“SOMETHING HAS TO happen,” Greta Gerwig recently told Die Zeit, “otherwise we’ll all have to move to Berlin.” Talking about the fact that New York has now become so expensive that artists and writers are even being pushed out of Brooklyn, the actress was expressing an existential discomfort common to many urban-dwellers – gentrification. And she was invoking the name of what many see as the last bastion of a Western city that is still an affordable home to creators: Berlin. But the slow emigration of artists into Berlin, like Brooklyn, Le Marais in Paris or the East End of London before it, has long since sewn the seeds for an unstoppable gentrification. My Brooklyn was Prenzlauer Berg. This is how it changed.
I moved to Berlin in 2007 from London, mostly for love, but with my conviction validated by the promise of cheap rents, a life that could be supported on a freelancer’s wage and an attitude to professional ambition that borders on contempt. The city has a relaxed free spirit; summer weekdays feel like long weekends in other capitals, with countless Berliners lounging about in parks, drinking beer and reading thumbed copies of difficult novels. The city looked and felt highly bohemian to me back then – crumbling plaster facades, young people cycling with no great rush down the wide, empty (for London or New York standards) streets, people who work in video stores, but give their jobs as ‘filmmaker’ or ‘artist’ (if they give their jobs at all – it is remarkable how little your job is seen as a topic of interest or marker of personality in Berlin).
The dream of the creative’s life largely came true for me. I lived in Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy areas north of the center that had once been a rundown borough of East Berlin. Our flat was larger than that which I had left in London and cost about quarter of the price. I started taking freelance editing and later translation jobs for art publishers and within six months was no longer reliant on savings to pay my rent. This didn’t completely square with my London work ethic and I made a number of changes to my working life to keep me feeling at least a little pressured: I paid for a space in a shared office, so that I had somewhere to go to work (though it was lovely, in walking distance and cost next to nothing); I said yes to every freelance job I was offered (though this led me to work with a range of wonderful colleagues, many of whom have become close friends); I wrote the first draft of my novel (though this was creatively deeply fulfilling and was eventually sold to a mainstream publisher). All in all, it was pretty Eins-A.
In some ways it was this very laid back attitude that led to me and my partner to return to England (though the draw of Berlin remains strong). There is a wonderful egalitarianism in Berlin. The problem with this, especially if you’re a Briton or an American, is that, once achieved, the Berlin life doesn’t go anywhere. You have your roomy rented flat in an inner suburb, the rent carefully controlled. You have your job, your friends, your bars and your cafes. But, if you made a million pounds overnight, there would be nothing in your life that would change – you already live in the nice part of town. You could buy your flat perhaps, have a nicer kitchen fitted, but there is no high society to join, few expensive restaurants to visit, no fancier supermarkets to start shopping in; Berlin friends remain highly amused that there is a clear class hierarchy of supermarkets in the UK, depending on how middle-class you are. You could buy expensive clothes, but no one particularly cares what you’re wearing and where would you wear them out to? You could buy a fancy car, but where would you drive it? It would be quicker to take the train almost anywhere and no one in Berlin is going to be impressed by a Ferrari – they would think you were being ironic. Of course, this should be a dream, and in many ways it is, but the Londoner or the New Yorker (even the Frankfurter or Münchner) can’t help being swamped by a sort of malaise after a few years and arrested by what can only be described as a ‘buzz’ when they return home to the big financial centers. It is a feeling that in London or New York there is no limit to how far you could get – a dangerous, but irresistible promise. We too had a sense that we needed to ‘move on,’ though in the stress of London life, this is something we question on a daily basis.
Now ten years on from this dream life, Berliners feel change is in the air. Held back by war and division almost since the First World War, Berlin is enjoying a period of politically uninterrupted calm not seen for a century and, consequently, the prices are on the rise. There is even talk of that most un-German of economic pressures: a housing boom, with now professional Berliners wanting the security of an Eigentumswohnung (owned apartment). There are Berliners who would have you believe that the city’s laid-back air is unbreakable, that it is down to the city’s unique spirit – a non-conformism that stretches back to Berlin’s openness to immigrants in Prussia via the queer aesthetic of the Weimar Republic in all of its Isherwood-tinted glory. There is, of course, some truth to this, but in actual fact the foundation of this Geist remains largely economic: there are simply no jobs in Berlin. Around 50% of the city’s population get its full wage directly from the German government, either because they’re unemployed, retired, students or working for the government itself. The reason for this is simply that the vagaries of history means that Berlin lies squarely in the poorer East of Germany. Whereas in Britain, France and Italy, the nations’ capitals are surrounded by an upper-middle-class commuter belt, barely cheaper than the city itself, Berlin is surrounded by Brandenburg – an area that is a byword for unemployment, poverty and a profusion of far-right skinheads. Berliners don’t dream of escaping the city to the leafy commuter belt; Eberswalder, Groß Kreutz and Fürstenwalde do not have the draw of Richmond, Hauts-de-Seine or Tivoli – yet.
Because Berlin is changing and there is a growing nostalgia for the city’s shabby freewheeling past. Rents are still cheap in comparison to other capitals – you can find a large two-bedroom apartment for $1300-a-month in the fanciest part of town (for which you’d be paying well over double in London) – but $1300 is still double what that apartment would have cost ten years ago. It wasn’t long ago that Berliners could simply live in any part of town they wanted, but now areas like Mitte and Kreuzberg have become so expensive that Berliners are starting to move to little explored areas, such as Tempelhof, Weißensee and Wedding. Even Neukölln – a sort of Berlin Hackney or Bushwick – has become unaffordable. Where once property was a topic of conversation that never reared its head east of Potsdam, it is now nigh-on impossible to sit in a bar in Berlin without somebody regaling you with a story about rent increases or property viewings where they were queuing with 50 other Berliners to see an apartment that they all couldn’t afford anyway.
