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 The building I mentioned above is very shiny and new now and the daycare that used to be in the basement has been replaced by a nail bar.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.

New Carlsberg Station – just the tip of the iceberg

It felt like there was a lot of change around the city over the summer months. Enghave Station closed at the beginning of July and a new station opened at Carlsberg, a 200m walk away (and only served by one close bus stop which apparently hasn’t gone down well with the local elderly population). The logic is that the new Carlsberg Byen is going to need a new station to service the new residents, students and people working on the site and a direct access into the area will add to this convenience. Enghave Station, built in 1911, was intended for approximately 7,000 passengers daily, while in the future approximately 24,000 daily passengers are expected at the new Carlsberg Station.IMG_5573I have some reservations about how this whole new area is going to impact on the wider Vesterbro area in the future with that many more people coming into the area plus the creation of 4,000 parking spaces, which implies a huge number of cars on the road coming and going from the area. There will be an integrated new cycle system created but no mention of the number of cycle parking spots (do let me know if you are aware of this figure).IMG_5570 It had been touted as a new area for all when the plans were first put into place but with apartments in the new tower block, Bohrs Tårn (pictured above) starting at over 5 million krone and which in its promo material says there “something for all tastes and needs”, I do wonder. Reading around the issue I can see mention of student housing (12% of the area is designated at ‘public housing’) but nothing specific mentioned for low income or affordable housing. There is also plans for retail spaces which sound pretty upscale. I fear this area is creating a self contained bubble very close to areas of relative deprivation in Vesterbro and Sydhavn which don’t need any more fancy food markets or restaurants. This is an interesting presentation about the area which differs very much from the initial ideas floated in 2008 (which I wish I had kept copies of).IMG_5572 A bit of old Enghave. Are this car workshop (and the soul of this area)’s days numbered? What are your thoughts about this new area?

The changing face of Vesterbro

Just over eight years ago we were in the process of moving to Copenhagen and as part of our home search we were shown an apartment on Flensborggade in Vesterbro. It was newly renovated, in fact it was still being renovated when we viewed it, and outside the window we could see graffiti and drug users. The slightly run down street of 2008 is now popular with tourists staying in Airbnb type apartments and the place opposite is now a co-working space for creative freelancers and not a doorway for drug deals.

After viewing places in Frederiksberg that morning we  saw there was a real difference in the areas. Our relocator explained that he wanted to show us the other opportunities available for renters. The apartment was smaller than the ones we had on our list but the rent was close to the top of the budget. However he said this is going to be the place to live in a few years time and we could be at the start of this. Looking out of the window we decided we didn’t want to be the pioneers and quite frankly we were slightly disbelieving of this prophecy but baffled by the high rent. I think now what we would have been the start of and I am glad, for many reasons, we decided to move to a different part of town.

It was then time for lunch so he took us up onto Istedgade and into a shabby little cafe that smelt of, what I now know, frikkadellar and was full of workmen – it was the equivalent of a British greasy spoon. This cafe is now a Riccos (I think but it certainly no longer exists) and frequented by bearded hipsters smoking pipes outside. Not fancying the food in there that day and the fact there were no seats available, he took us to Cafe Høegs round the corner, still fairly gritty. Much more my speed and as we tucked into enormous portions of hummus on rye bread, he told us more about the area and how it would be much nicer in the coming years.


Isted Herremagasin on the corner of Gasværksvej and Istedgade in 1968

Fast forward eight years and yes this area is ‘much nicer’. With the fixing room on Istedgade many drug users are off the streets and fixing up in a safe environment. Prostitution has been pushed to the top of Istedgade by the station and onto side streets (and if the media is to be believed further out into Indre By and Frederiksberg), there are fewer obvious drunks and addicts on the street (and a newish structure for them to congregate close to Enghave), but a lot less of the original businesses we saw in 2008 and loads more coffee shops, fancy and expensive boutiques, more young affluent people on the streets, sitting on pavement cafe seats drinking 45 krone coffees. New restaurants springing up on Enghavevej serving ramen and Mikkeller beers and locally sourced game meats rather than halal butchers, lanudromats and corner shops. The bodegas that just three years ago had hand-made anti hipster signs in their windows are now replaced by fancy bars and groceries. There are a number of old-time businesses hanging in there on Istedgade but how long they will last is debatable.
istedgade 102 1991

Istedgade 102, 1991 now Byens Bogcafe. This was a varmestue – a place where people could get a cheap hot meal, have a hot bath and clean their clothes. Kirkens Korshær still run these across Denmark and they have a place still on Istedgade at number 100.


.The renewal of Vesterbro began in 1989, and at this time 64% of homes in Inner Vesterbro were without heating, and 70% without bathrooms. The city injected 4.3billion krone into the area and now all apartments are connected to district heating and only 4% (as the request of the tenants) are without a bathroom. All of this has come with a cost to the original residents of Vesterbro, many of whom have been displaced thanks to the 50% rise in rents since the renewal process. There has certainly been conflict between the new more affluent residents and the ‘old’ vulnerable Vesterbro, which is still in evidence but increasingly marginalised . At the time of renewal 50% of residents used their rights to permanent rehousing elsewhere as they feared the rent hikes after the assisted period of rent control was over. It is hard to see the statistics of those forced out of the area as many have not been registered elsewhere but many are displaced to Sydhavn and  they are sleeping on friends’ sofas, taken up homes in allotment areas and Lorterenden area in Sydhavn.

back toilet

Outside bathroom in a backyard on Saxogade in 1974

Vesterbro is now described by city authorities as having an ‘economically sustainable population’ and the area has undergone a deliberate urban change driven by public policy and market forces. There are still a number of community projects in the area including the Kirkens Korshær one above and another major project (which I shall talk about tomorrow) and the area is not completely gentrified but I am sure there are many people living and staying here who would like to see less of the original Vesterbro outside their expensive New York loft style apartments, coffee shops and hipster hotels. I recently watched this video and like many including Vice, wonder if it was trying to be ironic (sadly I don’t think so) but it sums the direction Vesterbro is going.

halmtorvet 1980s

Arbejdsløshedhuset (Unemployed House) on Istedgade in the 1970s (above) and now below, still housing a small drop in centre for vulnerable people in the area. Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 18.07.09

Old photos courtesy of Copenhagen Museum