Berlin Residents Unsettled by Wave of Gentrification
Since the Berlin Wall fell, the gentrification of some eastern neighborhoods has been ongoing. But as high-end development spreads, some are saying: enough. They fear Berlin's character could be irrevocably changed.
Mario Feist remembers that there used to be bakeries and small grocery shops in the Oderberger Strasse when he first moved there in 1989. Today, it is much easier to get a latte macchiato or a 150-euro shirt outside his front door than a loaf of bread or carton of milk.
He has watched as his street has been transformed from a dreary road marked by crumbling facades to a hip thoroughfare of renovated buildings, expensive boutiques and trendy cafés, whose sidewalks often resemble a fashion catwalk on sunny weekends.
It's a metamorphosis that he's not completely comfortable with, especially since it could take on a whole new dimension once the 12,000-square-meter development of luxury apartments being constructed just outside his back window is completed.
Called Marthashof, it will house around 500 people, and since the square meter price for the townhouses starts at 3,000 euros, the large influx into the neighborhood will be quite well off.
"It could become a very sterile place just for rich people and not the kind of place I'd want to live," he said. "I want to have different kinds of people here."
His concerns are not his alone. As Berlin's gentrification process spreads to encompass more and more neighborhoods, people are beginning to push back at what they see as a danger to a vibrant, diverse city of neighborhoods featuring people of different social and economic backgrounds.
In some neighborhoods, like Feist's Prenzlauer Berg, gentrification has been happening for years. But as Berlin continues to pull in more investment and its international reputation attracts more wealthy people, the neighborhood has seen a construction boom in luxury apartments and townhouses, which, in comparison to London, New York or Paris, can still be had on the cheap.
The fears are that as more wealthy people move in to an area, their up-market tastes will be reflected in businesses that set up shop and rents will go up, pricing out lower and middle-income people.
Feist said he's already seen it happen in his street, when a Greek restaurateur was forced to move out after his rent was tripled when the building housing his eatery changed hands.
"Gentrification is not a good or bad thing in itself," said Antje Seidel-Schuelze, a researcher at the German Institute of Urban Affairs. "In one way, the districts where it happens become better. But long-established people in a neighborhood are often replaced by wealthier people. That leads to a certain homogeneity."
Same old same
It's that threat of sameness that riles Patrik Technau, a 23-year-old student and Prenzlauer Berg native who recently organized a protest rally near Marthashof and another high-end development that attracted 500 people. His event capped a week of demonstrations across Berlin by mostly left-wing groups who say they are against the rapid development and reconstruction of the city. During the protests, at least 30 cars were set ablaze.
"New people are moving here from abroad or other parts of Germany and driving out people who've lived here 40 or 50 years," he said. "That's not fair and it makes me very angry."
And while once the gentrification seemed limited to central neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, it's spreading, said Andrej Holm, a professor at Berlin's Humbolt University who studies gentrification. That is what is causing the anger to rise. As people were priced out of one neighborhood, they would move. But often the gentrification wave would follow, forcing them to move again.
Now, neighborhoods that were usually seen as immune to the process, and have been long-time enclaves of ethnic communities or artists and bohemians, are attracting professionals who are tired of the boutiques and bars, and are looking for something more "authentic." Problem is, say researchers, that the lattes, renovations and higher rents aren't usually very far behind.
Keeping the mix
According to Holm, city governments have several instruments that can keep neighborhoods on their way up from losing their diversity, such as rent control mechanisms or the construction of new social housing, even in gentrified neighborhoods. But he said Berlin has generally abandoned these tools, particularly when it comes to low-rent housing.
"In the few lots where there is still space for construction, only things like luxury townhouses and gated communities are going up," he said. "The city seems to think if we increase the number of high-end apartments, it can attract the kind of people that will also improve Berlin's economic situation."
But while the upper-income influx might lift a few economic boats in Berlin, it could strand people like Claudia Hering, who along with Mario Feist is part of a citizens' initiative called AIM which wants changes to the Marthashof development. "We are afraid that in two or three years we won't be able to live here anymore," she said. But would she even want to? According to researcher Seidel-Schuelze, gentrification often makes people want to leave their own neighborhoods, no matter what their history there. Not only can they perhaps no longer afford it, the new look and feel can make the place not seem like home anymore.
"I know some people who used to live (in Prenzlauer Berg) in the GDR and they say it's not my district anymore and I don't want to be with these new DINKs -- double income, no kids people," she said. "They're just not part of that world."
Kyle James | www.dw-world.de | Â© Deutsche Welle.
Broad sidewalk cafes, Berlin?s oldest beer garden and the boutiques between restaurants and bars make the former working class district of Prenzlauer Berg, or Prenzl?berg, a great place to people-watch. It?s one of the most desirable places to live among artsy singles and young couples.
Prenzl?berg has come a long way since its East German days when there was no such thing as ?hip? and the only colour amongst the putty-coloured façades were the dyed hair of punks. Since German reunification, half of the façades have been restored and brightly painted ? the rare few by landlords who have reclaimed the properties their families lost when fleeing Nazi Germany, but the punks have been pushed out by rent hikes. Though fine restoration jobs on turn-of-the-20th century tenement houses seem to suggest an original splendour, life here was hard scrabble for the new arrivals in the late 1800s. Drawn by factory work, Prenzlauer Berg residents multiplied to 350,000 by the 1920s, making the area one of the most cramped in Europe. In 1927, less than half of the households had electricity. Now it is electric.
