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R. I. P. - The Kiez

June 4, 2010

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wave of gentrification sweeping the city is irrepresible. With more and more areas transforming into homogenized yuppy-villes, is this the death of Kiezkultur?

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

Berliners, so proud of their poverty and punkish attitude to life, find it easy to sneer at yuppies. And, given that I am not especially materialistic either, I guess I do too. I don't have a car, I couldn't care a toffee about designer labels and I currently own but two pairs of shoes. Each month is a constant exercise in flying by the seat of my pants when it comes to paying the rent and so long as there's enough money in the bank for milk and cigarettes, I'm relatively content.

You can therefore imagine that splashy displays of affluence are something that I tend to find rather vulgar. And I am not the only one. Berliners hate it too. Especially when their tumbledown, graffiti-riddled neighborhoods end up being gutted, sanitized and then invaded by a bizarre species created via Stepford Wives and L.A. Law cross-pollination.

The process of gentrification has been striding forward mercilessly since the Berlin Wall fell back in 1989. As many ex-GDR citizens headed for the bright lights of the West, eager capitalists soon swooped down on the former heart of German socialism, bought up the empty properties and began transforming neighborhoods wholesale. And it hasn't stopped since. The creative bohemians in the city have packed their easels and moved to successive districts to stay ahead of the gentrification tide. I mean, if you make your meager living selling anti-something-or-other political art, why would you want to live next door to some stuffy doctor and his bland wife?

Newcomers bring energy to Berlin

Aside from being rather dreary, your slightly more upper crust neighbors might pose a more serious threat than just ruining your street cred. What makes a neighborhood, or Kiez? The people certainly, but also the wacky little shops, the open-all-hours boozer and the night clubs. Move in Mr and Mrs Dull, formerly of Conservativeville, who think it's rather amusing to live in a bombed-out ruin in Prenzlauer Berg because it's so "arty" and by the end of week one they're sending for the police and complaining about the noise.

It's happened time and again; moaning neighbors and rising rents have seen the demise of Berlin heavyweight clubs like Rio and Scala and seen venues like King Kong, once famed for it's nightly live music roster, have its assets stripped and only do gigs on weekends. The famous off-location parties - guerilla affairs set up in some basement somewhere - happen less and less often simply because the basements are now all graphic design companies and law firms. If you want to party in a basement, you have to go to the Spandau district now.

But is it all bad news? Not necessarily. Ellen Allien, DJ and founder of label Bpitch Control, recently said in an interview with Flavorwire: "A lot of times people move to the city for just three years or something and then they go back to America or Italy or whatever. But they bring the impact, the energy. That's really good for the scene, because we have all these new people doing something, trying something. That's why the music scene here is super dynamic."

But she also warned that "rich people just visiting for the weekend" are what is "killing the city. But as long as people keep moving here, Berlin will remain cool."

A common fate for capital cities

It seems not a week goes by these days without some anti-gentrification demo taking place somewhere in Berlin. Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, once grim East Berlin wastelands, are now lost to the yuppies so the fight is on to stem the flow before Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukoelln go the same way. Take a quick peek at the non-political website brennende-autos.de and you'll see that the current trend for torching a fancy motor as a symbolic "f**k you" to the yuppies all takes place within the central districts mentioned above - such is the feeling of territorialism in these areas.

The wave of transforming an area into something upmarket and appealing to people with higher-end incomes, is something which has already wrecked a number of the world's capitals.

"Gentrification can certainly be an enormous problem for nightlife and a city's creative essence," DJ and journalist Jonty Skrufff told me. "You only have to look at New York and London and how their club scenes have been watered down, marginalized and ruined by rich incomers to understand what can happen," he told me.

Now that London has become expensive and the trend-setting clubs have closed, "horrible expensive bars have moved in and every weekend hordes of drunken office workers descend on the area making it unpleasant for the few freaks left who previously made the area so interesting and creative," he added.

A lose-lose situation

DJs, freaks and flamboyant queers hate the gentrification "afflicting" their once bohemian neighborhoods; real estate companies and housing associations think they are making the area more pleasant for everyone. It's a lose-lose situation, as the two sides of the argument are both valid and cannot be reconciled. Gentrification, beautification, sanitation; whatever you want to call it, the floodgates opened years ago and it's unlikely to stop anytime soon. The process will only reach an end once all the creativity and quirkiness which makes Berlin Berlin has been squeezed out. Sad but true.

As for me? Well, I never much cared for fashion to the extent that it should dictate which street I live in. My needs are very simple; so long as there's somewhere to lock my bike and buy coffee and cigarettes, I'm happy. I don't really care if my neighbors are lefty anarchists or sharp-suited architects because, at the end of the day, I hate everyone in equal measure anyway.

The incurably grumpy Gavin Blackburn currently lives in Kreuzberg, above a cigarette kiosk.

Editor: Kate Bowen