The specter of gentrification in Wrangelkiez

About a month ago it became public that the commercial lease of an old-established grocery shop in my neighborhood, Wrangelkiez, will not be renewed by the new building owner. Despite rampant rumors, however, the decisive fact remains: „Bizim Bakkal“ on Wrangelstrasse (main street in the neighborhood) must vacate the entire ground floor by the end of September.

Regular customers and also neighbors refuse to accept a disappearance of this shop and vow solidarity with the friendly owner and his family. Soon the store name was adapted to the slogan „bizim neighborhood“; the Turkish word „bizim“ (our) now refers to the entire neighborhood. The store itself (bakkal) now serves as a backdrop for weekly protests. Anyone can prefix his pet grievance with a „bizim“, or if you’re particularly brazen, with a „Je suis …“

Local Events

With the fall of the Wall 25 years ago the Berlin, Wrangelkiez was suddenly jolted into the center of Berlin. With the opening of the Oberbaum Bridge and Schlesische Strasse, the old district SO36 was no longer sandwiched in by the Berlin Wall. A chain reaction was sparked: clubs, restaurants and much more sprouted up for Berliners and for visitors.

However, there were local attempts to gain control and have a say in these developments. In order to save public space from privatization, „Spreeufer for all“ demanded building distances set far back from the Spree River, but some sections of the riverbank were fenced off by “beach bars” which also erected gates where entrance fees were levied and beverages confiscated; there were discussions about the research project „BMW Guggenheim Lab“ for which the neighborhood was seemingly intended to serve as a backdrop; the empty riverfront lot “Cuvrybrache” became the object of speculation – especially political – until the planning authority was taken over by the Berlin Senate.

Wrangelkiez is somehow „in“, but no one knows exactly why, apart from some legendary SO36 history, whereby the center of attention during the 80’s was rather in the area of Oranienstrasse and in other Berlin neighborhoods.

Some History

Since the late 1970s, Wrangelkiez has attracted „artists and students“ as newer residents. It is the squatters’ merit that many old quarters were rescued up until the present day. In the 1980s, a few social projects were initiated in Wrangelkiez within the framework of the International Building Exhibition (IBA), in the hope that people would remain. Many long-time residents moved away anyway. Berliner „corner pubs“, retailers such as the egg shop and the greengrocer who sold unpackaged vegetables on Wrangelstrasse disappeared one after another. After the fall of the Wall, so much commercial space became vacant, that efforts were made to at least use these spaces for temporary art projects. Up high on the most prominent IBA building, a social housing project, visitors are welcomed by the graffiti phrase, „bonjour tristesse“.

Shortly before Wall fell, a few health food stores had established themselves in the neighborhood. After German reunification, an organic bakery arrived to serve a specific, but growing, clientele whereas the long-established neighborhood bakery, now in its second generation, continues to serve primarily the older residents. Recently, there has been a huge onslaught of unlearned „bakers“ offering pre-baked industrial products which are resuscitated back to life in small café ovens; the same bakery „quality“ is now available at large grocery retailers at even less cost. Where there once was a branch of the grocery retailer, „Penny“, followed a decade-long vacancy until a first generation Turkish immigrant finally opened up a branch of a comparatively small city wide grocery business. Alas, there seems to be a few hardcore nostalgia freaks who seem to wish for the return of the large corporate grocery.

The disappearance of four retailers at the corner of Falckensteinstrasse and Schlesische Strasse aroused practically no concern in the neighborhood. The building owner, an international investor consortium, would like € 45 per square meter rent. Rather than support these young retailers, attention was bestowed on a woman in her seventies who must keep her dry cleaning business open for years to come. The elderly woman had recently invested heavily in chemical cleaning equipment.

Tourists to the Rescue!

After an ebb of interest, a tsunami of new store openings recently swept over Wrangelkiez which washed away nearly all the daily needs shops. Mainly cheap restaurants, countless convenience stores and even more cafés flooded the neighborhood, all of which serve primarily the large swarms of tourists and clubbers.

The new restaurants require large „special areas“ that are generously leased by the communal government for small monthly fees. Entire streets are now strangled by tables and chairs. Not only are these few public spaces snapped up and occupied by ruthless profiteers, landlords can demand correspondingly higher commercial rents. It is preferable to rent to restaurants and cafés, since the higher commercial rents factor in the maximum use of public space. The image of the neighborhood has thus been transformed through an inexorable local policy in favor of unbridled tourism. Neighborhood life is being crushed between the forced tourist hotspot image and a resurrected Kreuzberg nostalgia. Görlitzer Park, whipped up in international guidebooks as a nature reserve for garbage-eating crows and freewheeling mutts and, above all, as a mind-expanding pothead paradise, the park has now developed into a free trade zone, including tax evasion and money laundering. During winter pruning of bushes, the reaction of some local residents was as if someone had snipped at their most treasured body parts. With the „coffee shop“ idea, politicians and investors could reap in huge returns; the provincial politicians are desperately trying to get this promising field of investment legalized.

