Ask überlin: Don’t you feel responsible for Berlin’s gentrification nightmare?

by James Glazebrook

As a Berlin blog run by expats, who try to help other internationals make a life for themselves here, we’re used to being targeted by locals angry about the gentrification of their city. But we were taken aback by the vitriol behind John John’s comment on our original Ask überlin… ANYTHING post:

Did you notice that the Graefekiez is now Berlin’s most expensive area ? That many people are leaving because they can’t afford it ? Did you notice that Kreuzberg is NOT cool anymore ? Don’t you feel responsible for the gentrification nightmare of your Kiez ? How much did you purchase your flat and how much do you expect to sale it ? Do you still feel welcome in Kreuzberg despite the fact that most people there obviously hate the kind of person you represent – long-term tourists with no connection to Germany or Berlin ? Are you aware that Berlin is QUICKLY losing all the things that made the city special ? How does it feel to be an english hipster caricature in a city where english hipsters are not welcome anymore ?

I’ve given a lot of thought to our response, because John John has a couple of valid points. Sometimes we do present ourselves (jokingly) as hipster caricatures – this comment came about a week after I dicked about for the You know you’re a Berliner when… photos. And, as people willing and able to pay higher rents than those who used to live in our Kiez, we are part of the problem… But the comment’s xenophobia, false assumptions (we rent, and have no plans to buy) and faulty argument – that we are responsible for an economic process much larger than ourselves – deserve to be addressed.

Ares Kalandides, the blogger behind Place Management & Branding, put it better than I could and kindly gave us permission to republish one of his posts. He may be talking about Neukölln rather than Kreuzberg, and responding to an old, notorious anti-Touri video, but what he says applies equally to our neighbourhood and  our situation:

This short film appeared about 2 years ago on the web. It is called “offending the clientele” and that’s pretty much what it does. But what’s the issue here? Who’s offending whom? And why? This is about Neukölln in Berlin and the story is not a straightforward one. It’s the story of a perceived invasion with strange aftertones of a very reactionary “sense of place”: “Help! We are being attacked by foreigners! They happen to be tourists, but just the same! It’s them against us“.

Once upon a time, not very long ago, Neukölln was a Berlin neighbourhood with the worst reputation you could get. Mayors and ministers stigmatized it as ghetto, poverty was visible everywhere, violence was supposed to be growing in its streets. And then a couple of years ago something started to move. Students who could not afford the more expensive areas of Friedrichshain or even Kreuzberg started discovering Neukölln for themselves. Bars, clubs, fashion shops and cafés began opening up – first catering to a local student community, but very soon to a broader international mobile scene of young discount travellers.

If you think about it, this is not really a unique story. Germans simply take it for granted that they are tourists, invading the whole world – every summer or winter resort. But also, there is no spot on earth no matter how far away, how hidden, how protected, that does not fall victim of these voracious visitors. Now suddenly somebody has turned the tables on them: Berlin in general, Neukölln in particular, have become a favourite destination for tourists who – let’s be honest – are very very much like the local student scene. Actually, what they are looking for in this case is not difference, but similarity. Neukölln feels so familiar for the creative party crowds no matter where they come from. Now Italians and Spaniards are “invading” Berlin as their countries have been invaded for decades (ever heard of Mallorca? Or Venice?..). It reminds me so much of the rhetoric of former European colonial powers, who now wonder what all the formerly colonized are doing among them.

So what’s exactly the trouble? In a sense, a very real one. Who wants to be the animal in the zoo, being watched, observed, scrutinized? Who wants her/his lifestyle commodified and consumed for somebody else’s pleasure? When the beer you bought yesterday for 2 Euros is suddenly 3, because your pub has become so popular with tourists, of course it’s an issue. Ask the Spanish, Italian, Greeks, Turks who’ve had that kind of thing for decades and they’ll agree.  So the problem is not that it’s happening, it’s just that now it’s happening to us. Weird logic…

Of course gentrification is not a joke. It means that people with a lower income will very probably have to move away and that does not only include students. It may mean the real urban poor, the ones who have very very little and not really a choice. Probably also the ones with the strongest attachments to the neighbourhood, explained by their relative lack of mobility. Gentrification produces very real losers. And it’s not just “the way things are”, as a desperately naive Neukölln caterer from Detroit put it: it is the result of political choices, laws and regulations put together to produce just that effect.

It’s just that this video is not really about gentrification, if you think about it, is it? It’s not about the poor and the rich, it’s about us and them. And that is what makes it so absolutely offensive.

What do you think? We’re interested in having a real discussion about the gentrification of Berlin, so please leave your thoughts, opinions and ideas in the comments below.