Mon, Jan 17, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Resisting the schickimicki

Berlin is divided again as a host of bright young things with family money forces out residents of the old communist zone

By Peter Beaumont  /  The Guardian, BERLIN

Frank Handrich poses next to his East German Trabant automobile. The face of Germany is changing rapidly, with old blocks of flats being turned into colorfully painted New York-style lofts above organic food markets .

Photo: Bloomberg

“How long is now,” the giant mural on the side of the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin’s Mitte district asks. The answer, it appears, is not very long at all. The former department store, turned prison and then squat and alternative culture center, appears to be on the verge of shutting down.

“We are expecting to be closed any day,” says Yvonne Hildebrandt, a jewelry designer in a studio named Kalerie. After years of legal appeals, she admits, the occupants of the colorful graffiti-covered Tacheles in what was once the Jewish quarter of Berlin have finally run out of road.

When its occupants have been pushed out and the building pulled down, another Berlin landmark of the post-Wall era will have gone. All that will be left behind on Oranienburger Strasse, once at the heart of east Berlin’s counter-cultural scene, will be the C/O photography gallery, a block down from Tacheles. And its days are also numbered.

Tacheles and C/O may be the highest-profile symbols of the battle to define the shape of the new Berlin, but they are not the only ones, nor are they the most important.

It is the urban poor who have suffered most from the gentrification of the old neighborhoods in the city’s east, and their resistance to the changes has been anything but passive.

Instead, wealthy newcomers to districts like the now fashionable Prenzlauer Berg have been treated to an often weekly ritual of car torching, a practice that peaked a year ago. Police and criminology experts have yet to identify the culprits, alternately settling on members of the radical “autonomous” movement or largely non-ideological young people simply angered by the visibility of the new wealth in once poor districts.

Whoever they are, they are not without a mouthpiece. The struggle to save something of the old Berlin entered a new phase shortly before Christmas with the threat in Interim, a small radical magazine, to target the tourists whom it blames, among others, for the city’s yuppification. Berlin’s police are taking the threat seriously.

A stroll down Prenzlauer Berg’s Greifswalder Strasse toward Alexanderplatz and the central Mitte district reveals the pace of renovation: old blocks of flats being turned into colorfully painted New York-style lofts above organic food markets.

As buildings have been transformed, rents have been pushed up, driving a double urban exodus. Former residents, many on benefits, who had once lived on cheap rent-controlled agreements, have been driven out to the periphery, including the prefab estates of Spandau and Marzahn. At the same time artists and other “creatives,” who had been attracted to Berlin by low-cost housing, have also been pushed out.

In Kalerie, with two dogs lying at her feet, Hildebrandt describes her own problems. “I’ve been here in Tacheles for 20 years,” she says. “I used to live across the road, but the rents went up and it became a monoculture.” When I ask what she means she describes the influx of wealthy young couples pushing buggies.

Yvonne was displaced to Kreuzberg, where she found a cheap flat in an 18th-century building. But now wealthy speculators have their eye on that home, too.

It is a typical tale, but others are worse. People who have long lived in the east recount being put under pressure from unscrupulous landlords who, looking to cash in on rising prices, have let their flats to other people while the original tenants are away traveling. Others have been offered money to leave low-rent contracts so that landlords can refurbish and push up rental prices.

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