The post-1990 gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg began around Kollwitzplatz,which is named after the artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). She lived on Knaackstr. from 1891 to 1943, and in 1919 was the first woman inducted into the Prussian Art Academy. Her most prominent sculpture is the one in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden, Germany?s national war memorial. Her artwork mostly depicts the hunger, poverty, and hoped-for revolution of the people who had become the waste of the Industrial Revolution and war. The Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum (Fasanenstr. 24; Wed - Mon 11:00 -18:00) is actually in Charlottenburg, but Kollwitz?s plain but solid likeness is represented by a sculpture in the square opposite her former home. She?d be happy to see how well-fed the neighbours are today. There?s a weekly organic food market on the square, and President Clinton even came to dine here at Gugelhof while on a state visit.
There aren?t museums to speak of in Prenzlauer Berg, but you can still sightsee. The Jüdischer Friedhof (Jewish Cemetery, Schönhauser Allee 22-23) borders Kollwitzstr. and its gravestones include that of local Expressionist painter Max Liebermann. An older Jewish cemetery in Mitte was totally desecrated by the Nazis in the 1930s, and this one fell victim to East German neo-Nazis in 1988. Many gravestones remain, however. On the way from here to the Rykestrasse Synagogue (Rykestr. 53), you?ll pass the 30m high, round redbrick Wasserturm (water tower; Belforter Strasse), built in 1877. Lace curtains in its windows prove that there is a market for pie-shaped apartments. The synagogue was built in 1904 and is hardly noticeable in the back courtyard. This position in a residential area probably saved it from being burned during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. A look inside is by appointment only (tel. 442 59 31).
In GDR days, to be a punk was a defiant rebuke to the Socialist State but as soon as the Wall fell, a free, democratic market did what the dictatorship never could: push the punks out. One talented neighbourhood punk who made a name for herself back in the GDR days keeps an apartment in a fairly crummy, back courtyard building in an un-hip part of Prenzlauer Berg: singer Nina Hagen. The diva (born 1955) can still pull off ponytails and makes one suspect that heavy eyeliner is a secret anti-aging potion. She grew up in Prenzlauer Berg and scored her first hit, You Forgot the Color Film in 1974. Two years later she left for West Germany with her mother and substitute father, Wolf Biermann, a folksinger expelled by the GDR. At www.nina-hagen.com you can get a sample of her strong and gravelly Eartha Kitts-meets-Carol Channing voice, as well as generous information on her life and social activism.
Culture, if not so counter anymore, bounces between the brick walls of the Kulturbrauerei (Sredzkistr. 1, plus other entrances; see box). This 19th century brewery complex shut down production in 1967, but it now makes a living on the night shift. From here, you can stumble south on Kastanienallee, which is full of more restaurants, bars, and several funky shops. Or, head north to the U-Bahn Eberswalderstr. to speed to your next destination. If you didn?t fill up on food at the beer garden, grab a curry wurst to-go from Konnopkes Imbiss (under the U-Bahn tracks between Schönhauser Allee and Danziger Str.). It?s been grilling sausages since 1930 and along with Prater, is one of the icons of the neighbourhood.
Tourist Information Centre
Prenzlauer Berg is the first area in Berlin with its own tourist information centre, inside the Kulturbrauerei complex near the Eberswalderstrasse U-Bahn station. The staff can book accommodation and inform you about events in the area, nightlife, guided walks, and about what to see in Prenzlauer Berg. The centre is also involved in erecting German and English-language signs throughout the district with information for visitors. Visit their English-language website before exploring the area.
TIC Prenzlauer Berg, Schönhauser Allee 36, Kulturbrauerei, tel. 44 35 21 70, www.tic-in-prenzlauerberg.de. Open 12:00 ? 18:00, Thu-Sat 12:00 ? 20:00.
A word with Pro Prenzlauer Berg
The Pro Prenzlauer Berg association has been involved in the development of the touristic infrastructure and the regional marketing of the district for over 11 years, and strives to bring the eclectic attractions of this wonderful, creative Kiez to the attention of Berliners as well as tourists; ?It?s simply delightful to walk through the streets and to give yourself over to the district?s buzzing atmosphere. For me it?s the most exciting part of Berlin?. Sascha Hilliger, Hotelier and Chairman of the Board, Berlin Pro Prenzlauer Berg e. V., www.pro-prenzlauerberg.de
Something's brewing here
The block in the northwestern corner of Prenzlauer Berg holds the KulturBrauerei (?culture brewery?), one of Berlin's gems; a nightlife Mecca that with its red bricks, towers and chimneystacks resembles an old town setting. A cobblestone pedestrian way courses through the center of the former beer brewery, whose 20 buildings with 40,000 square meters are filled with bars, restaurants, clubs, galleries and a cinema. Now that it's also home to the district's tourist information centre (see elsewhere), it has established itself as the best place to start and end a day in the Kiez (district). 20,000 visitors each weekend can't be wrong; this is one of Berlin's special corners.