A Victim of Its Own Success Berlin Drowns in Tourist Hordes and Rising Rents
Berlin is struggling to maintain its identity as its popularity soars. Budget tourists are flocking to the German capital, eager to sample the famous nightlife, while Scandinavian investors are snapping up cheap real estate. Residents are protesting, but the gentrification juggernaut seems unstoppable.
It all started with a noise, a rattling like the sound produced by small, hard wheels. Daniel Dagan hardly noticed it at first, but over time it became a disturbingly frequent occurrence on the stairs of his building on Wilhelmstrasse in central Berlin. Then nameplates began disappearing from the doorbell panel and were replaced with numbers. Dagan started seeing unfamiliar faces, and sometimes he saw carts filled with dirty towels in the courtyard.
It slowly occurred to Dagan that his building was secretly being transformed into a hotel. Now he knows that the rattling noise comes from trolley suitcases. Strangers have often asked him for directions to their apartment, as if he were the concierge. But Dagan is a journalist, originally from Israel, who moved to Wilhelmstrasse 10 years ago, into what was then an ordinary apartment building, a gray prefabricated building surrounded by others like it. It was a good location, just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, which makes it appealing to tourists.
"Do you see the curtains?" says Dagan as he walks along the path behind his building. "They're the same curtains everywhere." Of the 21 apartments in his building, Dagan suspects that 10 are only rented to tourists these days. He doesn't want to live in an illegal hotel. He wants to know his neighbors, and he wants them to have an ordinary life like his. He doesn't want temporary neighbors who hold loud parties, throw garbage into the hallways, are never there for long and don't feel responsible for anything.
The district office in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood, where Wilhelmstrasse is located, has counted 257 vacation rental apartments along the street. They shouldn't be there, but no one does anything about it. Dagan and his neighbors have formed a citizens' initiative to address the problem, and to defend what they think ought to be a Berlin for Berliners.
Looking for a New Home
It's a question of having a real home. As Germany's largest city, Berlin is both a global metropolis and the place millions call home, which many Berliners see as a contradiction. For them, the concept of home implies peace and quiet, safety and comfort. A world metropolis, on the other hand, is a place characterized by turmoil, movement and change.
Berlin counts more than 20 million tourist overnight stays a year, a number it aims to increase to 30 million. The world is infatuated with Berlin, a magnet that attracts many people who decide to make it their permanent home. This raises the question of who the city belongs to in a globalized world: its residents or everyone?
Berliners will elect the parliament of their city-state on Sunday. Rising rents are the most important issue in this year's campaign. Rents in downtown Berlin are now 14 percent higher than they were two years ago, a figure that reflects the extent of the change taking place in the city.
A new city has been taking shape in Berlin for several years now, the city of tourists and new arrivals. It is growing uncontrollably, not adhering to any plans or boundaries, and even the law seems to hold limited applicability. It's slightly reminiscent of the frontiers of the 19th century, when a new world, unchecked and inconsiderate, was pushing its way into an old world in North America, Brazil and South Africa, triggering conflict between the pioneers and the original residents.
This new city could soon become the actual city. If that happens, Berlin will no longer be primarily a home for Berliners, but a stage for an international audience. Some ugly terms to describe this new city have been making the rounds in Berlin, with some calling it a "giant Ballermann," a reference to a notoriously rowdy beach bar on the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca. Others call it a giant Disneyland, because of a growing sense of artificiality and absence of authenticity.
How does this affect Berliners, and what is their current frame of mind? In the early 20th century, Berlin philosopher Georg Simmel wrote "Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben" ("The Metropolis and Mental Life"), an essay that is widely viewed as the founding document of urban sociology. Simmel saw an "intensification of nervous stimulation" in big cities and concluded that the reaction to it was a "blasé attitude." He argued that residents of big cities denied themselves a reaction to what was happening around them, because it would overtax their nerves. Is this still true today? Are Berliners blasé about what is happening in their own city?
Berliners are important for Berlin. It sounds simple, but Berliners are more important for their city than Parisians are for Paris or Romans for Rome. Old stones make up much of what distinguishes these cities. People go there because of their beauty, while people go to Berlin despite its ugliness. Tourists and new arrivals yearn for the Berlin vibe, an atmosphere that isn't shaped by buildings but by people with ideas.
There are many Berlins within Berlin. It would be easy to paint a portrait of a wonderful city. But this is a story about the struggle between the old city and the new one, and the contradiction between home and world metropolis.
Market for Beds
Oliver Winter is a pioneer, one of those who are driving the new Berlin into the old one. Winter's contribution is that he has placed 3,000 beds into the city. Half of them are sturdy metal beds that schoolchildren can jump up and down on, but the most important thing about them is that they're inexpensive. Bed is a word that often comes up in a conversation with Winter, because it's the currency of his industry. Winter runs hostels in giant yellow buildings, as part of a chain called A&O.
Aside from his receding hairline, Winter has a boyish look about him. He is 36 and has been in the bed business for 11 years. He is standing on the top floor of his most recent property on Lehrter Strasse in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood, looking down at the main train station, only a 10-minute walk away. The building, his latest success, contains 820 beds.
It all started when Berlin became the German capital. Suddenly every school group wanted to go to Berlin, says Winter. He had been traveling for a while, to places like Australia and New Zealand, and had returned to his native Berlin just in time to experience a new boom.
He earned the money for his first hostel, in the eastern Friedrichshain neighborhood, by opening a beverage market while attending university. Tour operators were desperate for beds, he says.
Seven years ago, the invasion of the schoolchildren was followed by a wave of Easyjet tourists, when the budget airline established a hub in Berlin. Winter opened hostels all over Germany and even in Prague. "In the end, what customers everywhere want is an inexpensive bed," he says.
Too Much Noise
Marion Mayr and Karsten Mierke live next to his 820-bed hostel in Moabit. The tour busses block traffic in front of their building, and at night the girls staying at the hostel squeal from window to window, while the boys climb over the gutters. The tourists stagger across the street, urinate in the bushes and smash beer bottles.
Mayr and Mierke live in a five-story building, with each floor consisting of a large shared apartment. But the residents aren't hippies. They are normal people who go to work or university in the morning, and who need their sleep at night, and they believe that it shouldn't be unreasonable to expect this, even in central Berlin.
Now Mayr and Mierke keep a note of the noise levels during the night, writing down the time of each incident, to use as evidence against the hostel. Many of their neighbors on the street do the same thing. Or they call the police, the course of action recommended by the local authority responsible for noise control.
They don't want to be bourgeois and intolerant. "But can't all of this be done in a way that's tolerable for people?" Mierke asks.
In an effort to curb shouting across the courtyard, hostel owner Winter has modified the windows so that they can no longer be opened wide. There isn't much he can do about noisy guests on the streets, he says, adding that his neighbors will just have to get used to the tourists. Every visitor is good for Berlin, says Winter.