Sept. 18, 2011 -- Berlin is struggling to maintain its identity as its popularity soars.
Budget tourists are flocking to the German capital, eager to sample the famous nightlife, while Scandinavian investors are snapping up cheap real estate. Residents are protesting, but the gentrification juggernaut seems unstoppable.
It all started with a noise, a rattling like the sound produced by small, hard wheels. Daniel Dagan hardly noticed it at first, but over time it became a disturbingly frequent occurrence on the stairs of his building on Wilhelmstrasse in central Berlin. Then nameplates began disappearing from the doorbell panel and were replaced with numbers. Dagan started seeing unfamiliar faces, and sometimes he saw carts filled with dirty towels in the courtyard.
It slowly occurred to Dagan that his building was secretly being transformed into a hotel. Now he knows that the rattling noise comes from trolley suitcases. Strangers have often asked him for directions to their apartment, as if he were the concierge. But Dagan is a journalist, originally from Israel, who moved to Wilhelmstrasse 10 years ago, into what was then an ordinary apartment building, a gray prefabricated building surrounded by others like it. It was a good location, just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, which makes it appealing to tourists.
"Do you see the curtains?" says Dagan as he walks along the path behind his building. "They're the same curtains everywhere." Of the 21 apartments in his building, Dagan suspects that 10 are only rented to tourists these days. He doesn't want to live in an illegal hotel. He wants to know his neighbors, and he wants them to have an ordinary life like his. He doesn't want temporary neighbors who hold loud parties, throw garbage into the hallways, are never there for long and don't feel responsible for anything.
The district office in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood, where Wilhelmstrasse is located, has counted 257 vacation rental apartments along the street. They shouldn't be there, but no one does anything about it. Dagan and his neighbors have formed a citizens' initiative to address the problem, and to defend what they think ought to be a Berlin for Berliners.
Looking for a New Home
It's a question of having a real home. As Germany's largest city, Berlin is both a global metropolis and the place millions call home, which many Berliners see as a contradiction. For them, the concept of home implies peace and quiet, safety and comfort. A world metropolis, on the other hand, is a place characterized by turmoil, movement and change.
Berlin counts more than 20 million tourist overnight stays a year, a number it aims to increase to 30 million. The world is infatuated with Berlin, a magnet that attracts many people who decide to make it their permanent home. This raises the question of who the city belongs to in a globalized world: its residents or everyone?
Berliners will elect the parliament of their city-state on Sunday. Rising rents are the most important issue in this year's campaign. Rents in downtown Berlin are now 14 percent higher than they were two years ago, a figure that reflects the extent of the change taking place in the city.
A new city has been taking shape in Berlin for several years now, the city of tourists and new arrivals. It is growing uncontrollably, not adhering to any plans or boundaries, and even the law seems to hold limited applicability. It's slightly reminiscent of the frontiers of the 19th century, when a new world, unchecked and inconsiderate, was pushing its way into an old world in North America, Brazil and South Africa, triggering conflict between the pioneers and the original residents.
This new city could soon become the actual city. If that happens, Berlin will no longer be primarily a home for Berliners, but a stage for an international audience. Some ugly terms to describe this new city have been making the rounds in Berlin, with some calling it a "giant Ballermann," a reference to a notoriously rowdy beach bar on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca. Others call it a giant Disneyland, because of a growing sense of artificiality and absence of authenticity.
How does this affect Berliners, and what is their current frame of mind? In the early 20th century, Berlin philosopher Georg Simmel wrote "Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben" ("The Metropolis and Mental Life"), an essay that is widely viewed as the founding document of urban sociology. Simmel saw an "intensification of nervous stimulation" in big cities and concluded that the reaction to it was a "blasé attitude." He argued that residents of big cities denied themselves a reaction to what was happening around them, because it would overtax their nerves. Is this still true today? Are Berliners blasé about what is happening in their own city?
Berliners are important for Berlin. It sounds simple, but Berliners are more important for their city than Parisians are for Paris or Romans for Rome. Old stones make up much of what distinguishes these cities. People go there because of their beauty, while people go to Berlin despite its ugliness. Tourists and new arrivals yearn for the Berlin vibe, an atmosphere that isn't shaped by buildings but by people with ideas.
