The Berlin Reader: Q&A with Andrej Holm

A chat with Berlin’s leading gentrification specialist about a book that tracks some of the city’s post-Wende urban development… 

The Berlin Reader is an anthology of socio-political writings about Berlin that were (mostly) previously published in German and has now translated into English for the first time.

Edited by Matthias Bernt (senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning in Erkner), Britta Grell (political scientist, lecturer and author based in Berlin) and sociologist and leading gentrification specialist Andrej Holm (Department of Urban and Regional Sociology at Berlin’s Humboldt University), the essays and articles in the book cover a wide range of issues, from tourism and protest to housing and the local economy.

Whether you’re a resident, tourist, scholar or activist, the anthology provides many invaluable insights into the city’s urban development since the fall of the Wall…


What was the original idea behind publishing The Reader Berlin? 

AH: There are a lot of texts on these subjects in German, but none in English, so we thought it was relevant.

Was the book originally conceived for academics, or did you specifically compile it for a wider audience?

AH: Urban sociology is close to public discourse; that’s what sets it apart from other social sciences. So even though the book is academic, it’s also accessible. Everyone can read it. In fact it’s my first book that’s available in the big bookshops. The German ones I have written are all hidden away in academic libraries.

People tend to see Berlin as a uniquely free and tolerant city, but your book tends to rip away that veil.

AH: Yes, when you look at what has been going on at a political level, it isn’t so easy to call Berlin a ‘city of freedom’. There are still special area with rules that allow police forces to control people without concrete permits or authorization. In fact Berlin has more than 20 such areas, which are unknown to most. The U8 and U7 lines are still regarded as Danger Zones, even though they were created as such in the 1990s. Helmholtzplatz and Mauerpark too. Although they ‘cleaned up’ the problems, the zones and special powers remain.

Andrej Holm - photo courtesy of Andrej Holm
Andrej Holm – photo courtesy of Andrej Holm

How is Berlin compared to cities London or New York in terms of gentrification.

AH: Berlin has developed in a different way. Rising housing costs are actually higher than London and Paris, which is shocking. Gentrification has traditionally been a neighbourhood issue in the other cities, but in Berlin in the last five or six years, the issue is spreading through most parts of the innercity, which is new. It’s also interesting here, because Berlin has a longer history of poorer people living in these innercity zones. If you look at Paris or London, the poorer people have traditionally lived outside the centre, but here in Berlin the innercity is actually home to some of the lowest incomes. In Neukölln, for example, more than 70% of children are living on some kind of social benefit, which is a shocking statistic. You will also find such neighbourhoods in other cities, but never right in the middle of the city.

The issue of gentrification in Berlin is quite unique in that it presumably harks back to recent historic events such as World War 2 and subsequent division…

AH: Berlin was not the winner of reunificiation in an economic sense. In the first years, some important political structures moved here, but in terms of economic structures, industries here collapsed on both sides of the former wall. One of the biggest differences between Berlin and other cities is that it’s the poorest capital in the richest country. But because of its global status, people here don’t compare rents to German levels, but to international ones. Ten euros per square metre is no problem for most of the internationals who come here, which in turn of course influences the rent prices for everyone else.

The international aspect of Berlin is actually quite new and fascinating. There has been a lot of press about Berlin being “over” recently, but these pieces are published in music and lifestyle magazines, i.e. not political publications, and with absolutely no academic studies to back things up. Still, these international judgements threw the local Berlin newspapers into disarray. They seriously began discussing how Berlin’s cool can be rescued.

It reminds of me how Berlin has almost always had an inferiority complex in terms of more ‘worldly’ cities such as Paris and London…

AH: It’s comparable in some ways, but more in a cultural than an economic sense. The internationalization of Berlin, those people who live here for more than a few months, are strongly dependant on the current European context. The flow from the East is usually economically impelled, whereas that of the West tends to be cultural.

A popular notion these days seems to be that Berlin will be like Manhattan or London in 30 years, i.e. too expensive for anyone but bankers and art dealers, and with a correspondingly squashed subcultural scene. Do you agree?

AH: The specific routes forward depend on political legislation and so on. But all the breaks within Berlin’s urban structure, those that have traditionally allowed political mobilization and confrontation, and open public discourse, will no doubt ensure that Berlin will develop in another way. I cannot prophesy the direction of course, but the city certainly has the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other cities.

Is this an advantage of the ‘late-start’ engendered by the city’s division and subsequent reunification?

AH: Yes, this is more or less an advantage, but needs to be recognised and applied. The politicians need to be made aware that gentrification is not only this positive market force, that it has negative aspects too. Up until 2012 or even 2013, the official take was that gentrification was simply a fantastic way of bringing money into the city. Rising rents were seen as positive. But I have seen that changing and have heard deeper dialogue about the consequences. Today it’s more accepted that urban developers and politicians alike are thinking about the problems as well as the benefits.

It is heartening that politicians are now using gentrification as a dirty word. For many years, many urban politicians and governments simply banned the word from their official speak. You won’t find it in an official US or UK policy paper, for example; euphemisms like “revitalisation” are used instead. This is changing now and is perhaps a sign that politicians are at last understanding it as a topic they have to deal with.

Many ex-pats who would like to be more politically active are frustrated about their lack of voting rights in the city. What do you think about this?

AH: Expats not being able to vote is a real problem. We have a growing number of active people in an economic sense as well as cultural, really dominating in some neighbourhoods, and they have no citizenship or formal rights to decide about local politics. It’s more than a problem actually, it’s a question of democracy. I think it’s a common problem in many cities; lots of people with economic and cultural status but no political status whatsoever. 

Is there something else people can do to help resist the negative aspects of the gentrification trend? Should we refuse high rents for example?

AH: I’m sceptical about campaigns like this. There is basically so much competition for each apartment, and it’s human nature to want to have the place you want and not turn it down. It’s not a good strategy to blame the next neighbourhood generation, the people coming and paying more since that just leaves people with a bad conscience. The real problem is that there are social inequalities already apparent in the urban market, and the political regulations need to look at this. In fact there is state-organised segregation, more or less.

The best thing is to join in with local communities, help them create slogans and organise events as many immigrant or elderly communities, for example, are not able to since they don’t have the experience or the motivation. One evening a week dedicated to neighbourhood meetings, helping to write press materials and organise things can be very useful to achieve a fairer social balance for everyone.

You can keep up to date on Berlin’s ongoing gentrification issues via Andrej’s dedicated blog (mostly in German) or by following him on Twitter.