Gentrification Berlin 1 Favorite 


Apr 18 2007



In the middle of Berlin, two thousand armed police officers stand guard, with instructions not to let a single person over the fence. They have been brought in from all over Germany on this particular Saturday. Water cannons, tear gas, and guns are at the ready. They stand in a line, a careful five meters behind the chain link and barbed wire fence. Protesters, two for every officer, are standing a few meters back from the other side. They are students and neighbors. Some are playing music or dressed as clowns. They are each eyeing the water cannons and the policemen's holsters, carefully weighing the cost of climbing the fence. This fence doesn't protect a nation, a dictatorship, or even an occupied building. On the other side, behind the policemen, is an expanse of grass, four square kilometers of empty space. It's June 20, 2009. The disputed territory is the former Tempelhof International Airport.

Tempelhof, West Berlin’s lifeline and connection to the rest of the world during the 1948 airlift, has stood empty for the past year. Local activists organized this demonstration to reclaim the space as a public one. Their flyers, scattered across Berlin, proclaim: STOP GENTRIFICATION / TAKE YOUR RIGHT TO THE CITY. This is just one of several sites in Berlin on which the ideological battle for democratic space is fought. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly twenty years ago, the attitude of the city towards spaces for its citizens has changed and with it, a resistance to this new approach has grown among Berliners. Public money that was invested to preserve and modernize East Berlin with special attention to community planning and social responsibility has since run out; the rent limits for tenants who kept their apartments for the last twenty years have been lifted; the city now faces the largest inner-city peacetime migration in Europe. All of these factors have created a context in which urban spaces have become regarded as a kind of public right in Berlin; a right that is enunciated, demanded, and sometimes even seized.

Battles for power have been played out in the physical spaces of the city since the construction of the Berlin Wall. The fight for prohibited space has an historical precedent here, echoed in the demands of protesters today. At the root of the Tempelhof Airport conflict, the source of contention, is the fact that it stands empty and unusable. Emptiness, and the sheer abundance of empty spaces, is a problem throughout Berlin (100,000 apartments alone, according to a study earlier this year in Prospect Magazine). This provides justification for the politicians advocating economic growth, encourages squatters to take over abandoned buildings and repurpose them, and appeals to investors who want to build a commercial center. Local architects Anna and Fabian von Gwinner, who designed the first co-op apartment building in Berlin (in 2007), put it this way: “What is so appealing about Berlin is that it is an unfinished city. Of course, we too, would like the value of our property to go up, but the fact that we can do anything here, that there are still ten empty lots in the middle of the city, this couldn’t exist in any other European capital.” The fact that the city itself is so large, and so sparsely inhabited, is the legacy of two cities which became one; all across Berlin, these empty voids are the markers of history.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain were in terrible condition; many of the buildings lacked central heating and personal toilets. Soon after, the newly-unified city invested public money into the Behutsame Stadterneuerung (‘Careful City Renewal’), which mandated three levels of preservation: to maintain the physical space, to preserve the social composition of the building, and to design in consultation with the community. According to Andrej Holm, a lecturer in the Department of Human Geography at Goethe University in Frankfurt, it is precisely the removal of these forms of intervention that has caused the current contest over urban space. Holm divides the past twenty years into three periods of urban development, all heavily dependent upon the initial public investment in restoring East Berlin. In the first phase, between 1992 and 1997, the city created Sanierungsgebiete (‘renewal areas’), including special legislation to soften the social impact of the renovations. Public money was used to finance the socially sensitive renovations or, in some cases, tax breaks were provided for individuals who were able to buy a building. These policies were very effective at improving the standard of living within such Sanierungsgebiete, enabling 60 percent of the previous tenants to stay after renovations.

