The Crisis of Urban Attraction

Lara Valgerdur Kristjansdottir

 

 

In Europe a vast discourse has been built around the refugee and immigration stream into the continent’s cities, focusing on the implications of the alleged increase of economic burdens and unfavoured multiculturalism. But other developments, perhaps rather from a different perspective, have become widely contested as well. Although certainly not a new phenomenon, gentrification has become a vexed plight to the many Europeans disheartened to see their home cities in a process of weighty socioeconomic and subsequent cultural change.

It is no secret that the present-day largest city of the European Union is experiencing such developments which have generated nervous anxiety of longer-term inhabitants. Berlin has namely experienced an extensive influx of young people (expats – not! immigrants!) desiring a taste of the city’s famously alternative culture, with the reputation of being so distinctively different from that of other European, and world capitals.

People come for a ‘slower life’, unmarked by capitalism’s schemes of how one should live life, in a place where everyone can be who they are. Where it is socially acceptable to have a few beers on a weekday noon instead of having to hustle to a respectable job in an uncomfortable suit on the London tube or Paris metro. Although not many seem to stay, as if the ‘unique lifestyle’ proves too abnormal, or anxiety triggering to be sustainable in the long run, many arrive with the living costs of pricier cities in mind and are thus not startled at prices no long-term Berlin renter would consider admissible or affordable.

 

“Local protests are held on a frequent basis and outcries are heard, for the city not to lose its essence, its character as the living of people who have made the city to be its multicultural, artistic, and ‘poor but sexy’ self, is tangibly being disposed of.”

As a matter of fact, the 85% of Berliners who remain renters and have watched the market prices rise significantly, are likely to contrast this development to the still relatively recent post-unification years characterized by what seemed to be unlimited freedom. Many have probably in some form heard stories of the city’s ambiance during the nights around the ninth of November 1989. I got my share from my father who during the celebrations (figuratively or not) was offered several housekeys of those exhilaratingly, at last, being able to leave their homes in the East for opportunities on the other side.

This unlimited freedom was not solely viewed in terms of housing vacancy and a vast number of squatters but in terms of a culture, the ensuing notorious underground wilderness, the legacy of which remains to this day. Niche, alternative culture was great – and is still considered so, in contrast to the official culture which lies on the surface. Certainly, an eternal form of rebellion in itself.

Returning to the present – when the days of the 90s and early 2000s remain in the dreams of those who remember, as well as of some who do not. The current housing crisis is currently being met with a controversial five-year rent cap adopted by the government, but perhaps more significantly by widespread, desperate grassroots movements and revolts.

Countless signs hang outside people’s windows stating that housing should not be a commodity, along with posters and graffiti clamouring for a halt of Berlin’s fast road towards becoming ‘like London’. Local protests are held on a frequent basis and outcries are heard, for the city not to lose its essence, its character as the living of people who have made the city to be its multicultural, artistic, and ‘poor but sexy’ self, is tangibly being disposed of.

Evidently, the urban crisis represents an existential distress deeply embedded within the discourse on the dominance of capitalism and neoliberalism. Yet, what interestingly marks Berlin’s attraction is an impression that the city is precisely not that, that it is not as commercialised and ‘sold out’ as so many other places – that there remains an advantage to be taken not only of an alternative culture but an alternative way of life.

Such crises thus cannot simply be ascribed to the forces of venture capitalists and property developers but even more tangibly to the embourgeoisement of the ‘aspirational class’, allured not by business or financial opportunities, but rather by cultural and societal ones. A small bookstore owner in a particularly gentrified area of the former West-Berlin district so pointedly noted: “It’s a contradiction that people come to Kreuzberg for its spirit, but their presence is destroying it”.

 

“there remains an advantage to be taken not only of an alternative culture but an alternative way of life.”

Whether this spirit is destined to fade in the long run or would prove able to withstand the form of co-existence in which one group’s potential comes at the expense of the mere living of another, the once-divided city in due course faces new splits. As the rapidly developing gentrification has become so greatly pronounced and palpable, it achieves a particular acceleration of deep social vexation and despair.

The crisis raises the urgency of the propounding concern whether districts or cities in which seemingly everyone wants to live can be sustained without conspicuous socioeconomic and cultural alterations – or whether co-existence to such an extent can be reduced to merely a utopic ideal.

First published Online, March 2021. Volume 16, Issue 3. Image: Genius Loci Series, Berlin, Anastasia Savinova, 2014