Gentrification, a term coined by Ruth Glass over 50 years ago to describe ‘demographic shifts within an urban community.’ This process is often ushered in by terms such as “up-and-coming neighbourhood” and “new place to be” as artists, students and intellectuals move out to a poorer part of a city, often to avoid high rent prices. Gentrification’s most visible markers are usually the sudden influx of art galleries, micro-breweries and artisanal cafes and restaurants. I have seen the results of gentrification in countless cities, from Oakland in California and Wynwood in Miami to the East End of Glasgow and Stoneybatter in Dublin. However, one of the starkest sites of a clearly gentrified area that I have encountered was in Neukölln in Berlin.
As I live in Halle (Saale), Germany I had to stay in a hostel before catching a flight from Berlin. My criteria were cheap and close to the airport. I found one ten euros a night and close to an S-Bahn and that was the extent of my research. After checking in my friend and I decided to get some food and Google Maps showed not far from us there were a number of popular restaurants. Leaving the hostel, we passed a string of abandoned buildings and boarded up shops. There was an absence of street lights and we thought maybe we were walking in the wrong direction. Then we turned a corner and were suddenly confronted with a very different scene. On our right, an art gallery with an array of conceptual modern sculptures. A guy with a beard, skinny jeans and a trawler hat passing on our left. Ahead a small square full of packed out restaurants and bars adorned with fairy lights. The first restaurant we tried was full and the look of disdain at our attire confirmed that we were never going to get a seat there. Next door we got a seat at a pizza place where rude service is apparently part of its charm and the food was just fine.
Back at the hostel I had to research this place. How could a small area have such a dissonance of identity? I asked my German friends if they had heard of Neukölln and the concurrence was that it was ‘the up-and-coming’ area in Berlin. Outside of North America, the debate around gentrification rages in Berlin the loudest. The ‘poor but sexy’ image created by the city’s policy makers has allowed them to avoid the connotations of ‘displacement and class struggles’ attached to gentrification. In reality, gentrification is an area originally inhabited by a city’s most disenfranchised communities becoming impossible and unaffordable to live in. As the students and creatives move in and the tourists become attracted by the artisan restaurants and the illusion of ‘living like the locals,’ the real locals get pushed out. Neukölln once had a reputation for crime and violence, it was even described as the ‘Bronx of Berlin.’ This all began to change in 2007. As Neukölln gets mentioned in more and more travel guides to Berlin, it simultaneously sees the most dramatic rent increase in the city. Many policymakers deny that gentrification in Berlin exists and instead claim that they have invested millions in improving the most impoverished parts of the city. One said, “when we act against bad landlords and bad living conditions it is called gentrification and when we don’t do anything we are blamed for these bad conditions.” They strongly deny that any displacement is happening in Neukölln among contrary reports that landlords are eager to push out low income families in favour of those with a middle class income.
Many come from vulnerable communities, having the largest number of immigrants in the city, who may be less aware of their legal rights and thus easier to intimidate by landlords and housing authorities. Therefore, the measures put in place and the rent cap is subject to legal loopholes which hasten the gentrification process. In 2016, Kate Connelly for the Guardian suggested that the ‘social environment protection’ measures instituted in Berlin have not been effective in halting the progression of gentrification in Neukölln. The milieuschutz, a rent control measure instituted in many cities in Germany, has halted many targeted renovations to attraction a middle class income but in Neukölln the process had already begun and as one resident said “the milieuschutz is toothless in the fight against the investors’ will as long as the politicians are not behind it.”
So, what is the solution? Gentrification is a double edge sword. On the one hand it has become synonymous with the displacement of communities in lower income areas and the disenfranchisement of those communities in favour of the speculative interests of the wealthy. However, some would argue that it has also contributed to a making those areas safer with lower crime rates and governmental safety measures. Clearly this method is tried, tested and not enough. In 2016 the Guardian reported the measures some cities were taking to combat the negative impact of gentrification. One solution suggested is the introduction of a land value tax which would mean the increased locational value of the property would mean more money being reinvested into that community instead of into investors pockets. This could lead to a ‘best of both worlds’ situation. Artists and activists can move to an area, create groups to improve it and instead of acting as a cog in the gentrification machine, can add value to the community. The key is that the government, investors, artists, students and activists must work with the pre-existing community to ensure that the people already living in the ‘place-to-be’ benefit as well.