The neighborhood with a special flair

„The typical (gentrification) process can basically be described as follows: a neighborhood with many vacant apartments or old factory lofts, where there are primarily people living on low incomes, attracts artists and students, because of the cheap rents and the potential of rededicating space for creative projects and experimental life styles. Then the pubs and cafés, galleries and small shops open up. In social research, these first newcomers are called „pioneers“. Because of their initiative, the area becomes interesting and attractive to people with higher incomes, the first „gentrifiers“. These are willing to pay higher rents; some of them buy the old apartments at rock bottom prices and renovate them. „(Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 22, 2015)

Real estate companies and property management companies take notice of these renewed neighborhoods, buy entire buildings from retired owners or their beneficiaries, undertake minimal renovation and then rent these apartments to newcomers who are willing to pay average urban rental fees. In the eastern part of „SO36“ it seems that tenants thought rents would remain stable over the decades, which turned out to be quite naive. Nevertheless, there are hardly any truly luxurious apartments in the entire area. To clarify: „In the opinion of the Munich Municipal Court, the replacement of PVC flooring with laminate undoubtedly doesn’t represent a upper standard improvement (Az 474 C 31317/09).” One can’t underestimate how much some apartment owners and tenants can profit from the tourist boom, i.e. through lucrative vacation apartment rentals, and even craftier cross-financing at taxpayer expense.

The “Rich“

Apart from the few invisible CarLoft pioneers who reside on the other side of the heavily used park, and the sporadic condo owners, one looks in vain for the rich resident gentrifiers. An infrastructure for such well-to-do is largely absent in Wrangelkiez.

There are now a few culinary highlights in the middle price segment, but these are rather the exception, otherwise there’s plenty of – in every aspect – cheap feeding troughs. These seem to compete with each other, but belong to the same few operators. Specifically, they remain curiously out of the firing line of criticism. It is much easier to worry-wart about whether a natural food bakery ensures its employees Sunday pay surpluses. Sometimes diffuse fears erupt periodically in such odd forms, e.g. in a Facebook post, a small book publisher (!) excitedly reported that the local Kaiser’s grocery store would only grant access to persons who “look“ German“. The old Ami remarks: „You can’t think that shit up.“

The few professionally managed galleries that were once here have now moved on. At the annual „Open Air Gallery“ on the Oberbaum Bridge, one must search hard for one or the other „local“ artist. Open studio events, such as “Art Kreuzberg”, make a detour around Wrangelkiez. Murals are sponsored by real estate companies, otherwise there’s a lot of graffiti, which can be discovered on picture cards and in photo books. There are no high-end boutiques, apart from a couple of sneaker stores, also a few second-hand clothing stores, nothing expensive and actually worth visiting. For connoisseurs, there are some good vinyl record and wine shops. So, all is not lost!

The invasion of a McDonald’s outlet created some excitement in the locals, but the nearby chicken shack attracts “different people, such as actors and taxi drivers, policemen and punks”, who line up for the very lowest quality at dirt cheap prices. Behind this retailer lurks a heavyweight factory poultry company that spreads misery and poisons the environment worldwide. Despite the relative success of a nearby market hall, many retailers appear to be living only on idealism. And despite supposedly „high“ prices for sustainable and fair products, many of these retailers couldn’t afford a nearby apartment. The disappointment of many retailers and freelancers in Wrangelkiez is hard to overhear. The rich prefer to stay in their villas in Grunewald. Berlin is indeed much larger than Wrangelkiez.

Freeloaders

„We hereby ask you to reconsider the eviction notice again and to contribute towards the preservation of old social structures in Wrangelkiez. We would be happy to mediate a solution,“ wrote politicians in an open letter to the new building owner, where the grocery store “Bizim Bakkal” is located.

The attention bestowed on this particular building owner „with a Greek surname“ was certainly not initiated by those politicians. They are truly freeloaders. If their intentions were noble, then some residents may need to worry about whether they’ll soon be reminded of their „contribution to the preservation of old social structures“. Otherwise, this „interest“ is pure populism. A kiosk owner on Wiener Strasse, whose commercial lease also expires soon, has appealed for public and political support. However, solidarity at this point seems to be weak, possibly because of a certain potential for conflict: how many convenience stores can a neighborhood endure?

A „We“ occurs only sporadically when the undefined concept of the open-air museum is felt to be acutely threatened. Locals then argue, for example, about the usage of Görlitzer Park. Politicians with serious expressions and crossed arms sit back at public debates, when political opponents are shouted down. Other primitive forms of political retaliation include torching the automobiles of the poorer residents. The rich park their luxury cars in guarded garages at the other end of town. Sustainable and local products sold by producer/retailers are frowned upon as elitist; cheap “proletarian” food is preferred by activists. Business lunch specials can’t be inferior enough in quality, so long as the price is below cost.

Learning from History

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung (from June 22, 2015) a columnist asked how rent increases can be slowed down. The only solution is the construction of new apartments, especially for the lower income classes. „That does not necessarily have to be the communal governments; foundations and cooperatives can also initiate housing projects“, says expert Helbrecht.

Now we’re back to our retail grocer, “Bizim Bakkal”. Through crowd funding, sponsored by one or more truly concerned celebrities and politicians, the commercial property could be purchased through a citizen’s fund and rented out for a socially responsible sum. In the long term, citizens could slowly gain some local control. Due to the great publicity generated by the citizens’ movement „Bizim neighborhood“, enough capital could be accumulated if only a small percentage of supporters would be prepared to invest in a locally created fund. In plain English: People could „put their money where their mouth is“. Reflecting a Kreuzberg tradition, a group of squatters just around the corner from the grocery had purchased a residential complex on Görlitzer Strasse in 1983 and set up a non-profit association which regulates socially responsible rents.

William Wires
Berlin, June 29, 2015

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