While I am no Urberliner, I have lived in this city for close to 8 years now, so I do think that gives me some legitimacy when it comes to talking about the changes that have been taking place in the city I call home.
While many other cities in the western world are no strangers to the ways of gentrification, exponentially increasing rents, the upsurge of tourists, police crackdown on local left establishments, massive new development plans, and big business in favor of local and homegrown shops and restaurants have become an ever increasing reality for Berlin, a city whose ragtag anarchistic flair is slowly dying.
Although the end of the Cold War and the German reunification has led Germany to become Europe’s economic powerhouse, it has only been a meager 26 years and 9 months that Berlin has existed as a unified whole. While Berlin can trace its roots all the way back to the 12th and 16th centuries, prior to the Cold War Berlin lay in rubble from the aftermath of World War II, effectively marking 1945 “year zero” in many ways.
Granted, the Cold War period was integral in establishing Berlin’s notoriety as a city uncomparable to any other. The result of two independent identities existing side by side for decades and then colliding into each other as the wall came down can still be felt today. It is this legacy that has shaped this techno-driven, anything goes, fuck authority mentality that does still pervade much of the city.
But this history of division and unification which has stunted uniform growth and development in this “poor but sexy” capital has meant that Berlin has been playing a bit of catch up in terms of capitalism and consumerism when compared to places like London, Paris and New York – especially in the east where socialism was holier than its non-existent god and capitalism was (and sometimes still is) a dirty word. Which is why Berlin is only now staring gentrification in the face and trying to figure out what the hell to do with it.
And this where the problem lies and why the subject of locality is paramount to the discussion of gentrification. When gentrification is taken to its logical conclusion, nothing is local and everything is conglomerate.
Although the tides were slowly changing before I even set foot in Berlin, I feel as though I moved here at a time when the old Berlin was beginning to see it’s last days. Underground club culture had already been replaced by organic bio shops and pregnant women in Prenzlauer Berg, but I did still get to experience places like Bar 25 before they got shut down. Squat culture was dying but still thriving in smaller, more concentrated areas. Many have since been cleaned out by the authorities, leading to an all out war between the left and the police force. Basic train stations have been torn down and rebuilt, the Mall of Berlin, consisting of over 270 shops, was born, and Warschauer Strasse is currently littered with construction and cranes, as the city moves to build yet another shopping complex. Those who have lived in their homes for decades are slowly getting pushed out as rent prices continue to rise.
But what is gentrification anyway and what the hell does it have to do with the topic of supporting local? Well I will get to that, but let’s first talk about gentrification itself: Simply put, it’s when more affluent individuals move into a run down urban area and the process of renovation takes place. However, this renovation often results in the displacement of the local community from a lower income bracket.
It’s also not something that happens overnight. Usually, the first to move into this urban environment tend to be low-income artists and those from boheme communities. They are attracted by the prospect of being able to pursue their lifestyle at an affordable price, which is clearly the case with Berlin as it is a city known to attract artists and creatives by the hundreds. Things slowly become more curated. You can bet your bottom dollar that a place is in the throes of gentrification when a wine bar and coffee shop open within feet of each other.
What I am saying is this – there is a sweet spot where a downtrodden city ridden with crime can actually benefit from revival.
At a certain point, the increase of activity by artists and other new alternative residents means that this once downtrodden, dirty and forgotten city is now on the radar. Normal middle-class individuals literally outside of the fringe communities that began changing the landscape of the city decide this is the place they want to be. Profit-obsessed companies and politicians with euro signs in their eyes also want a piece of the pie, now willing to invest in “rebuilding” what was once considered to be a pile of shit as there is now money to be made. Euro Euro Bills, ya’ll.
And this where the problem lies and why the subject of locality is paramount to the discussion of gentrification. When gentrification is taken to its logical conclusion, nothing is local and everything is conglomerate. Big business wins out over the little guy and the local population is pushed out. The wave of artists, boheme groups, and other non-mainstream communities which moved in at the beginning of the gentrification process are also often forced to move out, as they can no longer afford soaring rent prices nor stand the new middle-class family next door that disapprove of their alternative lifestyles and lack of cultural and local flair that has long since been replaced by Starbucks and Primark.
