A Victim of Its Own Success: Berlin Drowns in Tourist Hordes and Rising Rents

By Wiebke Hollersen and Dirk Kurbjuweit

Part 2: '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 Partytown

The 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.

No Nostalgia

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.

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1. Berlin
ASDFZUIOP 09/17/2011
Very good article about Berlin! This covers a lot of truth about the city, and how people have difficulties to cope with the changes. I have been living in Berlin for several years and I still have problems to understand the conflicting opinions about gentrification, improvement of accomodation leading to rising rents, tourists, left-extreme protests and so on. There is pent-up anger among the population, not only about noisy tourists, but also about "rich" Germans moving to Berlin from Southern Germany, willing to pay high rents which they are used to from their home towns. This article gives a good overview over the current situation of Berlin as a whole. I hope Berlin will not become a "Disneyland" for tourists, like Paris and Rome. There, inhabitants travel hours to their workplace, as the inner city rents eat all their salary or are only affordable for the rich elite. Poor migrants move to the outskirts, where rarely a tourist crosses their way and lots of social and ethnical problems exist. It is true: Central Berlin has not enough picturesque sites to make up for such a transformation.
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