."
The protests are an act of self-assertion against displacement, says Holm
'The Kreuzberg Effect'
It's the third failed attempt by the Guggenheim to run the project in Berlin. The original site for the project - Pfefferberg in Prenzlauerberg - proved too small, then businesses protested that structural changes to the street would be bad for business in the second proposed location of Kastanienallee, also in Prenzlauerberg. As a third option, the BMW Guggenheim Lab was scheduled to open in Kreuzberg's Cuvrystrasse from May through July of this year.
Since Frank Gehry's incongruous, albeit spectacular, design for a branch of the Guggenheim museum was thrust upon the town of Bilbao, the term "Guggenheim effect" has become synonymous with gentrification and flashy marketing campaigns promoting tourism to the detriment of local populations. While BMW and Guggenheim claim to have pulled the project due to concerns over the safety of workers following alleged threats from left-wing extremists, campaigners - who maintain never to have made such threats - are claiming victory against a profit-oriented marketing exercise on the part of Guggenheim / BMW.
Andrej Holm, a sociologist at Berlin's Humboldt University who specializes in gentrification and the politics of urban development, has been an active voice in the long-running discussions. While politicians and bureaucrats have been quick to denounce the protests as an expression of intolerance and a threat to the open-minded reputation of Berlin, Holm sees the protests not as an expression of intolerance, but as an act of self-assertion against displacement:
"Therein stands Kreuzberg for the opposite of the Guggenheim Effect: A re-politicization of urban political debates, the strengthening of residential structures and protests against exploitative investment schemes and the self-empowerment of neighborhood initiatives," wrote Holm on his Gentrification Blog.
Berlin has long been a battleground for social and political debate
People often talk nostalgically about the "frontier times" in Berlin after the fall of the Wall: House squatting, community building, the since lost Kneipekultur (pub culture) and Hinterhöfe (courtyards) in which a mixture of artisans, politicians and intellectuals would sit together and converse. Again, as a relative newcomer to Berlin, it's hard to grasp the magnitude of the changes.
But a photographic exhibition at Kreuzberg's Galerie ZeitZone in Fall 2010 brought home the sheer speed at which certain parts of the city had been transformed. Documenting the period just after the fall of the Wall, the black-and-white images of Berlin's underground scene in Mitte from 1991-1996 appeared to have been transported from a bygone era, from decades rather than just a few years gone by. It was the time of new frontiers, experimental projects and hopes for the future of Berlin. The photographer Eva Otaño Ugarte described it as an environment in ruins, but nonetheless one in which "the human soul was blossoming."
In this city saturated with stories, it's all too easy to lose yourself in the seductive sense of freedom and forget what it is that made Berlin feel like home in the first place. I can't help but feel that while the cancelation of the BMW Guggenheim Lab is a worthwhile victory for Kreuzberg residents, it is also representative of just how high the stakes have become. It reminds of something much bigger - namely, that tolerance is a two-way street.
Everyone has a different relationship to Berlin, different reasons for calling it home, different stories to tell. And somehow we all feel like we have a stake in the city, a right to it, a vision of how it is, could and should be. But that's a good thing - as events in London last year demonstrated. It's when people feel that they have no stake in the city or its society that Berlin really will be over.
Author: Helen Whittle
Editor: Kate Bowen