After 1997, the public funding for the Behutsame Stadterneuerung was reduced and the reliance on private investors increased, with accompanying rent and renovation restrictions. In this second period, from 1997 to 2000, between 40 and 50 percent of residents remained after renovations. Later, when all public funding and tax incentives were cut, and private investors successfully sued to lift the restrictions and rent ceilings, things began to change more quickly. One Prenzlauer Berg resident, Stefan Hacke, noticed these changes in his neighborhood. “In the last few years, most of my neighbors changed and a bunch of new latte macchiato bars opened up in my neighborhood, filled with Schwaben (people from Southwest Germany). It feels less and less like Berlin to me. Now, I spend most of my free time in Kreuzberg, where my girlfriend lives.”

Between 2000 and 2003, during most of which everything was privately financed, only 20 percent of residents of the Sanierungsgebiete in Prenzlauer Berg (Kollwitzplatz) kept their apartments, and most belonged to the upper or upper-middle class. 2001, public funding ran out completely and rent ceilings were abolished altogether. By 2008, one of the Sanierungsgebiete in Kollwitzplatz had closed after fifteen years, leaving the area open for commercial development. Partly as a result, only 17 percent of the original inhabitants remain in this neighborhood today. Another example is the privatization of the Wohnungsbaugesellschaften (‘public housing associations’) in Berlin. These associations provided low-income, publicly subsidized housing. In 2004 one of the largest associations, containing 60,000 apartments, was privatized. This new approach to urban development represents a drastic shift: social consciousness and community input have been replaced with a desire to attract investors and create commercial capital.

Although these developments speak specifically to the residential effects of neighborhood migration that have been mounting for the last two decades, they also provide a framework against which gentrification in Berlin can be understood more broadly. Commercial investment in residential areas is a steppingstone for urban turnover. Even the city government points to housing developments as examples of ‘the future of urban development in Berlin’ (Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s own description of the 2007 luxury housing development Kastaniengärten in Prenzlauer Berg).

Berlin operates within a global market for commercial development. Holm describes this as an international competition to appeal to investors worldwide, in which attention and resources are directed away from housing the underprivileged and instead, toward so-called cultural attractions. Commercial and residential developments work hand in hand to gentrify urban areas, leaving little to the existing public. This is exemplified by the self-description of Kastaniengärten as ‘representing favoured styles of living at the pulsating heart of a major city.’

These kinds of developments have prompted a broader public resistance to gentrification. This is perhaps most visible in big urban development projects like the now-unused Tempelhof Airport. Although reflect the larger trend of contested public spaces in Berlin, as a structure, Tempelhof Airport is exceptional. It was built in such a way as to be visible from outer space, having the largest building footprint of the time. It is a historically indexical space -- built by the Nazis, it stands as the skeleton of what could only have been an airport. It is not only the physical building but also the empty space around it that is problematic; its airfield is the size of an entire Berlin neighborhood. After World War II, the airport functioned as the connection between West Berlin and the rest of Western Europe; the last island in a communist sea.

Many Berliners talk about this collective, historic memory of the space, which makes its continued use an emotionally charged question.

In 2008, the city government put the airport closure to a vote. Some people in the area opposed it because the closure would automatically increase rents – living near an active airfield was always a guarantee of more affordable housing. This raises a bigger issue; that even the act of closing the airport changed the neighborhood. Even without further development, gentrification would still hit neighboring Neukölln. This is not unlike the situation that Kreuzberg found itself in twenty years ago. It was no accident that Kreuzberg formed at the edge of the city – it emerged physically and ideologically on the fringe, referring to itself as ‘at the end of the world.’ When the Berlin Wall came down, this border neighborhood found itself at the center of a European capital.Gentrification is recognizable by the presence of small, early changes that have enormous effects over time. These preliminary signs signal the more problematic aspects of gentrification to come – in fact, the question of what would change in the neighborhoods bordering Tempelhof emerged as early as 2008.