There are many Berlins within Berlin. It would be easy to paint a portrait of a wonderful city. But this is a story about the struggle between the old city and the new one, and the contradiction between home and world metropolis.
Market for Beds
Oliver Winter is a pioneer, one of those who are driving the new Berlin into the old one. Winter's contribution is that he has placed 3,000 beds into the city. Half of them are sturdy metal beds that schoolchildren can jump up and down on, but the most important thing about them is that they're inexpensive. Bed is a word that often comes up in a conversation with Winter, because it's the currency of his industry. Winter runs hostels in giant yellow buildings, as part of a chain called A&O.
Aside from his receding hairline, Winter has a boyish look about him. He is 36 and has been in the bed business for 11 years. He is standing on the top floor of his most recent property on Lehrter Strasse in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood, looking down at the main train station, only a 10-minute walk away. The building, his latest success, contains 820 beds.
It all started when Berlin became the German capital. Suddenly every school group wanted to go to Berlin, says Winter. He had been traveling for a while, to places like Australia and New Zealand, and had returned to his native Berlin just in time to experience a new boom.
He earned the money for his first hostel, in the eastern Friedrichshain neighborhood, by opening a beverage market while attending university. Tour operators were desperate for beds, he says.
Seven years ago, the invasion of the schoolchildren was followed by a wave of Easyjet tourists, when the budget airline established a hub in Berlin. Winter opened hostels all over Germany and even in Prague. "In the end, what customers everywhere want is an inexpensive bed," he says.
Too Much Noise
Marion Mayr and Karsten Mierke live next to his 820-bed hostel in Moabit. The tour busses block traffic in front of their building, and at night the girls staying at the hostel squeal from window to window, while the boys climb over the gutters. The tourists stagger across the street, urinate in the bushes and smash beer bottles.
Mayr and Mierke live in a five-story building, with each floor consisting of a large shared apartment. But the residents aren't hippies. They are normal people who go to work or university in the morning, and who need their sleep at night, and they believe that it shouldn't be unreasonable to expect this, even in central Berlin.
Now Mayr and Mierke keep a note of the noise levels during the night, writing down the time of each incident, to use as evidence against the hostel. Many of their neighbors on the street do the same thing. Or they call the police, the course of action recommended by the local authority responsible for noise control.
They don't want to be bourgeois and intolerant. "But can't all of this be done in a way that's tolerable for people?" Mierke asks.
In an effort to curb shouting across the courtyard, hostel owner Winter has modified the windows so that they can no longer be opened wide. There isn't much he can do about noisy guests on the streets, he says, adding that his neighbors will just have to get used to the tourists. Every visitor is good for Berlin, says Winter.
'Help, The Tourists Are Coming'
Not everyone agrees. Last spring the local Green Party hosted an event in the Wrangelkiez part of the Kreuzberg neighborhood. It was called: "Help, the Tourists Are Coming."
Mysliwska, located on Schlesische Strasse in the Wrangelkiez, is a typical Kreuzberg bar. Instead of a sleek designer interior, its fashionably dilapidated style features second-hand furniture, wallpaper peeling from the walls and an uneven floor. Polish beer is on tap, and the view through the windows is of a building wall with the words "Fuck all of you" sprayed across it in misspelled German.
In the past, artists stood on both sides of the bar. They knew perfectly well that they were the avant-garde, and they hoped that someone else would eventually notice. Kreuzberg, which was popular with West Berlin left-wingers and artists before the fall of the Wall, has long had a reputation as a place where one could enjoy long nights of drinking and debauchery. But in the old days the drinkers were politically active, avant garde and individualistic. They helped create the myth of Berlin's decadent nightlife.
In the 1990s, the former East Berlin suddenly became a hipster playground and club culture boomed. The legendary club Tresor is the birthplace of German techno. Then came Berghain, which some have called the world's best club. More recently, everyone has been raving about Kater Holzig, a place that takes the Berlin myth and builds upon it. The bar, housed in an old factory, comes complete with graffiti, iron sculptures, good food and a dance floor.
Welcome to PartytownThe myth is one thing, but what it entails is something completely different. When you leave the Mysliwka bar, you don't step into an ordinary Berlin street, but into an area one could call Partytown.
