Saturday, 15 October 2011

Berlin's Tourist-Haters Need To Get Out Of Town.


Is The Mike Open Or Closed?


The other night I went to what used to be my favourite open mike night. I had been to it only once before, when it was still being hosted at the RAW Tempel but I had a fantastic time that night, and promised to return. The night, called Berlin Free City, has now moved on to a new location but unfortunately, the new location does not have the same charm as the old one. RAW Tempel was a humble, welcoming den at the beginning/end of Friedrichshain. Like its borderland location, the people there thrived on the tenuous and the unpredictable. They were not averse to meeting strangers even when the resulting conversation was a fragmented pastiche of languages instead of a comfortable, cohesive whole.

Berlin Free City is now based in a new venue in north Friedrichshain, on the border between the "trendy" and "edgy" sections of the kiez (district). The venue itself is darker than RAW and feels smaller, neither of which fazed me. But there was a third difference which did: the indifference of the people at the night. When my friend Andreas and I arrived at the new venue, it was empty except for us, the barman and a handful of organizers who were slowly setting the stage up. We sat down beneath a photo of a burning cop car and, as usual, smiled and nodded hello to anyone who came our way while we set the world to rights. No word of welcome or inquiry was extended to us. Oh, the barman was helpful enough... but then that was to be expected. Andreas was tipping him, after all.

About half an hour later, the organizers sent the friendly barman over to collect a 1 euro pfand (deposit) from us for the performers (deposits are usually returnable but the barman made it clear to us that this was not). Also, it seemed like a cold gesture to send the barman over when the organizers were only standing about three meters away from us. There had been no mention of any performance fees on the Berlin Free City website and Andreas and I were both pretty skint by that point. While he negotiated a lower price with the barman, I looked up wistfully at the burning car photo, thinking that the atmosphere in this place could also use some more warmth. An open mike event is supposed to be about giving newcomers a chance to strut their stuff but it seemed like we were too far outside the loop to qualify. Was it the fact that we were speaking English, or was it our unfamiliar faces that made us seem unapproachable? Whatever the reason, we left the place early with a lingering sense of rejection.

The Wall In The Mind Is Called "Gentrification".

Whenever I cross Boxhagener Strasse lately (the street which separates the north part of Friedrichshain from the south), I notice a distinctive chill descending upon me. My friend Andreas, who grew up in Berlin, blames gentrification in the south of the kiez for souring the spirit elsewhere. He tells me that many people who are now living in north Friedrichshain have been forcefully relocated from southern hot-spots like Ostkreuz, which were systematically cleansed of original residents to make way for a more consumer-friendly neighbourhood.

The question of whether governments should pursue profit as a matter of policy, and compromise their citizens' well-being in doing so, is a serious one. What the city council is doing to Berlin is just a small part of a global trend, as the worldwide Occupy movement has demonstrated. Shutting out newcomers is a naively provincial reaction, and it shows an inability to grasp the scope of the problem - let alone deal with it. How can tourists be blamed for the fact that Berlin city council, which is a body comprised of German-speaking Berliners, okayed plans to renovate Ostkreuz? Or develop projects like Mediaspree? Or banish rent controls?

While only a hard-core minority of Berliners actually hate tourists, more and more people seem to blame tourists for gentrification. I worry that such flawed logic will spread, sabotaging the efforts that are being made to halt gentrification. Tacheles e. V. is just one organization that has relied on tourists to support its struggle against closure - a tactic that helped it survive more than 20 years. To win any battle one must enlist whatever allies one can find, and Berlin's tourists add up to 1,000,000 potential allies each year. Anybody who is serious about fighting gentrification needs to harness this tide of potential supporters, not alienate them.

Who Stole The Golden Goose?

Tourism brings in a huge amount of revenue to Berlin. That tourists can afford to pay more for stuff than the locals do is a given... but it is up to the locals to decide whether they do pay more. If greedy local shopkeepers and landlords put up their prices to take advantage of people from wealthier cities, is that the tourists' fault? If a thief steals 10 bucks off you in the street, it is always the thief who is in the wrong. Why shouldn't the same logic apply when an hotelier starts charging an extra 10 euros a head because "tourists can afford it"? Tourists may bring the money to Berlin but it is Berliners who decide whether that money gets used or abused. When they notice the prices going up in their local shops they should point the finger of blame, not at the tourists, but at the shopkeeper - for being greedy - or at the government, for allowing him to do it.

Tourists and their money are merely catalysts in this whole gentrification debate. Their sudden presence in Berlin has revealed weaknesses in its citizens that they didn't know they possessed. Well it turns out that they do possess them - lesson learned. Can we please move on to the next chapter? The one where people put their heads together and think up a sustainable strategy for preventing greed from destroying their communities? I'd hate to see the North Friedrichshains of Berlin changing their image in order to attract more tourists... but I also don't want them changing to scare tourists away.

5 comments:

  1. In this writer's humble opinion, the first major step in fighting gentrification is to introduce stronger rent controls across the board and apply them to all residences, not just those which are owned by genossenschaften (co-operatives). And of course, for politicians to listen to people when they continually protest against new developments and rising prices.

    What would your first step be? Please post your thoughts here!

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  2. YES.
    You are totally, 100% right here. Especially that final point about rent control.
    Expats like us are here because it is relatively cheap (for us, compared to London), even with rising rents. I can see the effect we are having as landlords charge what the market will allow, but that's because they are permitted to do so, by the government.
    Of course, we'd like to pay lower rents, and minimise our impact on the poorer people that already live here. And as tax-paying contributors to our adopted city/state, we shouldn't feel like hypocrites for suggesting solutions like this.
    James, überlin

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  3. Thanks for your opinion James. I agree, we expats have just as much political responsibility towards our adopted homelands as the locals do. I also would like to see more of Berlin's newcomers taking a stand against the rising prices, rather than being passive victims/contributors in the process.

    I also wanted to add an edit to the article: according to Andreas, tourists amount to "20.000.000 potential supporters, not only 1 million". Thanks for correcting me Andreas:-)

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  4. You all make great points. It's so complicated though... One thing that complicates matters further is the attitude some native Germans have, only some of them, but enough to sour the atmosphere a little bit on this issue...

    For instance, here's a reply sent out to all applicants for a nice cheap 1-room flat in neukölln - I didn't even apply really, I'd just sent an email (auf deutsch, auch!) to ask for more info so was put on the cc list for the reply:

    "Dear non-german-speaking-people,

    there are so many people interested that I don't think you have a real chance to get my appartement.
    Sorry and good luck somewhere else!

    (Et c'est étonnant de voir tous ces punaise de Français envahir notre cher Berlin! :-) Bonne chance à vous spécialement!)"

    - that last bit means something like: "(And it's astonishing to see all these French bugs invade our beloved Berlin :-) Good luck to you specifically!)"

    It's not the prevailing attitude luckily, but not an isolated instance either. It's the sort of thing I can sort of understand on the one hand, on the other... it is not something I can imagine anyone applying for a flat in London, New York, Paris, etc., or any other bigger or smaller city attracting people from all over the world, would ever get. Please tell me I'm wrong? :)

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  5. ps - I should add, the bit in English was at the beginning, the rest of the email was of course in German with all the detailed info about the flat, which makes sense as the ad was in German indeed. But that also made the nasty intro bit in English unnecessary really...

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