The first public demonstration over the Tempelhof airfield was held in October 2008, the day the airport was officially closed. After this, a Bürgerinitiative (‘citizens' movement’) entitled Tempelhof für Alle (‘Tempelhof for Everyone’) began informational walks along the fence and publicized the city's development plans. Five months later, after a 3,000-person demonstration on the right to free space, the group split into two factions. Tempelhof für Alle says their main goal is to attract positive media attention, and help the community discuss and plan the space in a constructive and sensitive way. Squat Tempelhof is interested in physically reclaiming the space, through a literal act of squatting. This group views Tempelhof as a priority in a larger struggle against gentrification-- their posters across Berlin proclaim: "first squat Tempelhof, then squat the rest." Together, these two groups organized the "Squat Tempelhof 20.06.09" protest along the fence of the airfield, culminating in a battle between city government (riot police) and resistance movements (local protesters).

The city’s presence at the protest was disproportionate and problematic. According to Tempelhof für Alle, the police cost the city upwards of two million Euros. This money – used for security, waste disposal and supervision to prevent the protestors from moving in – could just as easily have funded five days of regulated public access to the airfield and avoided the protest altogether, they claim. Alternatively, according to another activist, if the police hadn’t been there the protestors would have soon grown bored and left anyway.

Currently, there is an athletic club with baseball and tennis facilities just inside the airfield, and there are plans to build another fence around this to prevent the public from using it as a means to enter the field. Despite the city’s announcement that Tempelhof will be open to the public only in May 2010, the resistance movements have made explicit the question of how to use the space. The Technical University has created an urban planning student workshop and exhibition, and the Senator's Office for Urban Development has sponsored two major events: an international competition of ideas reflecting different visions for the Columbia Quartier of Tempelhof airport (the winning designs are currently on display); and Topos, a study commissioned by a group of architects, artists and urbanists on the possibility of using Tempelhof as a central urban space. The most apparent accomplishment of the Tempelhof resistance movement has been not just to make the issue a matter of public debate, but to specifically empower Berliners in demanding a right to the space

According to an anonymous representative (who will be referred to as Inge Schulze) from Lunte, the Neukölln community center of Tempelhof für Alle, the proposed solutions are not sustainable from the perspective of the neighborhood, the residents or the environment. She perceives that the development plans are being made too quickly, without allowing the necessary time for community input. It is as if, she says, the Mayor is trying to create a new Las Vegas in the middle of Berlin; a hastily improvised tourist attraction with a thin veneer of art and culture, that is out of sync with the character of the neighborhood. This process is already leading to problems; for instance, the German-based Bread & Butter Fashion Show this July (taking place twice a year in the airport building) has been ill received, according to Inge. More problematic is the dream of having a new center for fashion and lifestyle amidst the old buildings: why should the lively Berlin arts scene be centralized, and how would this change public involvement? If the enormous airstrips are not suitable for a fashion runway, then what other commercial use might we find for them?

While the trajectory of Tempelhof's development is still unknown, another large development project in Berlin, MediaSpree, is openly driven by the need to bring commerce to the poorest city in Germany. According to Stefan Sihler, member of one of the MediaSpree interest groups, “we need the investments, we need the employment opportunities.” MediaSpree describes a series of commercial developments that have been planned along the banks of the Spree River in Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain. Although the area is currently underdeveloped, the new urban plan includes the tearing down of many existing buildings. The developers and the Senate claim that they are making the area accessible and attractive for the public, but activists fear the impact of such a large commercial center on the neighborhood. The city has already invested millions of Euros on one development alone. Some people see MediaSpree as a manifestation of the general change in the city's urban development strategy. This leap from developing MediaSpree to developing the city as a whole was made explicit by Sihler: “I want all the areas with high unemployment rates, like Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, to also develop.”