Partytown consists mainly of a combination of restaurants and cocktail lounges or bars, places that serve kebabs, pizza and burgers, places that are supposed to seem somehow Asian but are in fact blandly international. Places that are able to keep their happy hour going all night long. Low prices are obligatory.
Partytown also consists of convenience stores known in Berlin as "Späti," which stay open until the early morning hours and sell 25 types of beer in glass refrigerators. After all, no bar sells beer cheaper than the beer you drink on the street. The convenience stores have turned the street into a bar and have spawned a separate nighttime economy. The bottles that aren't smashed are collected by weary-looking men with wheeled shopping bags, who take them back to the store to get the deposit (usually €0.08 per bottle).
The main street of Partytown is the Oberbaum Bridge, which connects Kreuzberg with Friedrichshain. Friedrichshain's counterpoint to the Wrangelkiez is Simon-Dach-Strasse, a street lined with one anonymous bar after the next. The yellow U1 subway crosses the Oberbaum Bridge, taking revelers from one bar to the next. The people on the bridge are drinking their umpteenth bottle of beer of the night. Men urinate into the Spree River or against the bridge itself. The whole place smells like a toilet.
The new Berlin is taking shape on nights like this. Parts of the Wrangelkiez have already been taken over, as has Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, a famous street for nightlife in the former West Berlin, and Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte in the former East Berlin, which was popular with revelers after the fall of the Wall. Partytown is sucking the authenticity out of the city. No Berliner worth his salt would spend an evening partying on Simon-Dach-Strasse. The nightlife scenes are separating, as budget tourists party away in their own world, without any contact to the real Berlin.
Moving to Neukölln
But the Berlin frontier is still on the move. It has already crossed the Landwehr Canal and reached the Neukölln district. It's a neighborhood that has long been associated in many people's minds with an array of unflattering stereotypes and clichés. According to observers like the bestselling German author Thilo Sarrazin, who rails against Muslim immigrants, Neukölln is full of uneducable children and Turks who fight Lebanese immigrants with knives. It's a place where ethnic Germans are supposedly harassed for speaking German, and almost anyone who isn't selling fruits and vegetables or working at a kebab stand is living on welfare. Until recently, no one in his right mind would have chosen to move there.
But that image isn't true anymore. Take Ramses Luevano, for example. Originally from Mexico, he has opened a bar called Gastón on Weserstrasse in the northern section of Neukölln. After ending up in Berlin five years ago, Luevano opened restaurants in Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, but then he decided that those neighborhoods were too boring for his taste. Now Neukölln is the new hot spot, especially its northern section, dubbed "Kreuzkölln" for its proximity to Kreuzberg. Its praises have been sung by the international media, including the New York Times and the Guardian.
The artists and other creative types have been there for a while. In Berlin, that includes people who open cafés that sell exotic types of teas, "Berlin's bohemians," as Luevano calls them. It's still possible to find apartments with high ceilings and low rents in Neukölln -- for now. But flat viewings are already attracting crowds of people looking for a place. Flyers announcing meetings to discuss the rising rents have begun appearing on doors along Weserstrasse.
The battle has already begun, including in Neukölln. In the building where Gastón is located, the old superintendent sometimes calls the police when the bar's patrons get too noisy.
'The Most Exciting Real Estate Market in Europe'
Einar Skjerven, a Norwegian, has heard about northern Neukölln, but he's not ready to invest there yet. A real estate manager, he decided five years ago to get into the Berlin market after he had heard about low rents there. Rents will go up, he thought; in fact, they have to go up. He set up a fund for his company, Industrifinans. Skjerven has already bought about 1,400 apartments along a strip running from Pankow in the northeast to Zehlendorf in the southwest, passing through Prenzlauer Berg, Charlottenburg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg along the way. This strip, says Skjerven, is the choicest cut at the butcher shop.
Skjerven, 45, is a pioneer, a cheerful man with longish hair. He invests the money of rich Scandinavians. The Norwegian Church is also one of his clients. It hopes that rents will go up in Berlin so that it can achieve the projected return on their investments.
Whenever a tenant vacates an apartment, Skjerven has it spruced up and then rents it to the next tenant for 10 to 25 percent more. And he has no trouble getting those rents, because the number of Berlin households is growing while hardly any new residential construction is underway. On this morning, only eight of his apartments are vacant. "Everyone in the industry is talking about Berlin. It's the most exciting residential real estate market in Europe," he says.