What is notable about this change is both the pace of gentrification and the speed with which nostalgia for the very recent past has developed. Prenzlauer Berg is a prime example and is the area that I moved to back in 2007. It is the epitome of Berlin gentrification. It’s pre-Reunification vibe lives in on in films such as Solo Sunny (worth a watch if you’ve visited the area). Then the neighborhood, on the edge of Mitte, was filled with straight rows of apartment blocks, the cracked plaster a consistent dirty brown, all with shared toilets on the internal staircases and what is known as Ofenheizung or ‘oven heating’ – great ceramic menhirs, that sat like 2001: A Space Odyssey ‘monoliths’ in the corners of living rooms. Woe betide the resident who had drunkenly forgotten to collect coal from the basement on the preceding evening; they would wake up to a freezing-cold apartment, a long trip to the shared coal cellar and a lengthy wait for their spartan room to warm up. Friends of mine who grew up in the East were desperate to leave districts like Prenzlauer Berg for the high-rises of Marzahn, where, ten floors up, you had your own toilet, double-glazing and central heating.
When the Wall came down, Prenzlauer Berg was dirt-cheap and just a ten-minute tram-ride to the center of town. In flocked the young creatives and students, happy to forego creature comforts for giant art nouveau spaces with miniscule rents. Run down but incredibly trendy bars and clubs began to pop up, where you could drink cheap beer on discarded sofas in abandoned factories until the sun came up. This – as the hackneyed story goes – made the area hip and attractive to developers and young professionals looking to wallow in the dilettante buzz. And, of course, students and creatives have a social trajectory in common – at some point, more often than not, they start to make money. I arrived about 18 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the area was about five years away from reaching ‘peak gentrification.’ It was still cool, but no longer rough; a transitory period that amounts to every middle-class creative’s dream. If only Prenzlauer Berg could have stayed exactly there, at that moment of change, but alas that is not how gentrification works. We have to watch spitefully as more people like us move in and the whole process eats itself up like a folding star.
Nowadays Prenzlauer Berg’s gentrification is encapsulated by one figure: the Bio-Mutti (literally ‘organic mummy’). The Bio-Mutti is everywhere in Prenzlauer Berg. She is a creative freelance worker – an editor, designer or translator – in her late 30s with one or two lovely children who sport Converse trainers, striped Breton t-shirts and mops of artfully dishevelled hair. The Bio-Mutti – likely wearing Birkenstocks, boyfriend jeans and a smear of Dr Hauschka Rosencreme – will be riding these children around on her Dutch bicycle – on the back, if she has one child, in a cart at the front if she has two. She is a self-confident figure, but she is also a figure of hate (it is interesting to note that the same ire is not applied to the Bio-Vati, his penis somehow absolving him from blame).
The Bio-Mutti suffers such a fate because she embodies the ways in which Prenzlauer Berg, and districts like it, lost the beautiful degradation that made them so desirable. She too was once bohemian, louche and poor. But now her creativity has made her wealthy, quite by accident and her free-spirited environmentalism has morphed into a strict eating regime for her children of organic foodstuffs bought at the Wochenmarkt (local market) and her church, the Bio-Markt (organic supermarket), and on a Sunday morning she quietly calls the police to have the club she once danced at closed down, because it’s keeping the children awake. And like the Prenzlauer Berg resident who is both appalled and thrilled that an Apple Store has opened on the Kurfürstendamm, she too is conflicted about this change. But she accepts it, like I did, while also feeling nostalgic for the city as it was barely ten years ago – a perfect moment when, like her, it barely knew what it was, but had the openness and energy to become anything it wanted to be.
What she perhaps notices now as well is that her children are growing and changing and that, just as she has grown used to her new role, it is already morphing in front of her eyes, as her motherly duties begin to wane before they have even started. Prenzlauer Berg too is waning – I recently had a conversation with a gallerist who claimed that Prenzlauer Berg was already over the hump, and heading towards suburban obscurity. “Charlottenburg,” he told me, the fancy, but since boring, center of West Berlin, had apparently “become so boring that it was becoming cool again.”
So the Bio-Mutti is Prenzlauer Berg and Prenzlauer Berg is Berlin, ever changing. Over the last 150 years or so, it has moved from Prussia, to the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, to the Third Reich, to be divided by a wall with halves in two different countries and then reunited again into one new one. It has not existed in one country for longer than forty years – a remarkably mobile capital. So Berliners bemoan the loss of its crumbling, bohemian golden years, as others continue to bemoan the loss of community in the East of Berlin and the thrill of a city surrounded by the enemy in the West, where life teetered daily on the brink; as others bemoaned the renting of a city into two halves, and the loss of friends, families and trains that traveled the city from one side to the other; as others bemoaned the loss of streets, buildings, neighborhoods and their young men; as other bemoaned the loss of a true German society to the ‘un-German’ Jew; as others bemoaned the absorption of Prussia and the subsumation of a loved provincial city beneath the marble columns of a nation’s capital. So Berlin changes and each generation, including mine, comes to realise that it is a wonderful melancholy nostalgia, rather than a dusty bohemianism, that really defines the spirit of the city. Meanwhile, the Bio-Mutti sighs and climbs onto her Dutch bike, cycles to the Bio-Markt and listens to the plastic rattle of the empty child seat behind her. And I pack my bag and head to the office, staring out of the foggy window of the London double-decker, dreaming of the great things that might be achieved on any given day.