There is an emerging pattern in Berlin: usually urban development projects are designed at the senate/city level only when the senate decides that a project is of 'city-wide importance' (gesamtstädtischer Bedeutung). In the case of MediaSpree, the fact that the district mayor is from the Green Party, and that the Senate is a coalition of Social Democrats and Socialists, may have played a role. After years of district planning, MediaSpree ended up in the senate's jurisdiction only after conflicts erupted. Tempelhof, on the other hand was declared to be of 'citywide importance' right away. This discrepancy arguably forms the basis for much of the negative public perception regarding such developments: the usual democratic process of participation in the development process normally falls to the responsibility of the districts, but with the city in charge, many feel that the decisions are made far above them. In the past, the city dealt with that issue in a variety of ways, some of which were successful. Yet, none of these cases were as hotly disputed and contested by the public as MediaSpree and Tempelhof. The top-down communication that characterizes these projects leads activists to feel excluded from the process.

Political resistance is complicated by the fact that Berlin is both a city and a state (Bundesland), which makes for conflicting interests at different levels of power. Even regarding this structure, the dichotomy is not always so clear. Sometimes the district plan is worse for the local community than the city plan; as neighborhoods vie for city support, they often discount their own community members in order to appeal to investors and commercial developers. In addition, according to Lena Kampf, a MediaSpree expert and documentary filmmaker, the city is not making the project as attractive and easy for investors as it could. As one of the interviewed investors observed, it is not a ‘one-stop shop.

The negotiations between MediaSpree versenken! and the government are seen as an important step, that has even pushed through some small changes to the urban development plans. With regard to that development, Kampf said she wished that a similar commission would be created to organize resistance to other areas like Tempelhof, "because that is really one of the best ways to make change." By contrast, Peter Schmidt a local activist, is less optimistic: "MediaSpree versenken! believes that they can create a win-win situation through small architectural changes, but this cannot stop the growing rents, this is a myth! Any development will change it!"

The presence of big projects like MediaSpree (and Tempelhof) are a powerful impetus for uniting resistance fighters. According to Peter Schmidt, there are rarely protests against things like rising rents, or land privatization; and these projects have become the only outlet to act against gentrification effectively. That being said, it is not enough: "everyday people need to begin to fight gentrification, to fight against their landlords, to fight on a local level." Schmidt is part of a group called Wir Bleiben Alle, (‘We All Remain’) which fights the gentrification process, not just these specific developments. The group grew out of the social justice and civil rights movements in the collapsing GDR, taking part in the protests against rising rents in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in the early 1990s. Once these areas became gentrified, there was little interest in resistance. Although there have been attempts every couple of years, Wir Bleiben Alle (WBA) was not successfully re-founded until 2007, when "projects like MediaSpree gave them power and the theme of city development became part of general society, not just autonomous campaigns," according to Schmidt.

Compared to the openness and reinvention which characterized the newly-reunited Berlin of the 1990s, today there is less dialogue between groups like WBA and government officials. It used to be, says Schmidt, that activists brought real political demands to the town and felt heard. From the other side, Senate representative Rosteck points to the protestors’ readiness to engage in illegal acts. “Sometimes I have the feeling,” he says, “that nowadays protests seem to be less about the issue, but rather for the sake of protest itself.” Since 1999, the city has practiced urban development through very local bottom-up structures called the Quartiersmanagement (Neighborhood Management), which are funded by the government but operated by members of local civil activist groups. Schmidt holds that the Quartiersmanagement offices have ‘bought out’ civil action groups, either by hiring activist leaders or by funding initiatives. Although this appears on the surface like an action of support, it effectively reduced the number of civil action groups in any neighborhood. The result is that overall, there are not so many opportunities for cooperation with activists.

Today, WBA is mostly composed of small directives, and although there is a general interest in the problems of gentrification, the resistance fighters are largely independent from one another. "We need to involve the people who are living here, who are affected by this. We need to act in a way that people can understand," says Schmidt. WBA is also less interested in engaging in dialogue; its main objective is to frighten the government and to show the city how strong they are, even by violent means. According to Schmidt, the risk of cooperating or negotiating with the government is that it becomes the end of the resistance. "We want the people to fight for their own interests and to empower themselves! If people are willing, then the state will react. A lot of people are frustrated, but they think, 'what can we do? We can do nothing!' It is bigger than Kreuzberg, or than Berlin -- it is part of the whole society in Germany. People do not organize, they are afraid. There is a feeling that there is no alternative anymore (which is an idea propagated by the government). It is very important to fight and to fight in a political way."