When rents go up, the ugly word "gentrification" is immediately on everyone's lips in Berlin. It means that the real estate market drives the transformation of the city, and that "lower-status population groups are replaced with high-status groups," says Andrej Holm, an urban sociologist at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The word gentrification was one of the reasons Holm was once in police custody. He used it early on, and then it appeared in claims of responsibility for arson attacks. Federal prosecutors saw a connection and took it as an indication than Holm might be a member of a terrorist organization. But their suspicion was never confirmed.
In Berlin, tourism and gentrification are usually related. The real estate managers follow the trail of revelry. When popular bars move into a neighborhood, they trigger the development of a "subcultural infrastructure," says Holm. Then people move in who get a thrill out of rubbing shoulders with the bohemian subculture, and who are willing to pay for it. The neighborhood goes upscale. Holm's research has shown that when Prenzlauer Berg became gentrified, only 20 percent of the original population could afford to stay.
Jens-Holger Kirchner says he has nothing against gentrification. He is a city official in charge of "public order" in the Pankow district, which includes Prenzlauer Berg. He is also a member of the Green Party.
"We've spent millions here, because the neighborhood was so run-down," says Kirchner. And now he's expected to long for the good old days, when apartments had no toilets and heating was provided by coal stoves? He has no intention of doing so. He likes the renovated apartments and the gourmet food stores, and the families that can afford these things. "It's typical for Berlin when you have newcomers protesting that they are being forced out," he says.
The Migration of Poverty
Franz Schulz has a problem with gentrification. He, too, is a member of the Green Party, and is district mayor in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. "The best population is the one that's already there," says Schulz.
He talks about the many babies in Friedrichshain, the new clubs in Kreuzberg, the people with good incomes who want to move there and the investors planning to build high-rise buildings on the banks of the Spree River. Other politicians would be jumping for joy, but Schulz looks more worried than anything else.
He says that there is a Danish investment fund that has become notorious in Kreuzberg for buying up buildings and then jacking up rents or selling off the apartments, one by one. Schulz and the people in his district are fighting against gentrification and all the changes it brings.
Andrej Holm prefers to stay out of this dispute within the Green Party. He says that whether gentrification is good or bad can't be determined objectively. "There is no such thing as the ideal urban development that benefits everyone." A city, says Holm, is also characterized by "conflict and the struggle over scarce resources." But he is also sure of one thing: "Poverty is migrating from the inner city to the outskirts."
The Heerstrasse Nord development in Spandau is a case in point: residential high-rises with small windows, some painted in bright colors and others gray. Old women speak Russian as they sit on benches in the parks between the buildings. Many ethnic German immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union settled in Spandau. There are a few pubs and discount grocery stores, which have alcoholics standing outside them, drinking, in the afternoon. There isn't much else to Spandau, a sleepy city made of concrete. And there are no tourists.
There are even vacant apartments in Spandau, advertised on flyers hanging in glass cases between the buildings. One flyer describes a 26-square-meter (280-square-foot) apartment for €250 ($340), something of a bargain in the new Berlin.
Raed Saleh is a member of the Berlin city-state parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). He was born in the West Bank but grew up in the Heerstrasse development. "Now that Kreuzberg and Neukölln are trendy, people are coming here," he says. More than 800 people who receive welfare -- in other words, poor people -- have moved to Spandau in the space of a year, says Saleh. It's not a mass movement yet, but certainly a trend. The inner city is coming up in the world while the outer districts are declining.
A city never rests; it's always in motion. In Berlin, that motion currently consists of the poor moving to the outskirts, while central areas are either being gentrified or deteriorating as part of Partytown, depending on which phase of change a street happens to be in.
How does all of this affect Berliners? Berliners are Germans, Turks, Americans, Israelis, Frenchmen, Arabs, or anyone who feels like a Berliner, something that happens quickly in this city. Nowadays, they no longer react to the "intensification of nervous stimulation" with a blasé attitude, as in the days of Georg Simmel. They no longer look the other way, because nowadays Berliners are indignant. There are protests everywhere; the city is overwrought.