Now this vignette is my personal definition of the metamorphosis of gentrification, but it is based off of my political and social knowledge as well as my personal experience so I don’t think I am too off the mark or feeding you a load of misinformative bollocks. I also do not think that gentrification has to be bad and I do think there is a way for big and small to come together. And I hope to the techno gods that Berlin will be able to find a middle ground between traditional gentrification and what I would like to call alternative gentrification.
Because here is the thing – I fucking love the local hipster coffee shops dominated by techno-listening 20-something year olds with Macbooks, even if I do have to pay 6€ for an Americano. I would much rather pay a local establishment 6€, regardless of how many elitist hipsters may be working there, than give Starbucks 4€. (No offence Starbucks, I will always choose local when I can. And no offence, elitist hipsters, I know you are people too.) I am also not against rich people moving into an area because they genuinely want to be there. But I also think it is extremely important that people who move into a city do not cause those who have been here for decades to become displaced for for local cultural establishments and nightlife to die out because some yuppie who just joined a start up in Mitte is complaining about the noise coming from a club on the street where his new flat is located – a club that has existed long before he ever set foot in Berlin. I also understand the reality of big business and although this is a much larger topic than I care to get into in this particular article, I don’t blame the average everyday citizen that would rather pay 15€ for a pair of jeans over 80€.
What I am saying is this – there is a sweet spot where a downtrodden city ridden with crime can actually benefit from revival. Artists and creatives do enhance a city by breathing new and invigorating life into it. Curated coffee shops, bookstores and shops are aesthetically pleasing and wonderful and I am not going to apologise for thinking this. It’s this phase of gentrification I am okay with. Okay with ONLY if the local population is taken into account and prioritised. And I truly believe there is a way for this to be done. It is even possible, I believe, to dedicate more touristy districts in a city undergoing gentrification to more corporate establishments like Primark and H&M while keeping local streets local where smaller independent business can thrive.
So many money hungry companies and politicians focus on profit and wealth. But wealth is not just something monetary. It is the cultural wealth of a city that made it attractive to the outside world in the first place. And when a city does away with this authentic vibe and stymies the growth of its original residences and artist communities, this cultural currency is worth nothing. And if Bleecker Street is any indication, it’s not even a financially advantageous goal to replace everything local with everything business.
Berlin is facing a turning point where its citizens are fighting back as people get pushed out and more and more brand names and big businesses replace the small. But that punk culture, history of division, and the way that Germans in general just tend not take any shit gives me hope. After all, that Mall of Berlin I was talking about? Rumor has it it’s bankrupt. And that Starbucks in Hackeshermarkt? I heard it closed down because it just was not turning a profit. It seems to me that Germans (who do still make up a substantial number here in Berlin despite the fact that more often than not you will be asked to switch to English by foreign baristas and salespeople) have a love for local. After all, German culture has a history for valuing Mittelstand over big business – which is why when you walk into your local Späti, you are greeted with home grown drink brands right next to a bottle of Coke.
And for all of us who have moved into this incredible city and now call it home? For the most part, the majority of us who have lived here long enough to develop a slight sense of superiority to those who just freshly planted their feet on Berlin soil and have earned the title of “Berliner” (not to be confused with jelly donut) fall into that poor artist category. We have been just as affected by the negative aspects of the tail end of gentrification. We take part in the demos and the local culture and work to maintain the liveliness and uniqueness that made us settle here in the first place.
Berlin is still fucking incredible. There are still enough places where you can stumble into, stay for 72 hours, dance your arse off and do all the dirty things with whomever you like in whatever dark corner, and stumble back out of. Warschauer Strasse is still littered with drunk Punks and guys openly trying to sell you the lowest grade weed available. There is a new independent coffee shop opening literally every other week making coffee that drips slower than the last place that just opened the week before. Artists still want to move here because although rent prices are going up, Berlin is still a hell of a lot more affordable than London or New York. I just pray to the party gods it stays that way.
Photography: Mariana, Post-Production: Rae Tashman