Gentrification's Victims Berlin Fears Rise of New Slums
Part 3: Could Berlin's Suburbs Become Like Paris's Banlieues?
The story of Berlin's politics and its slums is one of many lofty visions but little success. Wowereit's SPD and the Left Party promised in their 2006 coalition agreement to "preserve the social mix," declaring that rent prices should remain "consistent with their social mandate." The city Senate also pledged to "counteract tendencies toward exclusion and segregation." The state-level SPD even talked of a "new era" in urban planning in a 2010 paper.
In reality, new problem areas continue to form. Some parts of the city have seen their populations swapped out completely in the time since the Berlin Wall fell. One in two city residents first moved to the German capital after 1990.
Housing policy is a central aspect of social policy. City planners in the mid-19th century developed a recipe for good cohesion within the city, constructing residential buildings that preserved Berlin's social mix by housing rich people in the front buildings and poor people in the side wings and rear buildings off central courtyards. For city planners of that period, workers' slums in cities such as Manchester served as a clear example of what they wanted to avoid. Instead, they envisioned the strong supporting the weak.
Sold Off by Sarrazin
Where does Mayor Wowereit stand with his policies? Together with Thilo Sarrazin, who was Berlin's finance minister at the time, the mayor sold off around 110,000 apartments that had been government property between 2002 and 2007. He also eliminated a support program for 28,000 state-subsidized apartments. This leaves Wowereit lacking an important tool toward preventing city segregation. According to a recent survey by research institute Forsa, one in four Berliners affected by rent increases plans to move soon. This January, meanwhile, Wowereit declared rising rents were a good sign. Residents simply need to get used to the fact that the city -- which has long been famous for its cheap rents -- is no longer as inexpensive as it once was, the mayor said, although he added that income levels should also increase.
Politicians who are in closer contact with ordinary people than Wowereit experience the results of this mindset at first hand. Ellen Haussdörfer is a member of Berlin's state parliament for the center-left Social Democrats. Her electoral district includes the Kosmos-Viertel, and she lives just a few hundred meters from the concrete high-rises.
Haussdörfer recently traveled to Paris for a few days to see the city's banlieues, outlying urban districts where young people sometimes riot and police carry out brutal raids. Haussdörfer was shocked by what she saw. "It made me realize what might happen in Berlin if we don't work to stop the trend," she says.
The politician fought for an urban renewal "neighborhood management" program, with the participation of social workers. But Berlin's financial authorities blocked the plan, because the planning zone that Kosmos is located in also includes a development of private homes, which, statistically speaking, lowers the area's incidence of social problems. Aid from the federal level is also unlikely, after the German government drastically cut its "Social City" urban redevelopment program. "If we don't address the problems," Haussdörfer warns, "the resulting costs will soon be so high that we won't be able to get the situation back under control."
Prada in 'Chestnut Gardens'
Wolfgang Kaschuba is an urban anthropologist at Berlin's Humboldt University. He examines the way elite groups establish their boundaries in Berlin, in comparison with other major cities such as Moscow and New York. He researches the way small "ghettos" of the wealthy suddenly appear in the middle of the city, in the form of upscale developments with pleasant names such as "Prenzlauer Gardens," "Chestnut Gardens" or "Choriner Courtyards" (located, according to the project website, "at the centre of a working and living space for an intellectual elite").
"City center residents want a high degree of conformity," Kaschuba says, explaining that they don't want to be confronted with other social milieus. "But when it's just Prada rubbing shoulders with Armani, then a city doesn't have a mixture anymore -- it has a problem."
Diversity and difference have always been important principles in European urban planning. But what happens when a city is left to its own devices -- when the market rules and politics takes a back seat?
Escape from a World of Hate
In the Kosmos-Viertel, a few dedicated individuals have cobbled together their own utopia on a patch of undeveloped land next to the high-rises. The children's farm, which is called "Waslala," is home to wooden shacks, horses, a sheep pen and vegetable patches. Tine Bader from FiPP, the association that runs the project, says the site takes its name from the utopian novel of the same name by the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli. "In the book," Bader explains, "Waslala is a hidden place for people who no longer want to live in a world of hate and violence."
Even on a cold February day, quite a number of children from the apartment high-rises across the way have come to look after the animals and plants. If all goes as planned, Bader says, the kids will learn responsibility, friendship and tolerance here. "And then, maybe one day, they'll make it out of Kosmos."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein