Revolt hangs in the air in real-life gentrification game

Berlin Letter: Long-term locals who live near Markthalle Neun say they now feel like extras

The city sold Markthalle Neun (above)  in 2011 to new owners who promised to promote local retailers for people of “every age, all social classes and nationalities”. Eight years on, things look very different

The city sold Markthalle Neun (above) in 2011 to new owners who promised to promote local retailers for people of “every age, all social classes and nationalities”. Eight years on, things look very different

 

 I haven’t an entrepreneurial bone in my body but, if I had, I could get rich quick with my board-game idea.

“Gentrification” is a mix of Monopoly and Go for Broke. You roll a dice, move around a board buying and selling residential and commercial property.

As the game progresses, each player draws random cards that decide their fate. You might inherit a fortune or lose your job. A card might give you a pay rise or price you out of your neighbourhood. Behind everything: the invisible hand of gentrification.

Whether Dublin’s Stoneybatter or Schöneberg in Berlin, the shadow of gentrification hangs over 21st-century urban living. But does anyone understand this game, and who determines the rules?

My board game would remind players how many, in particular young urban city dwellers, view gentrification the way motorists view traffic jams: something caused by others, never themselves. It’s the way of the world when you’re pricing a pensioner out of their neighbourhood, but unfair when you’re being priced out of your flat by a digital nomad. “Gentrification” would present the phenomenon as a moving target, coloured by our personal perceptions and prejudices.

Who decides?

Roll the dice, draw a card: “A cheese shop/tattoo parlour/record store opens in your neighbourhood.” Good gentrification or bad gentrification? “The local bookshop has been been replaced with another cafe.” Good gentrification or bad gentrification? “An empty and derelict building has been renovated for privately-owned penthouses, but with a creche at street level.” Good gentrification or bad gentrification? Who decides? My game allows players to vote on whether to accept or reject a gentrification step. But such majority rule can cut both ways. 

For the last decade a real-life version of my Gentrification game has been playing out in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. The one-time alternative neighbourhood is now the scene of a growing turf war. New arrivals and foreign capital have put the squeeze on long-term residents: German-Turkish families, artists, ageing student revolutionaries and draft dodgers. Now the battle for apartments and public spaces has pitched hipsters against helicopter parents. 

The latest battle is over Markthalle Neun, one of Berlin’s historic market halls. The city sold the hall in 2011 to new owners who promised to promote local retailers for people of “every age, all social classes and nationalities”.

Eight years on, things look very different. One by one the old stands, selling cheap beer, sausages and filter coffee, have been replaced by new stands catering for a new crowd, selling smoked tofu, pricey cheese and organic ice-cream.

Corporate events

Each Thursday evening, the hall hosts a street-food event popular with foodies and start-up types who prefer speaking English to German.

Locals who have lived here for decades say they now feel like extras, particularly when sections of the hall are closed for corporate events.

All seems normal in the hall on Tuesday afternoon: green iron girders, wooden roof, concrete floor. But revolt hangs in the air, with older Kreuzberg residents up in arms at plans by the market hall owner to evict their Aldi supermarket.

This is my board game come to life: is evicting a discount supermarket from a market hall good gentrification or bad gentrification?

The market hall’s owners say they are anxious to support smaller traders and remind locals that even low prices come at a cost, somewhere along the supply chain.

And so younger market customers back the plan to evict Aldi. In their eyes this is legitimate protest against exploitation of producers and animals worldwide.

“I think food should be more expensive if it’s organic, but welfare payments should be increased, too,” said Moritz Fleischer, who is just finished a pine nut-spinach-goat’s cheese quiche.

Angry and confused

Metres away, emerging from Aldi with two carrier bags, Lothar Hoffmann describes himself as a left-wing former draft dodger. He is angry and confused at the changes in his neighbourhood. Above all that he is now defending one of Germany’s largest retailers.

“I’m a worker and can’t afford anything else here but Aldi,” he says, voice rising with emotion. “There used to be a mix here in the market but the new people are like an eco-caste of their own, squeezing out everyone who thinks and lives differently.”

Rents in Kreuzberg have risen 117 per cent on average in the last decade, and long-term residents like Lothar say they have no time for philosophical questions. Whether good gentrification or bad gentrification, many Berliners can afford neither.

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