Learning to love the G-word

Gentrification. There, we said it. Shudder all you want, but rent prices aren't the only changes Berlin's been through in the past few decades. Even long-time residents are thankful for the open-mindedness and decreased crime that have tagged along.

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Photo by Hugo333 (Photocase)

Yes, Berlin is gentrifying, but it’s mostly for the better. Maybe it’s time we got over it.

In 2012, five months after I moved here, I watched the sunrise from a fifth-floor Neukölln club. A beautiful Berlin view, marred only by the Austrian guy lecturing me on expat-fuelled rental increases and flat evictions. On my way home, I biked past countless angry scrawlings: Touristen fisten! Hipsters raus! Die yuppie scum! That club’s closed now; thank noise complaints from the new neighbours.

Look, nobody (well, except for landlords) wants high rents. No one cheers when a longtime WG has to break up due to an unaffordable new contract, and even “yuppie scum” transplants like me hate it when a favourite Kneipe is replaced by yet another place to buy €3.50 cappuccino. But guess what: changes like these are inevitable. Why not look on the bright side? 

Jörg, a barman at Weserstraße Eckkneipe Schilling, has watched Berlin transform since he moved to the Kottbusser Damm area 15 years ago, back when it was the last place a Berliner would want to live. “Now newcomers are interested in being here, and the original inhabitants want them to leave. It’s Hartz-IV people getting pissed off with those who came here to study now having proper jobs and being able to afford higher rents. It’s a shame, but Berlin really was too cheap before. And the types of people who are attracted to Berlin bring life to the city, so it will remain a special place.”

Gentrification is a heavily loaded and bitterly brandished term that serves to distract people from the fact that many of the last decade’s shifts have been for the better. In 2003, Berlin’s unemployment level stood at over 16 percent, but by November 2013, this figure had fallen to 11 percent. Crime has dropped over 12 percent since 2003; violent crime has plummeted by nearly one-third.

Arnold Mengelkoch is Neukölln’s officer for migrant affairs and has lived here since 1980 – a time when young people were practically bribed to move to isolated West Berlin by a loophole that exempted the city’s residents from West German military service. He has only happy things to say about the changes that have occurred since: “What’s happening in north Neukölln is very positive. Spaniards, Italians and Germans are realising their own creative ideas for businesses like hostels, bars, restaurants, shops and galleries, leaving less empty space for new shisha bars, where we’ve previously seen a lot of violent crime taking place. There was never a place to get a decent coffee or ice cream in Neukölln in the 1980s; now we’ve got Café Rix and Fräulein Frost. It’s a place to enjoy after dark now, but it’s still a traditionally working-class district and it isn’t going to lose its charm any time soon.” 

Native Berliner and former left-wing activist Björn von Swieykowski, of Festsaal Kreuzberg, Monarch, Paloma and Fahimi fame, says that pre-2008, the car park behind Kotti’s Kaisers complex was a drug den: “There were junkies on every storey. It was a place they’d go to as a very last resort, when they couldn’t find gear anywhere else. Three people died in there, either from overdosing or murder by stabbing. We couldn’t open Paloma for three or four weeks because they blocked the door by sitting in front of it. The development of Kotti meant that the police finally had to do something about it, removing them from the area for good.”

Same with Neukölln’s Schillerkiez, once dangerous and drug-filled, now downright gemütlich. Meanwhile, parts of East Berlin that were once depressing grey wastelands find themselves filled with new life. So what if Kollwitzplatz is boring and its cafés still serve substandard coffee despite the wealthy clientele? Pankow and Weißensee have, in recent years, become more colourful versions of their former stark GDR selves. Maybe the Altbau flat of your dreams costs more than it would have done a few years ago because it got renovated. But that’s the same process by which central heating systems replaced coal ovens, thus relieving you of early morning trips to the cellar and the chance of starting a fire by hanging clothes on the things.

“Yes, the Berlin of the past had incredibly cheap rents,” says Miron Zownir, a Karlsruhe-born photographer, filmmaker and writer who’s lived here on-and-off since the 1970s. “But it also had poor sanitation; rubbish polluted the city. It had a morbid charm, but I definitely don’t get nostalgic about it. Since reunification, Berlin has become an open city with a great reputation, international flair and lucrative prospects. Generally, change is better than stagnation. You can try to fight it, but progress wasn’t equipped with a brake for those that can’t keep up.”

Ever since Turks came to the West in the 1970s and the Vietnamese to the East in the late 1980s, Berlin’s hosted a mishmash of nationalities. In Zownir’s latest film Back to Nothing, 50 percent of his castings were “people from all over the world who didn’t fit into their native countries and don’t fit in here either.” As long as poor yet edgy areas like Neukölln and Wedding are in demand, their social fabrics will be rewoven. But in return, we get reduced crime, new places to hang out and even more of that multikulti feel we love Berlin for anyway. “I used to think new businesses popping up in my Kiez in Neukölln were annoying,” says Von Swieykowski. “I missed the ‘local’ feeling. But these people are creating their own livelihoods instead of working some shitty job they don’t like.”

UK expat Adam Fletcher of webshop The Hipstery and author of the lighthearted tome How to be German would rather we stopped using the G-word altogether: “Words like that obfuscate the real problem, stopping people channelling frustration at those who could alleviate it. If there’s not enough affordable housing, it’s a government failing. It’s dangerous to frame the discussion as something either positive or negative. It’s just a byproduct of a free market, providing cities with much-needed tax money to upgrade buildings and public infrastructure. Migration makes a city far more interesting to live in; stability leads to prejudice. I want to sit face to face on the U-Bahn with these people who, according to the media, are exploiting my tax money and taking my job when really, to judge them is to judge myself. We came here for the same reasons: to increase our quality of life and economic opportunities.”

In other words, we shouldn’t be mourning cheap rents; we should be protecting open-mindedness. Migration and change are happening, they’re not going to stop anytime soon, and they’re actually great for the city. We might as well enjoy the ride.

Originally published in issue #133, February 2014.