The battle over flight paths has become a symbol of this turmoil. The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport opens next year, it will bring even more arrivals and departures, and more tourists, to Berlin. Residents in many districts of the city are protesting against the expected aircraft noise. The noise will affect people living near the Müggelsee lake in the east of the city most of all. They are now staging protests every Monday in the neighborhood of Friedrichshagen.
Paint bombs were tossed at new buildings two weeks ago, when thousands of people protested against high rents. The city's government, the Senate, recently announced that 15 clubs could be closed, many because of the complaints of nearby residents. The police keep a close eye on the Admiral Bridge in Kreuzberg to prevent the popular gathering place from being used for spontaneous nocturnal concerts, which have triggered protests from local residents. Daniel Dagan is protesting against illegal vacation rentals and Marion Mayr is protesting against a hostel.
For a large number of Berliners, Berlin has become too noisy and too expensive. They no longer want to be the creators of the Berlin vibe for others -- at their own expense.
Tourists 'Destroy' What They Seek
They want their city to be more of a home and less of a world metropolis. This is the city's current dilemma. It thrives because of its reputation as a cosmopolitan, tolerant and cool city. Tourism is one of the most important economic sectors in Berlin. The number of overnight stays increased by 10.2 percent last year, and in the first half of 2011 they were up by 6.5 percent. The boom continues, but many a Berliner would rather live in a city where life is as peaceful and slow-moving as in a small village.
Another problem is that the city could lose the very foundation of its success. German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said: "The tourist destroys what he seeks by finding it." In Berlin, tourists find what they seek by producing it themselves. In the process, the thing that attracted them to the city in the first place is displaced.
Perhaps the day will come when the budget tourists will realize that they aren't experiencing a Berlin party, but a party in Berlin, that they are in the process of destroying the authenticity they seek, and that they are the ones creating the mood that they had believed was the essence of this crazy city.
Tourists can't take Paris's historic buildings home with them, but they can with the Berlin vibe, especially if their only goal was to party all night on the cheap and urinate in a river. Perhaps the same thing will become available someplace else soon, and perhaps it'll be even more desolate. Partytown can move at any time.
'The City Must Change'What can be done to preserve Berlin as both a world metropolis and a home to Berliners? In this respect, Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who is running for reelection on Sept. 18, has a radical point of view. When asked whether his Berliners should have to put up with all of this, he replies: "Yes, they do have to put up with it. The city must change. We've lived in a niche long enough."
Wowereit believes that those who want to prevent change are trying to keep the city in a protective bubble. His predecessor as mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and his party colleague Klaus-Rüdiger Landowsky tried to do the same thing in the past, Wowereit says. "I remember well how terrible that was. It already stank back then."
The "Tim Raue" restaurant in Kreuzberg is the kind of place that exists only in Berlin. Tim Raue, who emerged from the Kreuzberg street gang scene, is now one of the city's top chefs. His restaurant is decorated with expensive wood and blue armchairs, and a painting on the wall depicts full garbage bags.
During a lunch at the restaurant with sociologist Heinz Bude, someone says: "The party zone in Kreuzberg is disgusting." But Bude is also opposed to the protests because, as he says, they are motivated by "small-mindedness" and a "romantic native population."
Ordering in English
In Bude's plan for Berlin, the tourists "can come, but they'll have to pay -- a lot." When that happens, things will fall into place. Besides, he says, Berliners should change their attitudes. At the moment, their city is a "consumerist space" for the world. "We shouldn't have the attitude that we're selling ourselves," says Bude, but that "we're offering something." In his view, the city needs to develop alternatives to tourism, like selling knowledge or products to the world that are unique to Berlin. This is starting to happen in fashion, says Bude.
If Berlin continues to place so much emphasis on budget tourism, it will indeed become a giant Ballermann before long. This could keep the city afloat, but it would be unpleasant and even a little undignified for such a large, old city. Berlin would no longer be Berlin.
"Do you have a reservation?" the waitress at The Bird restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg asks, speaking in English. Hamburgers are on the menu, and sweaty men drinking beer out of glass mugs dance around the table. One man yells that his name is Jake and that he was born "naked."
The waitresses wear tight shorts and ask: "Are you guys ready to order?" They don't speak German unless they have to. They serve American food, and English comes with the territory. At The Bird, there's not much left of Berlin.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan