Twenty-four years ago Berlin had a reputation of division and social inequality. It is now 2013, and these obstacles still exist.
The term gentrification gets bandied about Berlin as often as ‘mad wae it’ does in Glasgow – but what does this word literally mean? Generally speaking it’s the rapid increase in popularity of a cheap area. Metaphorically, it’s families turfed out onto the streets.
Immigration and tourism are important factors, if not the main components, of this controversial subject. Two years ago the pertinence of gentrification became evident when 958 000 people arrived at the German border. This is the highest in sixteen years.
The influx stems from Germany’s immigration law, which allows relatively free movement within the labour market. The law originates from a need to balance an ageing population, with the German birth rate in decline. So, in 2005, the regulation of immigration was introduced, and the cost of living began to soar.
Even with prices rising, Berlin is an attractive destination. Glaswegians love it and, potentially, it’s our favourite haunt as students. Descending onto Schönefeld airport arouses a platonic love in first time visitors. Aesthetically it’s beautiful. The atmosphere is relaxed, it’s easy to find work and yes, rent is considerably cheaper.
Of course, great things are admired from afar. Ex-pats from across the world flock to Berlin for the same reasons we do. In May of this year, property agents Rightmove noticed the demographic changing and wrote on their website that Berlin’s housing market is “experiencing the strongest growth in rent and purchase prices in more than twenty years. On average, rents for listed apartments are more than 13 percent higher than in the previous year.”
This rental food chain inevitably means the weaker tenants die out. Fritze, an artist from Schillerkiez in West Berlin, has seen the recent changes first hand. He said: “The increase in rent is destabilising communities. If you’re a low earner, freelancer or small business – you’re not safe.
“Areas like tourist hot-spot Kreuzberg have a reputation of poverty. But just like its neighbour Neukölln, the central location has made it a trendy area.
“To the Western traveller, refurbed boroughs of Berlin are an inexpensive dream. But, to the original settlers, the situation is more like a nightmare. Immigrants and poor families, especially Turks, are worst hit by the unpredictable cost of living.”
Fritze continues that while there’s talk of gentrification damaging his neighbourhood, little can physically be done. “Some people poster the streets with advice on how to keep your rent low, while others spray paint the new bars. They do this because they want Berlin to look dirty and hopefully discourage investment.
“It doesn’t work though. People think the city is meant to look this way.”
Fritze describes the changes as coming rapidly once Tempelhof Airfield was reopened to the public. The disused airport was built by the Nazi government in the early twentieth century, and was used as commercial airspace until 2008. Its closure, and then reopening, gained the surrounding area worldwide attention.
“When Templehof reopened as a public space, I noticed the houses nearby were selling faster and renovations happened more,” Fritze continued. “Within a few years, rent went up threefold in Neukölln.”
Fritze watched community hubs shut down – independent businesses were unable to pay their increased rent. People he befriended had to move away, just like the Turkish family who owned a popular cafe at the bottom of his street.
“This family had served the area for seven years. I saw four generations make a living for themselves. Then they were gone, and replaced by a generic bar and restaurant,” he explains.
This family couldn’t afford to stay at home and Fritze describes the whole process as painful for post-war Berliners. He witnesses the everyday struggles of a constantly evolving Berlin. He also acknowledges the community spirit keeps Germans, tourists and others happy.
Fritze could be any Berliner. He watched the Turkish grandma sitting on her chair outside the cafe, and look after her great grand child. He also refers to her as his friend.
“This was community. This was integration, but it’s being destroyed. It’s a typical story in Berlin but that doesn’t make it easier to hear. Immigration and tourism are the backbone of German. We must learn, somehow, for them to live in cohesion.”
Balance is necessary and individual actions count now more than ever. And as Fritze says – “There is no difference between Berliners and tourists anymore. All that matters is community.”