Image: Rainer Schorr

Berlin, October 2020 – “A bit of gentrification has never hurt an urban district,” Denis Yücel wrote in the taz daily eight years ago. To be sure, he was talking about not so recent times. But for Yücel, memories of the 1990es in Berlin-Friedrichshain were still comparatively fresh. “God surely never entered this area (half Stasi, half Nazi, or both wrapped into one). But others came instead: squatters and party-goers, many of them recently arrived from West Germany who, while not turning the district into paradise, gradually transformed it into a half-way civilised place. Of course, they drove out the long-established population. And they did do a thorough job.”

“This squarely puts the finger on something that tends to remain obscure when we talk about gentrification today: the enchantment that drives the discovery of a district by young non-conformists who find in it fresh opportunities to flourish in the form of vacant or affordable dwellings, on the one hand, and the fact that at no point in time were such districts uninhabited, on the other hand,” said Rainer Schorr, Managing Director of PRS Family Trust GmbH. “One reason why the frequently myth-building narratives of gentrification’s trailblazers tend to forget that displacement begins in the early stages of the upgrading process is that the people who previously lived in the respective district failed to write down their experiences. Their recollections are not part of the cultural memory.” Another aspect is that the mentioned narratives also ensured that the initial gentrification phase is perceived as a quasi-paradisical situation free of deprivations and conflicts, while everything that comes afterwards appears as a stage of decline.

Rebuilding East Germany Reversed the Trend

To be sure, the situation in Berlin is unique. Here, built-up areas in some boroughs were indeed back at square one, in a manner of speaking. Especially in Prenzlauer Berg and in some parts of Friedrichshain and Mitte, too, entire blocks were about to be condemned in the late 1980s. The East German government had constructed comfortable prefab tower block apartments in the outskirts Marzahn and Hellersdorf by the tens of thousands while letting the period flats between Oranienburger Strasse and Greifswalder Strasse deteriorate. Places where toilets on stair landings and tile stoves were standard, where windows were in need of repair, roofs were leaking and façades were crumbling on block after block, increasingly became home to people who basically had little or no common ground with the East German regime, and who made their way into the West in significant numbers via Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1989. Someone coming to Prenzlauer Berg in those days to look for a flat did well to check for dark windows that had not been washed for a while, ask the neighbour, and enter a given flat before signing a regular lease with the municipal housing organisation and paying about 50 East German marks (equivalent to 10 Deutschmarks or 5 euros) per month.

Today, 30 years on, you will hardly find a flat for a basic rent of less than 1,500 euros in this area. In return, many of the Belle Époque houses are radiant in their regained splendour and feature modern specifications. Moreover, clear signs of substantial wealth are visible everywhere you go. “Increased capital allowances for modernisations and the inflow of young people from West Germany looking for adventure have contributed to the appreciation every bit as much as the relocation of the federal government to Berlin and the economic upturn of the city in general. In many areas, Berlin is no longer poor, but retains its appeal,” said Rainer Schorr.

Incoming Migration into Inner Cities Initiates Displacement Effect

The question whether the changes that coincide with the development are good or bad are subject to much controversy today. Many lament that things got lost. The sense of loss becomes particularly conspicuous when stores or institutions close down or are threatened by closure. Protests are frequent, and you even have the occasional rally. Yet despite these, many of the trendy cafés, especially in Prenzlauer Berg, have gone out of business and been replaced by restaurants, boutique stores or baby shops. “Those who respond to such changes by calling it displacement overlook the fact that not just their residential surroundings are changing but the lifestyles of many residents as well,” said Rainer Schorr. “Once you start a family and embark on a career after getting your degree, you have different needs than a 30-year-old single, and you will also automatically help to transform your district from within.”

At the same time, there are new external impulses to consider. “Urbanisation is one of the major trends of our day and age. Inner cities have noticeably gained in terms of liveability over the past decades as a result of reduced noise and pollution levels,” said Rainer Schorr. “You no longer need to move away into a leafy suburb out of health concerns, but can live close to the town centre, to cultural amenities and to your workplace. This explains why many of the higher earners but also the parents of the first gentrifiers now move into the posh and cosy historic neighbourhoods.” Given the limited densification and new-build development potential, the composition of the population is undergoing a successive transformation. Schorr shares the concern that people in lower income groups therefore have an increasingly hard time finding affordable flats.

“No doubt, everyone has a right to live in the city and to take part in the cultural life,” said Rainer Schorr. “But I do not agree with the approach taken by Berlin’s policymakers, which is to freeze the urban development in response and to impose preservation statutes on many parts of Berlin. It would be more helpful instead to upgrade the cultural amenities in the peripheral areas and to improve the transport links between the suburbs and the town centre. It would give a city like Berlin a chance to keep growing and would take the edge off potential allocation battles, which are clearly one of the aspects in the intensifying gentrification debate.”