Berlin at a crossroads


SOCIAL CHANGE:When Berliners go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new city-state government, worries about the future direction of their city are utmost in their minds. Is Berlin a victim of its own success, asks DEREK SCALLY

IT'S A SUNNY afternoon in Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate is under siege. From Tibetan monks to Mormon missionaries, tourists of every shape, size and colour are snapping pictures of Germany's most famous monument. Turkish break-dancers body-pop their way through Smooth Criminal, before asking onlookers for a small donation. Tired Roma women mingle with the crowd, asking tourists if they "speak English" - then ask for a donation.

In the middle of it all, a chunky Darth Vader offers light sabre duels, also for a small donation. As Abba's Money, Money, Money echoes around the square, Horst, a moustachioed street cleaner, gives his verdict on the area he has cleaned for a decade: "More tourists, more dirt."

The Brandenburg Gate spent three decades in a Cold War no man's land. Now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is just another tourist trap.

Pushing through the massive crowds at the gate is still a shock, although in hindsight it seems obvious that this would happen. With so much to offer, including very moderate prices, it's no surprise the number of visitors to Berlin has doubled in a decade to more than nine million annually. With 20.2 million overnight stays, Berlin has overtaken Rome and Barcelona to become the number-three city destination in Europe, after London and Paris.

Tourism is Berlin's only industry of note, earning €10 billion annually for the heavily-indebted capital (€70 billion and counting).

This interest is disorienting for long-term Berliners. For years they lived a quiet life, hidden behind the Berlin Wall, well off the world's radar. The ravages of war, followed by decades of division and socialism, turned central neighbourhoods into the middle of nowhere, with prices to match. Even post-1989 Berlin seemed to exist in a distortion field where capital came to die and market laws of supply and demand simply did not apply. Fears of a post-1989 boom came to nothing: big companies stayed away, as did the big spenders. After the unification hype passed, Berlin slipped back into its slumber, humming its unofficial anthem, "I got plenty of nothing . . ."

But mass tourism has now landed and, hot on its heels, property investors. After two failed attempts since 1989, Berlin property prices are rising slowly and rents are spiking, up 14 per cent in two years in the central neighbourhoods of Mitte, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. The rising rents are increasingly a cause for concern in a city with below-average incomes, where one-in-five lives off welfare and only 10 per cent own their homes.

Two weeks ago, more than 4,000 people attended a demonstration for tighter rent control. In hindsight, it's clear that, even in Berlin, the market never ceased to operate, it just kept spiralling downwards. Now the trend has been reversed.

Things began to change in the middle of the last decade when social-welfare reforms put the squeeze on the subsidised "alternative" Berlin. Then the 2006 World Cup put Germany, and particularly Berlin, on the world stage. Visitors who came for the football returned for the lifestyle.

While the mass tourists conquer the Brandenburg Gate and the historical city centre of Mitte, "alternative" tourists have spread south to Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Long-time Berliners in thrift-store tracksuit bottoms and 1980s glasses have new neighbours: English-speaking hipsters in American Apparel tracksuit bottoms and ironic-vintage 1980s glasses.

FOR AMERICAN ENTREPRENEUR and new Berliner Chris Sandeman, the rapid growth in Berlin's tourist industry is the sign of a city playing catch-up. Every day an average of 650 people take part in his New Berlin walking tours, organised by 16 employees and around 70 freelance tour guides who work on a tips basis.

"If Berlin hadn't had the wall, it would have been higher up the tourist league table," he says over coffee at the far end of the Mitte district, far from the madding crowd at the Brandenburg Gate.

He has lived for almost a decade in the city and is philosophical about the upswing in tourism, the rising rents - and the protest against both. "Berlin lives from the tension, it's what keeps things alive and people coming," he says.

Is he worried that tourism is endangering what made Berlin the city everyone wants to make their home, or at least visit?

"The tourism business is about ruining places, unfortunately, whether it's a beach in Thailand, or a city." Without a hint of irony, he adds: "Our Alternative Berlin tour is selling like gangbusters."

Heading east out of Mitte, austere Stalinist facades line Karl-Marx-Allee. Alternative Berlin lives in the shadow of these massive, Soviet-style apartment blocks. Leaving the main thoroughfare, it's easy to spot the occupied houses: colourful facades, plastered with slogans such as "Smash Sexism!"

Punks of all ages roam the streets with their obligatory accessories: a bottle, if not a shopping trolley, of beer and scrappy, yappy dogs. As well as residents, this is increasingly the haunt of "alternative Berlin" tourists.

Cafe Sama is located on the ground floor of an occupied building, its walls covered in posters advertising alternative bands and solidarity marches. Inside, by the light of lamps made from reclaimed metal, punks of all ages sit on stained furniture at tables and add to the overflowing ash trays.

"Nobody has anything against the tourists, we live off them," says David, a skinny 39-year-old punk with a sonorous voice who is missing his front teeth. For him, Berlin has always lived from the Durchmischung or melting pot. But he says that mix is now under pressure from what he calls the "red caviar".

In the middle of the world financial crisis, the mean streets of Friedrichshain have become an unlikely safe haven for international investors. Anxious to get out of stocks and funds and back into property, they have piled into the Berlin property market and pushed up the prices of Berlin's century-old apartment blocks.

This has shaken up the market, moving it away from rentals towards owner-occupied flats or holiday rentals. For owners of unrenovated, occupied houses in Friedrichshain, rising prices have encouraged them to sell their problem properties. The new owners, anxious to get a return on their investment, have enlisted the police to empty squats, triggering street battles with displaced punks.

Now posters asking "Who owns Berlin?" plaster the neighbourhood. A manifesto on one wall describes the clearing of an occupied house in February as the "consequence of a society in which everything is subservient to the logic of capital".

