The neighbourhood of Prenzlauerberg is hot, or to be more clear extremely popular. Although this part of Berlin tells its own story, it stands for what happens in many parts of Berlin.
Newcomers, emigrants from Africa, club tourists, or ‘cultural refugees’ from other parts of Germany, they all leave their footprints.
Why Berlin is changing so fast
Berlin stands out to other European cities by its rapid changes. Besides historical events, the great demographic pressure speeds up developments in the city. Who has not visited Berlin for a number of years, can spend a week visiting all new spots, buildings and changed streets. All cities change, some more than others. Berlin is high ranking when it comes to the intensity and pace of changes. This causes some inconveniences.
Three important demographic developments changed the city over the past years:
- A fast increase in number of tourists;
- Migration to Berlin from other parts of Germany and Europe;
- Large influx of refugees and immigrants.
Berlin is extremely popular tourist destination
It was top priority of former mayor Klaus Wowereit, the one from ‘arm aber sexy’, to promote tourism to his city. It served him well, as in a city of public debate about almost everything, tourism was still free of any public debate. In 2014 Berlin booked 28,7 million overnight stays, 6,5% more than 2013. The number of visitors rose to 11,9 million.
With tourism expanding, so did the resistance. Reason for this was the occupation of more and more apartments for tourists. With the introduction of AIRBNB the retraction of apartments for Berliners rose excessively. Stated by AIRBNB a staggering number of 600.000 people slept stayed at a AIRBNB address.
With the new law ‘Zweckentfremdungsverbot‘ the senate of Berlin tried to slow down the retraction of apartments for Berliners. As much as 4,500 apartments in use as holiday apartments disappeared from the market as the law was introduced and changed the holiday accommodation back into living apartments for inhabitants of Berlin. But nobody knows the exact number.
In the mean time law has met legal challenges. A judge verdict stated that the law infringes the basic right of an owner to use his apartment the way he wishes. If he wants to rent it to tourists, he must be free to do so, according the verdict. The judge added one condition: the apartment should have been rented as such before the ‘Zweckentfremdungsverbot’ came into effect on April 1st 2014.
‘Hi British lads. Pissing against our doors and ringing the doorbell at 5 PM is not cool. We look forward to Brexit.’
A poster of an irritated neighbour.
The consequences of mass tourism are noticeable in a number of neighbourhoods. In the popular parts like Kreuzberg, Mitte, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauerberg small retail-shops and café’s are replaced by brand stores decorated as a trendy Berlin place, but now targeting the large public visiting Berlin for just a couple of days. Rents are rising. A tourist is happy to pay a months’ rent for a apartment, but then per week. Perhaps more than elsewhere young tourist do not visit the usual tourist attractions such as monument, churches, palaces, but rather explore the ‘cool neighbourhoods’. That causes a lot of nightly unrest and nuisance.
The rich of Germany want to live in ‘poor’ Berlin
It is trendy to live in Berlin, albeit for just a few years. People from the richer parts of Germany want to take part in the extensive cultural landscape and experience the atmosphere of a moderate life style. Yet this experience is slightly fake. The newcomers want to live in a nice apartment at lower rents then where they come from. The fact that locals with low incomes are being pushed out before they arrive, is part of the deal. Packages of apartments are bought often by foreign investors or speculators at popular spots in town. Consequently all tricks are used in order to force the current tenants to move out. To avoid protective laws, tenants are offered a premium to leave. If they ignore the bribe, more pressure is applied like intimidation or threats.
The relatively low prices of real estate around the year 2000, combined with the widespread popularity of the city, caused an overheating of the real estate market. The fast number of apartments bought by investors, in Berlin called ‘real estate jaws’, leads to harrowing scenes. Both rents and buying prises rise rapidly. The cheap years of Berlin seem over. Monthly rents of €10,00/m2 or more are no longer an exception, while €5,00/m2 is considered to be the norm for social housing.
Buying prices start at €3.000/m2, and easily doubles. Berlin does still not match the higher prices of Hamburg or Munich, but the city is catching up fast.
It takes a small impulse to ignite a gentrification fire in a run down corner of a neighbourhood. A market hall converted into a food market, a few trendy bars of café’s, focusses the attention to specific spots. Because most of the rental apartment blocks are private owned, usually by small owners, prices are forced up without limitation.
A neighbourhood like Prenzlauerberg, once the area of the underground club scene, these days has social-demographicly more resemblance with a suburb of Hamburg or Munich, than with a Berliner ‘Kiez’. The day-night rhythm of the former club-life has been replaced by baby buggy pushing mothers and fathers. When the old day-night rhythm interferes with the current day-to-day life, conflicts appear. ‘Schwaben verpisst euch!’ (‘Schwaben go home!’) is a frequently text in spray paint, aimed at the by some hated people from the rich south of Germany.
In 2015 Berlin gave shelter to some 70.000 refugees and immigrants
For many 2015 was the year that Europa had to cope with a large influx of refugees and immigrants. In Germany the expression ‘Wilkommenskultur’ signalled an open attitude toward the incoming immigrants. Nobody seemed to have a full overview over what exactly unfolded in the chaotic year of 2015. Estimations of the number of refugees/immigrants coming to Berlin run form 60.000 t0 90.000. It challenged the authorities and the thousands of volunteers to keep order in the process of distributing the tens of thousands all over the city. Berlin, the capital of a xenophobic past, underwent the unfolding developments calmly. Many sporting clubs delivered their sport accommodation to serve as emergency shelter.
Unconfirmed estimations speak of 20.000 rejected requests for asylum. A large part of them still roam through the city, having no place to sleep. Some of them end up in the crime scene, and become pick pockets, traders in drugs or get involved in violent crimes. In particular the Görlitzerpark, Kottbuser Tor and around the RAW-area in Friedrichshain are scenes of small and sometimes violent crimes. Some of the homeless immigrants were also involved in violent crimes in some U-Bahnstations in Kreuzberg and Alexanderplatz, one of the most troubled places in Berlin at the moment.
Berlin is no more or less hostile towards refugees/immigrants than other cities in Germany. The surrounding countryside of Brandenburg though, is less friendly and open to ‘strangers’. A well organized opposition against xenophobic actions may be the reason that the reception of so many refugees /immigrants in Berlin went rather smoothly.
Tourists, inland migration and immigration: a risky cocktail
The combination of the three above mentioned developments put pressure on the social fabric of the city. Rising rents, gentrification, excessive behaviour of groups of tourists and the roaming of rejected refugees and immigrants are a burden to the locals. Especially in places where these developments meet, like in the southern part of Friedrichshain, eastern part of Kreuzberg and the northern section of Neukölln (Kreuzkölln), they impose a heavy burden on the local communities.
Berlin knows how to cope as they did with the millions of refugees after the Second World War, with the establishment of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘we will manage’) Chancellor Angela Merkel stated optimistically in 2015. Berlin can indeed cope and will probably make the best out of this situation as well.
Paul de Bruijn is city guide in Berlin
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