He gives the example of someone who faces rising rent. The first step, Schmidt says, is to go to a lawyer, and then to a tenants' organization. Membership in these organizations guarantees free legal support for rent disputes. After this – and only after this – political action should be taken. Despite the WBA's disinterest in working with government, they are nevertheless operating within the legal framework and trying to engage people as citizens and residents. By encouraging them to join their tenant organizations, for example, they provide them with tools to legitimately challenge their landlords' demands. Similarly, an organization called Mietshäuser Syndikat helps groups to buy houses and legally and form cooperative living arrangements, with the stipulation that the house can never be put on the market.

The poor are the most affected by changing neighborhoods: they cannot move further outside of the city because they rely on public transportation; yet gentrification creates a situation in which they can no longer afford to live in the city, and are pushed farther away from all forms of infrastructure (commercial, intellectual, educational, social). Schmidt views these deleterious effects of gentrification to be unavoidable, given that the government has only the interest of the dominant class in mind and will not protect the weakest members of society until they exert their power. Andrej Holm, however, asserts that gentrification can be shaped by political will, if the government is open to making policy changes. According to Holm, the central problem with contested public spaces in Berlin is that there is little cooperation among the different actors: in the current system, neighborhoods are disempowered and overruled by the city’s agenda for urban development.

In contrast to these negative portrayals, a representative of the MediaSpree investor group describes gentrification as a positive phenomenon: by attracting big business and investment, it improves the neighborhood, job opportunities and living conditions. To a certain extent this description appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is undeniable that real estate value and income levels will increase in a gentrified neighborhood, but not for the original residents, most of whom will be driven out by the rising costs. This assumed connection between economic growth and its positive impact on residents is not so apparent. In fact, from Harlem to London, the pattern in gentrifying neighborhoods suggests the opposite.

The claims that commercial centers along Berlin's main river would improve commerce, capital and tourism may be true. The challenge lies in managing the process in an equitable way. That is to say, gentrification does not need to be the inevitable result of development – cause and impact are not the same. Within the process of gentrification there are different ramifications to be regulated. According to Holm, in addition to the direct effects of new businesses, residents and neighborhood spending, there are indirect effects which are less immediately visible. These consist of perceived improvements to the neighborhood – a more central location, reduced noise pollution, and proximity to newer developments – which could provide justification for increased prices, rents and taxes.

The activists and the government do share at least one piece of common ground: the authors of the WBA brochure believe that gentrification and rising rents can never be resolved within the capitalist system. Ironically, Rosteck agrees; "if you criticize projects like MediaSpree on a fundamental level, you have to criticize capitalism as such." He views the developments as fulfilling a simple mathematical equation: investors bring in money through commercial developments, that can also be used to finance other projects. Under capitalism, urban development requires private capital; public finances have been shrinking for decades.

Nevertheless, the prospects for creating change within the current system are not so black and white: the resistance groups with the greatest potential for influence are those that work within the system (MediaSpree versenken!, Mietshäuser Syndikat). Ideally, cities will continue to develop, to become safer and more prosperous, but in a way that also benefits every community. Even though there may have been many problems with Berlin’s method of urban development during the 1990s, it appears preferable to the current system. Namely, its inclusion of a framework for dialogue between the city and civil society made it functional. It is precisely the Senate’s shift away from community input and towards a profit-based urban development strategy that has led to the tension and unrest in Berlin today. Access, both ideological and physical, to the planning of space across the city will provide solutions for these conflicts. Public spaces like Tempelhof and MediaSpree, have been the stage for these battles precisely because they engage in the idea of access. The planning phase of MediaSpree was completed a long time ago, following the usual procedures of democratic participation. However, the long process of urban planning (in this case more than 15 years), involving several phases of public hearings, are unsatisfactory for everybody. On the one hand, the investors complain that such procedures take far too long and make it impossible for small companies to invest. On the other hand, local residents feel powerless and left out of the planning process when participation ends before the first construction vehicles even arrive.

