Is writing about whether Berlin is “over” over?

by Guest Blogger

Scheiß auf Gentrification

by Katrin Strohmaier.

So Berlin is over. We’ve heard, read and – let’s be honest – said it ourselves on numerous occasions: while we were standing in line for two hours last time we wanted to go to that open air club that only a year ago was still an insiders’ tip; when we went to that new IPA place and a half pint was over €5; when our friend came back tired and disillusioned from house hunting, because after ten years of living in a WG, they wanted to have a place of their own. They had grown up, but so had the city – and all of a sudden, a two bedroom apartment wasn’t €400 anymore, but almost double that. So yes, says the nostalgic little man in our heads – it looks like Berlin is over after all. And yes, says the media, say the bloggers, again and again: Berlin is over.

By that, we obviously don’t mean that the world isn’t interested in the German capital anymore: in February, the Berlin-based newspaper Der Tagesspiegel proclaimed a record-high in numbers of visitors: with 28.7 million over-night guests, 2014 was Berlin’s most successful year in terms of tourism – ever. And just over a week ago, the Guardian published yet another article about young Brits moving away from buzzing, yet unaffordable London, in order to try their luck over here. Many of them are here to stay: according to the newspaper, in 2013 an estimated 10,000 Brits were living in the German capital, and this number increased by 35% within only one year, rising to just under 13,500 at the end of 2014. Altogether, 45,000 new inhabitants were registered in 2014 alone.

When we say “over”, we actually mean exactly that: we’ve been discovered by the world, and now people want in on the utopia that was Berlin when we first came here, or while we were growing up here. And those people bring about change. Now, one thing Berliners too easily forget is this: Berlin embodies the very principle of change. It always has. Without it, Berlin would have never become the open-minded, non-judgmental work in progress that we fled our hometowns for (for many people I know precisely because time seemed to stand still at home). Berlin, on the other hand, lost its status as the capital of Germany, was sliced apart by a massive and deadly wall, was reunited, then “invaded” by thousands of Germans and people from all over the world, who saw the potential to create something new where there was a whole lot of nothingness. Here, it felt, you could be anyone you wanted to be – and be accepted, if not respected for it; you could contribute to social, ecological and creative innovations, turn your squat into a club or a giant collective, or open up a little farm on a piece of fallow land.

Now, it looks like the tables are turning, the focus is shifting: squats and communes have to fend for their lives, many of the new Berlin inhabitants don’t know what VoKü means anymore, and instead open up hipster cafés and over-priced vintage stores all over Neukölln. But look again: social enterprises and innovative approaches to dealing with social, ecological and other sustainability-related challenges are mushrooming in the German capital. To quote another Guardian article from earlier this year “twenty per cent of the city’s GDP flows through the creative and culture industry, while more than 4% is generated by research and higher education. Berlin boasts more than 70 publicly funded foundations along with 40 technology incubators.” Together with those attracted by the (still) comparably unconventional spirit of the city, Berlin is growing up. And it might even have found a way to be different and self-sufficient at the same time: Berlin isn’t running up debt anymore, yet it still is in debt, due to decades of financial dependence on other Bundesländer. And no one in their right mind can want this to be Berlin’s model for the future. It’s not an anti-capitalist statement, a charming part of Berlin’s refreshing “fuck you” attitude towards the rest of the world; it’s unsustainable.

Let’s also not forget that Berlin has long been a city of foreigners – be it from another part of Germany or another part of the world. Some “original” Berliners have always had a problem with that fact (mostly with those having moved from another part of Germany by the way), yet it’s pretty much exactly what distinguished Berlin from many other cities. It is, in the best sense of the word, a melting pot; of people, attitudes, ideas, languages and many other things. And when I moved back to Berlin after a couple of years in London, I was, quite frankly, afraid that Berlin would disappoint me by not being as cosmopolitan and vibrant as the British capital – only in order to be very positively surprised by how much more international (read: not European, but actually international) the city had become. I’m more than willing to trade a few insiders’ tips for my city becoming more diverse!

But with all the noise around whether or not Berlin is over, it is, of course, important to keep in mind that it’s not all about whether you mind people caring about fashion now, or that you have to look for a new favourite club; it’s also about chances – namely about who gets them and who doesn’t. Compared with other European and German cities, Berlin has always offered a life in dignity to those who don’t have a lot of money. And despite it still being comparatively cheap, Berlin is definitely changing for the worse in this regard. According to a Deutsche Welle article, rents in Berlin have risen by up to 50% over the past five years – and that in a city where 85% of residents are tenants. But it’s way too easy to just blame that on the increasing number of people moving here. If you have a problem with this development (and you should), do something about it. What we need is affordable housing being the law and salaries to rise at least as quickly as inflation. There are people who take to the streets and collect signatures for public housing development funds and greater public control of private landlords as well as housing companies – join them!

In her recent article “Is Berlin over?”, Paola Moretti concluded that “love is resistance and the first love is never outmoded.” I think true love involves accepting when the loved one is changing, if change is good for them; and to help them address the challenges they will face on the way.

Katrin Strohmaier spends her days as a mouthpiece for Photocircle, a Berlin-based start-up connecting photography and humanitarianism.