Posted by: Hackney Tours | November 3, 2009

Berlin’s steady gentrification: progress or pestilence?

If you can't beat 'em...

Berlin has always been fought over: in 1919 doomed pre-Weimar Spartacists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – who gave their names to many a GDR street – were executed after street battles here.

1945 saw the climax of WW2 as the fascist rearguard tried to resist the communist vanguard; and the Red Army rolled out its tanks again in ’53 as they crushed a postwar post-Wall rebellion by unhappy East Berliners.

This tradition continues today, only the fight is a less dramatic one, and one that is mirrored in countless cities across the world. The resistance movement is a grassroots organisation made up of an eclectic coalition of comrades in metaphorical arms.

Artists, activists, anarchists and even some elements of the media have banded together against a perceived common enemy: gentrification.

Prenzlauerberg was once a bastion of edgy cool, but now this former working class GDR district is derided by the some as Schickimicki – or Yuppy. A legacy of the economic boom in 80s London, the Y-word is still seen here: usually in the form of black stencilled letters on walls, and often accompanied by sentiments like “get out”.

It is very much a talking point in a city which is so lifestyle-focused. Cars have been burned in Friedrichshain, which was up and coming for some time but can’t now be far from crossing that grey line into the territory of the passé. This month’s Exberliner highlights the debate as it takes stock of 20 years in post-Wall Berlin.

Wedding is said by some to be a ‘place to be’ candidate in a year or two. This weekend at the Stattbad – a swimming pool turned exhibition space – a Burning Man-style art installation will give more than a nod to the Berlin Wall anniversary (and yes, they did take the water out first).

But the following weekend will see a festival devoted to the weighty issue of saving Berlin. But saving Berlin from what? Capitalism? Progress? Yuppification? A Prussian aesthetic removed from all historical context? It depends who you talk to. Save Berlin says: “Creeping gentrification is pushing up rents and killing the vibrant mix of cultures, demographics and architecture.”

But isn’t this what the people of East Berlin pushed so hard for back in 1989? Didn’t they clamour for the modernity they so clearly lacked? Didn’t they want the gleaming shopping malls where the consumer is King and the Deutschmark in the pocket brought the dignity of choice? Didn’t they daydream of the shiny shallow pleasure of consumerism?

This takes investment, which inevitably means the grubby lexicon of commerce comes into play: words like capital, supply, demand – and profit. Everyone wants to live somewhere pleasant, but not so pleasant that lots of other people want to live there too: pushing up rents and resulting in a kind of socio-economic cleansing.

This phenomenon mirrors the central irony of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Everyone wants to find this mythical stretch of san, the unspoilt paradise know only to a select few. And it’s always others who spoil it. Yet in their pursuit of this idyll they become part of the process that inevitably leads to the ‘destruction’ of Eden.

Walking down Kastanienallee in Schickimicki Prenzlauerberg, I can see the process at work. Once – enjoying my own personal in-joke – I took pictures of ‘yummy mummies’ pushing buggies under a club sign that said “Bastard”.

It’s still like the Indianapolis 500 for pushchairs here, but the B-word has succumbed to the G-word: a collection of silver sequins now advertise the Volksbühne Prater theatre. And you can bet your bottom Euro none of that will be free.

Even the collective-run cafe Morgenrot where I’m typing this has undergone a facelift and looks disturbingly light and airy; glitzy even. There’s a Wilde quote for every occasion and every subject – even gentrification – especially when you paraphrase: “There’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want. And that’s getting it.”

(See this music video Hey hey schöner Szenetyp! parodying hipsters in places like P’berg. The title basically translates as “Hey Pretty Scenester”.)

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