In this light, MediaSpree and Tempelhof reveal an interesting contrast: they involve similar problems, but these problems occurred on very different timelines. MediaSpree was already far into the realization process when the first public resistance occurred. Moreover, in part it is the heated dispute that the MediaSpree development has caused, that has made the responses to Tempelhof come much earlier in the process. As of July 2009, a group of developers who have been working on a project similar in scale to Tempelhof (a science and technology park), in the Adlershof area of Southeast Berlin, were put in charge of developing a concept for the future use of the airport. Despite the fact that the city had already developed a master plan, Adlershof Projekt GmbH was asked to work out a more cohesive proposal that could serve as a foundation for a future 'organizing body'. It should be clarified that these developers are not part of an investment group; the project is 100% state-owned and accountable to the Senate. Hardy Schmitz, the managing director, discussed the social consciousness with which they are planning to approach the issue. For him, it is important to develop Tenpelhof in such a way that it responds to the social, economic and historical setting. At the same time, he stresses the importance of creating an economic catalyst for Germany's poor capital. One idea that he cited was to open the field to the creativity of the public: Once the field is opened in May 2010, he envisions an open competition in which architects, artists, local activists, and Berliners could apply to use some part of the space temporarily. That way, he says, the Berliners would reestablish a relationship to the field involving a sense of ownership, tempered with a respect for public space.

The introduction of the Adlershof Projekt GmbH has the potential to add some fresh ideas and approaches to the developments on the fields, but many have remained skeptical. The developers’ rely heavily on their earlier experience in building Adlershof, but Tempelhof is very different: far more centrally located, and surrounded by densely populated, socially sensitive districts. The latter project will demand a more watchful eye from developers with regard to its social and cultural surroundings. developers. Whether or not Adlershof Projekt GmbH is the right candidate to do this remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the struggle against gentrification continues in Berlin. On the 31st of October, 2009, several groups of activists called for a demonstration against a commercial development in the vicinity of Tempelhof, and gentrification in Berlin in general. Approximately 600 demonstrators showed up at Hermanplatz (a square in the vicinity of the field), where they faced a surprisingly large police presence. Immediately after leaving the metro, every demonstrator was searched by the riot police. After starting slowly, the demonstration gathered at the fence, where protestors came into contact with the police.

Ultimately, the debate over the use of public spaces in Berlin is about much more than physical terrain; it is situated within the much larger issue of social justice in urban settings. The notion of public space as a democratic right was enunciated in open discussion by a group of Berlin artists last year: “’Public space’ is meant to secure the liberality of the bourgeois individual. Here, untroubled social communication is supposed to take place, the foundation of our democratic identity. The citizen wants to feel safe in the public space and for a while this seemed to work.”

We do not oppose changing the urban landscape; rather, we advocate policy interventions that accomplish this in a socially responsible way. We oppose developments that are predictably exclusive; change has to mobilize and energize as many parts of society as possible. Tempelhof is hardly the last frontier; in an eerily similar situation, Tegel Airport will be closed in the next five years, when the newer Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport is complete. The idea of contested spaces, and the right of citizens to fight for them, has a distinctly local emphasis. Even though gentrification is a universal problem, and the urban changes taking place in Berlin a reflection of general trends, Berliners provide a particularly strong foundation for bottom-up development in the city. Berlin’s situation is unique: its sparseness leaves it particularly vulnerable to development, even while its social history marked by the claiming of spaces has bred a heated resistance.

Posted by stefan on

Staff rating: 

This is a highly detailed report of many years of (seemingly effective) activism, but it lacks examples of creative tactics from the campaigns.