There is a dangerous rhetoric spreading across Berlin about the negative effect of international “party tourists” on the city. Foreign visitors are being blamed for increasing rents, noisy streets and neighbourhood upheaval. But this anger is uninformed, misdirected and unhelpful. It confuses the effect for the cause. Foreigners are not to blame for the city’s changing social landscape – the government policies that have enabled these changes are the true problem.
Anti-foreigner rants are appearing with increasing regularity across the German media. Recently "Der Spiegel" published an emotive report entitled “Gentrification’s Victims”, which quickly identified those whom the magazine believes are gentrification’s perpetrators: Young foreign artists are responsible for chasing poor families out of Neukölln and into slums on the city’s fringe, the journalist wrote.
In a video posted on the Vimeo website entitled “Offending the Clientele”, a Neukölln bar owner spat and swore at newly-arrived foreigners who had changed the suburb, forced up housing prices, and annoyed his staff by ordering lattes. And last week the Kreuzberg branch of the Green party hosted a citizens’ meeting at which residents poured scorn on “party tourists” for raising rents and dirtying the streets.
Yet all these criticisms fail to identify the true cause of change. The "Spiegel" article eventually did include some real facts, but hid them in the very last paragraphs: “Together with Thilo Sarrazin, who was Berlin's finance minister at the time, the mayor (Klaus Wowerweit) 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,” "Der Spiegel" wrote.
Here is the true cause of Berlin’s rising rents. It is not the fault of foreign artists or party tourists; they too would prefer to pay less rent. It is caused by the mass sell-off of publicly-owned apartments, combined with the deregulation of rent prices. Until recently, it was difficult for landlords to increase rent prices above a certain percentage each year. In the last few years these rent controls have been reduced. German governments have handed their regulatory powers over to the anarchy of the free market. The solution to gentrification is not to demonize foreigners; it is to reduce the influence of the free market by strengthening rent price controls.
Many of the critics of new foreigners are themselves migrants from other countries and other German cities who moved to Berlin several decades ago. From their mouths, the criticism is potently hypocritical. Cities are zones of constant change. There has never been a time when the demographics of Berlin were concrete. Before the artists came to Neukölln, there were Turkish familes; before the Turkish were Germans; before Germans, Prussians; and so on, back to the cavemen. The only habitations that do not change are Amish villages and undiscovered Amazonian tribes. The only people who can claim that “we were here first” are the original Homo Sapiens who walked out of Africa.
As the human race undergoes an explosion in size, population movements will be unavoidable. As governments become more tyrannical, those desiring freedom will flee to more liberal locations like Berlin. As oil prices soar, more people will seek out cities with good public transport. In short, change is here to stay, and Berlin should ready itself for even more.
The demonizing of “international party tourists” (which includes longer-term foreigners who remain for months or years) is a treacherous manoeuvre that creates an enemy who can be blamed for all problems. This “othering” of internationals is a form of racism and xenophobia. It misdirects citizen anger to a group that may be the beneficiary of, but is not the cause of, certain social or economic shifts. In Germany, one hardly needs to speak the name of the perpetrators of the most horrific example of othering.
Old Berliners have found a group to blame for the changes created by government policy – white liberal European immigrants. Imagine how the present anti-international vitriol would be perceived if the blame-group were black, Turkish, Asian or Jewish?
What is the logical result of the constant vilification of internationals in Berlin? Must we wait for foreigners to be bashed in the street before we realize that the present rhetoric is dangerous? What do the critics of international migration hope to achieve by verbally (and perhaps one day physically) attacking the individuals who move to Berlin? Do they expect the foreign community will pack up and leave, allowing the former residents of their flats to return? Do they expect the landlords to generously decrease their rents to the 1990s prices once the internationals have all fled? Or is the more likely outcome of their attacks a more divided, hateful and angry social sphere?
Complaints about noisy and dirty streets are also misdirected. If you are angry about rubbish in the streets, turn your wrath against all who thoughtlessly dispose of waste, and realize that this behaviour is not limited to international party tourists. One frequently sees Turkish Berliners throwing food packets in the gutter, and German Berliners failing to pick up their dog shit. If you are angry about noisy streets, understand that loudness is also not the exclusive sin of the outside visitor. The public celebrations of German football fans is evidence of that. If you are angry about drinking on the streets, blame the relaxed alcohol laws, which are some of the most liberal in the puritanical western world. Try drinking a beer in the street in New York, and see how fast the police find and fine you.
The arguments used against foreigners – rising rents, noisy streets, neighbourhood upheaval – should be directed toward the government policies which have enabled such changes, and the landlords who have taken advantage of deregulated rental prices. Stop blaming foreigners for Berlin’s political and economic structural problems.
Joel Alas is an Australian-Estonian freelance journalist who lives in Neukölln. He blogs at www.directjournalism.com.