Exploring gentrification {long read}

As some readers will know I have strong views on gentrification. We travelled to Berlin earlier in  July and I was curious about how our old neighbourhood is shaping up five years after we left. I’ll set the scene a little. We lived in Pankow which is slightly further out from Prenzlauer Berg, the area where most affluent incomers want to live at the time. When we lived in Pankow it was still a little down at heel and certainly retained an air of old East Berlin, although the tentacles of gentrification were creeping out.There were plenty of renovated apartment buildings, such as ours, but they were often sandwiched between other ones which where unpainted, externally unrenovated and still bore the scars of gun shots from the war and subsequent liberation, even all those years later. The common spaces on these buildings were also a little tatty but the apartments themselves were well cared for. Many buildings in the streets around where we lived are owned by a public housing association and are currently undergoing extensive and in many cases unwelcome (by the tenants) renovation. The rents are shooting up and residents who have lived in these homes all their adult lives are being forced out as they can’t afford massive rent increases. Tenants are putting up a good fight, but I fear it is futile.

In our last six months in our apartment, the owners of the building began to convert the attic space above us into a penthouse and judging by Google Maps satellite view it is pretty fancy! The old cigarette factory and a brewery building have been converted into luxury apartments and there were plans to also convert an old asylum into more (although that project seems to have stalled). The semi derelict sommerbad (summer swimming pool) close to our old home is due for a multi million Euro facelift with new pools added (the old GDR sections seem to still be abandoned).

On our visit we took the U bahn out to Pankow and indeed our old street has been spruced up a lot. The building I mentioned above is very shiny and new now and the daycare that used to be in the basement has been replaced by a nail bar. I could certainly see the tentacles of gentrification in the main streets around the station but the Rathaus Center shopping centre was still exactly the same and they have a strapline now of “The Original Pankow” – a little passive- aggressive pop at the changes in the area, I think. Bizarrely the prime space opposite the shopping centre, where a supermarket had just been demolished when we were there in 2012 has still not been built on and behind the ‘temporary’ wire fences nature has taken over.

When I lived there I wished that the area looked a little less sad and that is was not such as huge reminder of GDR years but I didn’t wish to change the fabric of the area and the personality that it had (much as I didn’t enjoy living there, it had a personality). But capitalism is hard at work and as ‘renovation’ and gentrification take hold, then the real residents get pushed out to be replaced by more transient people, less interested in a community and the history of the area. Just think of the usual journey of gentrification – an area has a personality and some ‘grit’, hipster types love how gritty it is and how they can rent at a decent price, but they would prefer more of ‘their’ types of shops and business there despite how much they love the ‘grit’. In come fancy coffee shops, artisanal breads, vintage clothes shops, street art for Instagrammers to pose by, craft beer bars etc etc and up go rents. Out go traditional businesses as their former clientele are forced out of the area.

The area then looks like every other gentrified area in any big city. The businesses are not sustainable for the years that the old ones were and the area loses its soul and personality. When I first moved to Berlin I couldn’t understand why people didn’t want to live in renovated places, why there was such a backlash against improvement and modernisation but now I get it. There was tons of anti yuppie (as they were called then) graffiti as the old bohemian elements on Prenzlauer Berg were replaced by speculative landlords out to make a ton of money on properties they had bought for peanuts when the Wall fell. One of the landlords we encountered was a prime example of this. She could have been any age from 55 to 75 due to her obvious love of botox. She had snapped up a load of semi derelict buildings straight after the Wall fell, demolished them and waited a bit, then replaced them with sparkly new apartments with the ubiquitous underground parking (which cost an extra €150 on the rent but is not optional (in 2011 can only imagine the price now))

Returning last year I noticed the graffiti has gone in many places as these people have given up the fight against underground parking for fancy cars, sourdough bread and flat whites.

Now onto my little vanity project. I can see the rumblings of this happening in my own area on Amager so I am planning to make a list of all the current businesses along Amagerbrogade and maybe another street and revisit the list in a year’s time. In the meantime I will continue to support smaller more established business where I can. As a counterpoint to this I shall also do a similar project on Istedgade to explore the longevity of the new ‘hipster’ businesses (I have written before about this area before). This is not intended to be an academic project but something to inform me and others on the speed of gentrification and also its short term and transient nature. I will post about this as the project progresses.

Just a point of note, I am not against progress and I understand that people need places to live but progress should not be at the expense of existing communities.

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