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Gentrification in Berlin: In search of a radical balance

For The Guardian's "Comment is free" section, Tagesspiegel.de editor Markus Hesselmann explains gentrification in Berlin - with a little help from Nick Hornby.

The picture sums it up nicely. A stylish young woman – quilted jacket, Gauloises Blondes, red mobile phone – points a neatly manicured finger to a Berlin still life: a huge cobblestone stuck in a shop window of a city centre boutique. The lady comes from Munich. The stone comes with best wishes from Berlin's leftwing community. Several shop windows were smashed in the centre of the German capital at the weekend, the result of black-clad radicals trying to convey their message after the eviction of residents of the Liebig 14 tenement block last week.

The clearing of the former squat, named after house number 14 in Liebigstrasse in the east Berlin district of Friedrichshain, has injected new energy into a discussion about gentrification that had been going on for some time in Berlin.

On the one hand, there is a lot of exaggeration in this debate, and there are a lot of knee-jerk reactions from the left that don't really contribute to an even-handed discussion. Compared with London, Berlin is still a comfortable place for people with low income or on benefits. When I lived in London for two years recently, my rent was twice as high as my rent in Berlin. My London flat was in Walthamstow, more than five miles from the centre of town; my Berlin flat in Schöneberg, close to the city centre. The latter was also about a third larger than my E17 dwelling.

On the other hand, the gentrification debate is important. There are indeed some parts of Berlin, such as Prenzlauer Berg, where increasing house prices and rents have pushed out the original east Berlin population. An army of latte-sipping west Germans from places such as Munich and Stuttgart seems to have taken over a district that was famous for its creative bohemian flair at the time of the GDR and the years after the fall of the wall. These processes are now spilling over into some areas of Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Neukölln.

Compared with London though, Berlin will not be an expensive city in the foreseeable future. There is no really rich finance and business elite putting high pressure on prices. The big banks and companies are deeply rooted in such cities as Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg or Düsseldorf. Germany has never been as centralised as Britain or France, politically or commercially. And after the war, most companies left the divided and walled-in Berlin. Berlin's commercial future now lies in sectors like education, art, media, public relations, web design or tourism which generate lower-income jobs than business and finance.

To fuel its creative industrial complex, 21st century Berlin is dependent on both the radicals and the gentrified. It needs the radical thinking of a leftwing scene that still searches for open city spaces and alternative ways of living, if not exactly stone throwing. And it needs the young middle-class people from Munich or Stuttgart who are fascinated by Berlin's colourful and radical scene. They flock to the capital as students and trainees to become tomorrow's elite and wealth creators of the capital.

In a sense even the radicals are undergoing a slow process of gentrification. Liebig 14, militant as it may appear in the pictures of the eviction by a massive police force last week, was not even a classical squat any more. It used to be one of those many squats that sprang up in east Berlin after the fall of the wall, but the squatters have long since turned into tenants, with legal contracts.

Tenant ("Mieter") is a proud word in Berlin, which calls itself "die Mieterstadt". In Germany tenancy laws ("Mietrecht") are an important political issue. There are strong laws to protect tenants: kicking out tenants isn't as easy for landlords in Berlin as it is in London. This also slows down the much talked-about gentrification. Even the Liebig 14 eviction took years, after new owners decided to turn the property into an eco-friendly housing site and tried to get rid of the ex-squatters.

In Berlin, a balance is needed between the radicals and the gentrified. Another project that faces closure could be an example of how this balance may be achieved. The tenancy contract of Schokoladen, a cultural and housing project in the Mitte district that also evolved out of a squat, was cancelled by an investor. Local politicians now have a plan to save the project by way of a barter deal. They want to offer an alternative piece of land in the area to the investor and allow the Schokoladen people to buy their site at a slightly below-market price. It is a step forward when local politicians recognise the value of a project like this in contributing to the attractiveness of Berlin.

There's hope that things won't turn out as they did in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, where the writer and fan describes a gentrification process in football. These days the game attracts more and more middle-class people who are able to pay higher ticket prices. But they also come because of the atmosphere that the less wealthy provide. Without it, football would be like volleyball or hockey. Without it, Berlin would be like Stuttgart or Munich.

Markus Hesselmann is the online editor of Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel and was the London correspondent of the same newspaper in 2007 and 2008. This article was originally written for "Comment is free" on guardian.co.uk and is reproduced here with kind permission of The Guardian..

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