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Posted by Natalie in Society - 28 January 2011

Does gentrification always mean ‘generification’?

Gentrification is an emotive issue in Berlin, but what does it actually mean, and can it be stopped?

Celebrations of unity could still be heard echoing in the streets of Prenzlauer Berg when the first wave of migration occurred. Lured by the affordable living spaces prevalent in the former East Berlin, people flocked from the West immediately after the fall of the wall in 1989.  Since then, a battle has raged over the gentrification of the city, as inveterate residents become priced-out of their lifelong residences.

The term gentrification is a relatively modern one. It was first coined by a British sociologist in 1964 and refers to the Landed Gentry, an old-fashioned social class in the UK, one level down from the nobility. In its original meaning, gentrification refers to the displacement of poorer, working class people by middle class migrants to the inner city. Since then its meaning has become more multifaceted, often with negative connotations. Currently, gentrification is often assumed to involve a process that starts with a deprived or derelict urban area whose low rents attract artists and other local and foreign immigrants. The new residents begin to improve the area, literally and idealistically, so it becomes more desirable, more sought-after, rents increase and so on.

Due to the unique and intense nature of Berlin’s recent history, gentrification in the city has been particularly aggressive, and so has the ferocity of emotion evoked by the debate it has raised. Anti-gentrification activities such as torching cars – particularly those models associated with wealth – and vandalising new housing developments, are as prevalent now as they were in the mid 90s.

As a former long-term resident of London who has been priced out to increasingly inaccessible and undesirable areas of the city, I have always been sympathetic and sensitive to the complex issues surrounding gentrification, and have watched in horror as former village-style communities have transformed overnight into characterless duplicates.

Berlin, now as always, has a somewhat different story to tell. A city of two tales, its dichotomies persist; the force of change being kept in check by the passion of those who are compelled to resist.  It is not only the so-called anarchist movement that resists gentrification, mainly with violence and vandalism (often, it has to be said, somewhat mindlessly and counter-productively). There are a number of well-informed, well-organised groups, such as Wir Bleiben Alle, committed to protecting communities and preventing the displacement of low-income inhabitants. They publish seasonal literature that is distributed across the city, which includes such articles entitled ‘Was ist eigentlich mit den Sozialwohnungen los?’ (what’s so wrong with social housing?), ‘Ein Stadt ist kien Unternehmen’ (a city is not a business), and ‘“1984”? Berlin 2010!’

Being a recent migrant to Germany’s capital has forced me to contemplate my own role in the city’s transformation. As both a victim and agent of gentrification, I can see that there is an inevitable and unfortunate pricing-out of long-standing community members.  That this should happen is symptomatic of the wider system and should be addressed with social solutions designed to inject humanity into the capitalist machinations. If we can learn anything from recent global financial events, it is the need for such intervention at both the local and international level.

In a capitalist society within a globalised world, gentrification is an unstoppable occurrence. That is not to say, though, that its meaning can’t be changed.  There is an underlying assumption that it replaces diversity with homogeneity, and it is that which I want to call into question.  To exclude and vilify a group of people (in this instance those on higher incomes) for the sake of diversity is an uncomfortable paradox. Yet it is understandable at the same time; experience of  from past examples shows that gentrification often means generification.  Is it  impossible to conceive of a situation where people of differing means can live in the same area? It is in fact, a step towards not just social but environmental equality. Can we envisage a scenario where decisions are made not on short-term economic factors but more long-lasting community well-being. In fact, if we are to be prepared for a sustainable future, then this is not mere socialist idealism, it is pragmatic conceptioneering! For example, utilise someone’s  garden for crop-planting; others can work on it and share the produce. Or introduce a system similar to Council Tax in the UK (hear me out!), where inhabitants are taxed depending on the size and location of their property. There would of course have to be an efficient, localised and community-led system of spending the funds raised.

The diversity of Berlin is being constantly enriched by its flow of migrants, both rich and poor. It is a place that attracts open-mindedness, creativity and excitement.  Its residents, like the city itself, defy convention.  While the cacophony of philosophies and lifestyles continues to play tug-o-war, mischievous diversity trips up the smug swagger of indiscriminate gentrification as it flounders awkwardly towards its ignoble goal.

Perhaps a  balance can be found where wealth and diversity are not mutually exclusive, where urban development benefits existing communities as well as migrant ones together with a sustainable environment.  It may be a hopeful fantasy, but if there’s anywhere it can happen, it’s Berlin.

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One Response

  • James says:

    GREAT post. It’s nice to read a balanced article on the subject, particularly from someone who is (unwittingly) an agent of the process. Never realised that I am both a victim and an agent of gentrification until now.

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