Berlin: Alienated City

Novelist and journalist Annett Gröschner on Berlin’s gentrification and loss of inner-city diversity…


One evening last summer—I’d been in Berlin for exactly thirty years to the day—I was walking along Schönhauser Allee. I wanted to recall my emotions back then, the first time I walked that same stretch and the first time I understood the phrase “city air sets you free”. It was an elated feeling that didn’t last for ever, but it did determine my relationship to Berlin.

At the crossroads with Eberswalder Straße that July day in 2013, I came across a young couple carrying a mattress and all sorts of other luggage across the street. The mattress was not new and it offered passers-by a map of life lived, but the couple were young and exuberant; at one point they were laughing so much they got out of step and had to put the mattress down for a moment. I hadn’t seen that kind of moving going on in the area for a long time—nowadays people drive up in extra-long removal trucks with the names of international cities on the sides of them.

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present.

Prenzlauer Berg in the 1980s. Photographer unknown.
Prenzlauer Berg in the 1980s. Photographer unknown.

Much has been written and discussed in recent years about gentrification, or “Gentrifithingummy”, as the Hamburg author Christoph Twickel called it. Originating in sociology, the term is often misunderstood and misused either to verbally repatriate Swabians from Berlin to Baden-Württemberg or to suggest to East Germans that their time between stucco ceilings and wooden floorboards has run out.

For the sociologist Andrej Holm gentrification is not a lifestyle phenomenon but a process within the housing economy. It goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of the market economy into a market society, which vets everything, including housing, for economic efficiency.

All the world’s desirable inner cities have the problem that long-term residents can no longer afford to live there since the high-income middle classes have begun to turn their back on villas in the green belt in favour of repurposing multi-storey buildings for many tenants into luxury city pads for only themselves.

In Berlin, this is a gradual process, but the flight of capital into property has accelerated that process considerably over the past few months, and Germany’s actually strict tenants’ rights have been increasingly replaced by the right of the stronger party—in other words of the property’s owner over its tenant.

This process began in the mid-1990s, when a major transformation of rented to owner-occupied apartments began in the inner-city boroughs, while the number of housing cooperatives was kept low and publicly owned rental apartments were sold off on a grand scale, interestingly enough under the SPD-Linke coalition city government. Up to that point Berlin had been regarded as a tenants’ city, with only tiny numbers of owner-occupied homes inside the S-Bahn circle line that generally demarcates the inner city.

James Hobrecht's building plan for Berlin (1863)
James Hobrecht’s building plan for Berlin (1863)

It is a forgotten fact that the Bismarck-era neighbourhoods now so much in demand were a place of speculation even when they were first built. When implementing James Hobrecht’s 1862 development plan, every decorative square, every larger courtyard or front garden had to be wrested out of the urban housing construction companies, which were interested solely in profit.

The construction of the residential complexes soon referred to as “rental barracks”, complete with front buildings, side wings and one to five courtyards progressively further back from the street, was a largely botched job with long snag lists. Despite this, the houses proved surprisingly robust. The only things that could do them any harm were the Allied bombs and the post-war urban planners, who wanted to raze entire neighbourhoods to the ground but only succeeded in the Wedding district, in Berlin at least.

James Hobrecht remained a lifelong proponent of socially mixed living in Berlin’s tenement buildings, where depending on the location the more or less bourgeois families resided in the spacious apartments in the front, the owners usually on the first floor, while the poorer tenants shared the outside toilets in the rear building.

According to Hobrecht’s conviction, this diversity guaranteed a social mix, integrated new arrivals more quickly and prevented the formation of slums. He also believed that social exchange could level class antagonisms. The concept was subject to much criticism, yet it worked better than the decoupling of housing and workplaces determined by the Athens Charter in the 1950s, which led to the building of housing complexes on the edges of cities and the neglect of their centres.

A conversion of rented accommodation areas into owner-occupier communities, around which fences can be built as required, will change Berlin more than the proud conquerors of these quarters would care for. The question is, how much segregation can the city stand—politically, socially and culturally?

In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same, just as the houses are only distinguishable from the outside by the shade of pastel paint applied over the heat-insulating Styrofoam façades.

Is such a segregation not much more expensive from the frequently invoked efficiency standpoint, because the residents of the lagging districts on the edges of town have to be kept away from the inner-city population, who fear for their property? Even now, most of those who keep the city’s infrastructure running as police officers, shop assistants, primary teachers, tram drivers and cleaning staff live outside the circle line. And what is the added value when an organic food store displaces a Vietnamese-run greengrocer’s?

What began as cautious urban renewal in Berlin’s Bismarck-era neighbourhoods in the 1970s, ended without the adjective. At an event honouring the great doyen of social urban renewal, Hardt-Waltherr Hämer, who gave us the words “Living means staying”, one of his successors responded to the question of whether it was not a defeat that more than 80 percent of the social milieus they wanted to maintain had now been replaced with the claim that there had been no longstanding social communities left in Prenzlauer Berg by the 1980s, and so nothing requiring protection from displacement.

Corner of Schönhauser Allee, Eberswalder Strasse and Kastanienallee today
Corner of Schönhauser Allee, Eberswalder Strasse and Kastanienallee today. Image via Wikipedia.

As though all the people who walked along Schönhauser Allee thirty years ago were merely zombies passing through. And a Green Party city councillor recently accused those complaining of exclusion that they were to blame themselves, because they considered it “suspicious to buy property” back when it was allegedly affordable. Some former civil rights activists, it seems, cannot understand that there are people who are not willing or able to participate in selling out the city.

Michael Voigtländer from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research recently claimed on the Tagesschau evening news that rental households in popular cities such as Munich, Hamburg or Berlin would have to adapt and make way by moving out to the surrounding areas. The inner-city belongs to its owners—that was his answer to the question “Whose city is it anyway?”

In my thirtieth year, Berlin is beginning to become a stranger to me. But that’s still no reason to turn my back on the city. Instead, it’s a clarion call to defend it against its conversion from an integration machine into a competition machine.

This article is a translation of the German original by London-born Katy Derbyshire, a long-term Berlin resident who translates contemporary German authors, including Clemens Meyer, Helene Hegemann, Tilman Rammstedt and Inka Parei. She also writes a monthly column for the Tagesspiegel, Going Dutch with German Writers and blogs at love german books.

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