"The state sends 2,000 police so that things take their usual course," it reads. "Impotent citizens say: 'That's just the way things are. You can't do anything.' Really?"

In the Sama cafe, the punks drink beer and worry about the future. "Berlin's becoming ghettoised, people are being told 'You can't live here'," says David. "The pendulum is swinging from the many to the few, the social climbers and the bourgeoisie. There's a feeling of imbalance."

That sense of imbalance has triggered a campaign against gentrification. Friedrichshain locals are determined to resist the fate that befell other neighbourhoods, resorting to violence if necessary.

Christian doesn't want his real name or address mentioned because he is a "gentrifier". In March, he and his partner bought their apartment in a renovated century-old building, across from an occupied house in Friedrichshain.

The airy, designer interior is a remarkable contrast to the exterior, where the once-pristine building facade is splattered with paint. The words "Yuppy scum" (sic) are sprayed on the door. Weeks after moving in, their bin was set alight and pushed into the lift. Most recently, someone with a catapult shot glass marbles through the front windows of Christian's apartment.

"It's quite a shock to lie in bed and experience something like that," he says, running his finger over the hole. "That could easily have injured or killed someone."

The attacks have left him shaken, yet he spends an hour while talking to me trying to defend his tormentors. They have a right to live here too, he says, and they see their living space being threatened. As so often in life, though, the reality is more complicated than the ideological principle.

His building was an unoccupied ruin before it was renovated, Christian says, so no one was displaced. He comes from prosperous southern Germany and has a full-time job - two black marks for some in this neighbourhood - but he moved to Berlin in 1992, before many of the punks in the buildings opposite were even born. After an attempt at negotiations got nowhere, Christian is now keeping a low profile.

"The trouble is, they don't want to see beyond the facade. For them, we're capitalist pigs," he says. "I bought here to invest the little bit of money I've saved over the years, precisely because I didn't want to speculate on the stock market. I liked the street because it was lively, and because other areas have become too expensive."

IN NEIGHBOURING Prenzlauer Berg, anyone curious about the shape of things to come in Berlin can visit Marthashof Urban Village: 140 luxury apartments built around a courtyard.

Developed by Giovanna Stefanel, of the eponymous Italian clothing company, the development is filled with small touches designed to appeal to an upper-middle-class market. There's an origami installation above the mailboxes, and all of the development's imagery is based around wisteria. Parallels with the TV show Desperate Housewives are purely coincidental.

While luxury property developments are nothing new elsewhere in Europe, they are a new departure in the historically working-class German capital. Agent Michael Feseldmann says he isn't selling apartments but a "Lebensgefühl" - a lifestyle. "This is a retreat in the city, where you can give your soul free rein," he says as we walk through a high-ceilinged apartment with triple-glazing, a controlled air-system and metal shutters on the balcony. "If you want the city you have it around the corner, while here you can shut it out."

The development has triggered heated discussion in the neighbourhood; online forums have buzzed with words such as gentrification and social displacement. But Feseldmann rejects those arguments: the complex was built on an empty site, while 80 per cent of residents already lived in the neighbourhood. With prices starting the far side of €3,000 per square metre, he admits it is a high-end development by Berlin standards. But almost all of the apartments are sold and three other developments are in the pipeline.

"We are convinced there is room for all here in Berlin," he says. "The city will always have rough edges, it will never get too glossy."

Artist and activist Florian Wüst isn't so sure. He has his atelier opposite Marthashof and is worried about the speed of change. "I think what annoys many people here is the feeling that what is happening is inevitable," he says. "Berlin had a different model because of its history and many people think that is something worth defending."

He organises a regular salon where Berlin creatives discuss the art scene and developments in the capital. At its most recent meeting, in a high-ceilinged stucco apartment-gallery in western Berlin, the anxiety about Berlin's future was palpable.

Attendees talk about the increasing "consumption" of Berlin and argue whether transient artists who "do Berlin" for a year, without learning the language or giving anything back, are as much of a problem as the tourists.

As the evening winds down, the mood of indignation and outrage gives way to self-reflection. "I think artists don't always realise they are part of a gentrification process, too," says artist Ellen Blumenstein. Like many at the salon, she is critical of the Social Democrat (SPD) government, facing re-election tomorrow, for what they see as a quiet sell-off of public-owned property, in which residents have no say.

"This is not the tradition in Germany, but the situation over living space is not bad enough yet to be critical," Blumenstein says. "Things might ease if people stop talking about Berlin and move on to Lisbon."

The salon breaks up with the uneasy feeling that, slowly, swathes of the city are being "lost" - to investors and to tourism. Places such as Rosenthaler Platz, in the heart of Berlin's tourist mile. Once a grubby crossroads, it is now home to half a dozen hostels and budget hotels, late-night kiosks and assorted fast-food restaurants. On the southeast corner, the Sankt Oberholz cafe is where tourists mingle with Berlin's digital bohemians, on their laptops.

"I think it would be naive to think that Berlin doesn't have to change - change is part of Berlin's charm and everyone who is here is part of the process," says cafe owner Ansgar Oberholz. "You have to make sure you are part of the change to channel it and make it sustainable rather than just say no."

He speaks for many Berliners in wishing the city government would exercise a light touch on future development, away from the "Easyjetset", towards sustainable tourism and more coherent housing policies. Until that happens, the fronts in Berlin - between residents, tourists and investors - will continue to harden.

Back in Friedrichshain, Christian stands on the balcony of his new apartment and gazes out at a courtyard of sheds awaiting redevelopment. "There is still free space for all in Berlin but the idea that someone has a right to a city-centre home is utopian," he says. "Berlin has always changed and always will. Whenever you try to preserve or conserve something, history shows it's always downhill from there."

Additional research: Ciarán McCollum