Die Gentrifizierung: A City Always Changing
Anyone know what's up with the helicopter(s) over Friedrichshain tonight?
It was an otherwise normal weeknight mid-January, and my social media post hadn’t garnered much peer response. I spun my wheels deploying a number of unsuccessful search terms before finally establishing that said uncharacteristic helicopter action had occurred in conjunction with a massive police raid on the squatter-controlled building at Rigaer Straße 94. This was, evidently, a culmination of long-standing tensions between “the far-left scene” and law enforcement. The raid, which some critics had labeled excessive posturing, was followed some weeks later by a protest march through Friedrichshain. And very recently, further developments take the form of threatened lawsuits and retaliatory burning of cars.
Now, I won’t pretend to understand the complicated particulars of what’s going on. One or two English-language articles are unlikely to tell the whole story. However, one familiar point of contention replays again and again in these disputes: the infamous G-word.
My first real conversation on the topic happened to unfold at a Goa party. It was my first summer in Berlin and my German was woefully lacking, so I was at the mercy of those few sweet hippies who could accommodate in English. Having described to one guy the relief I felt in coming to Berlin after the economic brutalities of San Francisco, he countered that a similar creature was growing within Berlin, though he floundered, trying to summon the English word for it, offering instead, “… die Gentrifizierung??”
Ah, ok, I know this one. Gentrification.
Thus followed my induction into the complicated fabric that is the changing face of Berlin, as well as, uncomfortably, my implication in the part we play, my partner and I, quickly learning that we represent a relatively new wave of economic influx in Berlin. My partner moved us here for one of those prized tech jobs working for one of those exceedingly rare “unicorn” startups. Honestly, for the first several months, we’d been too swept up in adjusting to expat life to give it much thought. Privilege, man.
And two years later, we’re still living in Friedrichshain, having fallen in love with the sometimes-gritty, unapologetically unkempt nature of our Kiez: its punks and hippies and surly East Berlin keepin-it-real flavor. Two years isn’t very long in the scope of things, but it’s long enough to note a progressive pull toward transformation and redevelopment, and the inevitable loss of identity that results. Construction scaffolding which seemed a permanent fixture does indeed eventually come away to reveal … shiny, new condos.
At this point in time, Friedrichshain is generally referred to as gentrified. As in, the process has been completed. But if that were true, 500 policemen wouldn’t be raiding a squatter house. Rather, the process continues, incomplete as yet, but surely inexorable.
A Changing Local Landscape
We hear a lot of protest about rising rent costs and the impact on residents. Surely I’ve noted the different faces that have come and gone in my building. The same displacement concerns also affect local businesses, as I’m naively becoming aware. I just hadn’t thought about it before. Some manage to hang on and evolve, while others fall away.
Looking at my immediate surroundings, the Bäckerei downstairs knows what’s up. Just a few weeks ago they upgraded all their old retro yellow-on-red signage to something with more contemporary appeal. New precision LEDs shine on through daytime and into the night—actually they never turn off. I feel for the neighbors across the street. Bäckerei lookin’ sharp tho.
On the other hand, last year the Späti across the street closed down. This was a tiny closet of a space, but host to a close-knit group of regulars—I can’t count how many conversations I interrupted taking my goods to the Kasse. On the weekends the owner pushed his cultivated techno tastes from an unexpectedly decent sound system. And then abruptly they were gone. Nothing else has moved into their spot yet, but it’s coming. Meanwhile, the regulars have relocated to the other Späti around the corner, the same crew hanging out front with their dogs and their bottles. The weathered woman who occasionally talks cryptically about forced evictions whilst doting on my dog. Or the one gentleman who likes to hurl a hearty “Moin!” at us some mornings.
When we first moved in there was also a dress shop next door, which closed later that same year. It lay empty a long time before a Coming Soon sign announced an imminent “sugaring” salon. They put a lot of work into fixing up the space. It’s very posh now—which makes it a weird fit here amongst our more scruffy elements. I see other shops opening up further down the street, hand-stenciled signs and eclectic window dressing.
At the same time, there’s a scrappy dive bar around the corner which caters to a middle-aged working class clientele with a passion Schlager music and darts. Echt Berliner. They’ve got a Facebook page and a small but dedicated following. It’s fascinating in a way, a slice of Berlin life which runs parallel to mine and yet never intersects.
A Window into the Past
On a lark, I had a little virtual walk-around my neighborhood on Google Maps Street View. The images are dated from 2008.
I start at the then-scarred front doors of the Altbau where I live and then looked for my familiar anchors: the Bäckerei, the Blumenladen, the Asian Supermarkt, the dive bar, the Späti around the corner. The former techno Späti is there too, and my heart gives a little ache for them.
In 2008 everything looks older, dirtier, less inviting. Walls overflow with graffiti tags in places where today they’re mostly scarce. Empty lots are staggered here and there. I see a lot more windows shuttered, a lot more “zu vermieten” signs in spaces which today house mod minimalist offices and bright coworking spaces occupied by young stylish professionals. Today we also have a lot more restaurants and hair salons.
Also, the number of Kitas in the vicinity appear to have doubled since 2008. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are currently at least six schools within a one-block radius of our building. Not gonna lie, this (at the time paradoxical) family-friendliness had also been a plus for us. However, uneasy whispers on the wind say that Friedrichshain will soon be the new Prenzlauer Berg—oh shit, is that what we’re progressing toward?
A City is Always Changing
Of course there are limits to what you can infer from Google Maps. It’s like poring over a grainy old photograph with a magnifying glass. You can’t peer inside shops and ask about business particulars. You can’t tell from signage alone the quality of service. You can’t get a feel for the people on the streets. It’s an imperfect tool, but it does give a sense of the pace of change in terms of our surroundings. A city is always changing, good or bad.
And finally, you also get a sense of those final hold-outs, pockets which are still “feral”, which refuse to be tamed, like houses along Rigaer Straße or Liebigstraße. Or like Scharni 38 with their iconic grenade-shaped metal gate, the building plastered over with posters and graffiti: anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-gentrification, you got it. One of their murals was very recently painted over with the words “NIEMAND MUSS BULLE SEIN”—nobody has to be a cop. I’ve seen this elsewhere in the neighborhood. It reminds us of ongoing conflicts here in Berlin, as well as echoing similar systemic struggles elsewhere in the world.
And this leads us back to the helicopters, to the squatter houses, to the protest marches, to the car burnings—to the incomplete picture we have most of the time unless we go searching out the intricate details. As expats, the history and nuance of the communities in which we come to live is often lost on us, caught as we are in the mad scramble to learn the basics. It’s easy to get swept up in the immediacy of our own lives and not recognize the roles we play in shaping our surroundings. We could do better. Even if the knowing doesn’t (and can’t) change the immediate outcome—re: the displacement of those falling by the socio-economic wayside—that awareness gives us a better connectivity to one another, and a better capacity to learn from one another. It’s a decent place to start.
By Eileen Carelock
Images © Eileen Carelock
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.