While Berlin may for a time have gained the moniker of ‘hippest city on the planet’, it seems to have become less lovable and liveable for many of those who live there
This book on the urban development of Berlin is none too appetising on first view: an unashamedly dense collection of essays and articles. Yet in its main aim, to give ‘non-German speakers an insight into the very controversial debates after reunification’, it delivers handsomely. For most of the content has been translated into English for the first time and provides a fascinating series of snapshots by key German commentators from the early ’90s onwards, with the emphasis more on the sociological and urban planning rather than the architectural.
It’s not exactly a neutral overview and bills itself on the back as highlighting ‘the ambivalent consequences of Berlin’s urban transformation’. The articles are shot through by a healthy Germanic scepticism of market-led urban development, more focused on its fall-out than its benefits, a bracing inversion of the default Anglo-Saxon view. Not for nothing is the book subtitled ‘A Compendium of Urban Change and Activism’, rather than ‘… of Urban Development’.
Its structure follows a loose chronology, the collection of essays and articles split into four sections: Berlin’s Megalomania, Berlin In-between, Berlin on Sale, Berlin Contested looking successively at the immediate inflated hopes for the city as the new capital, post-Wall; the reality check of its near-bankruptcy at the end of the ’90s; the subsequent processes and consequences of privatisation and gentrification; and the situation today, with an increasingly fragmented constituency of interest groups in the city.
The ongoing backstory seems to be the search to regain the special status or importance the city enjoyed over the last century, from Weltstadt and cosmopolitan power house in the first third of the last century − when huge growth saw it become the biggest industrial city in Germany and the third largest city in the world − to its shattered, divided self, in the last half, which perversely made it a proxy ‘Capital of the Cold War’. And in between the short dark watershed of Hitler’s grandiose dreams of ‘Germania’, almost foisted on the city, remaining a haunting presence, which one suspects still feeds a hubristic suspicion of any grand plan.
Simone Hain, in Berlin’s Urban Development Discourse (1997), explores this search for models, quoting Hanno Klein, the city’s investor liaison, who in 1990 spoke of his wish for a new ‘bold & brutal Wilhelminian period’. This was to be reflected in the so-called ‘late Prussian-style’ of severe, gridded and orthogonal architecture promoted at the time, the most ambitious example of which is discussed by Wolfgang Kil in Last Exit to Alexanderplatz (1995): Hans Kollhoff’s plan for the old centre of East Berlin − where up to 13, 150-metre tall buildings were planned, each projected to house the headquarters of a major German company.
But 1990 predictions of the city just picking up again on where its dizzying growth had left off in the 1920s, and reaching a projected population of six million, did not materialise.
The reality was that it was a shrinking not global city − a frontier town not a new East-West omphalos, or as Uwe Rada in The Barbarian East (2000) puts it: more ‘a crazy mixture of Detroit and Lodz’ than New York or London. For while it lost its industrial base − which had been weak and outdated in the East, inefficient and heavily subsidised in the West − the expected new service metropolis, taking up the slack in providing jobs, did not emerge. Meanwhile the city near-bankrupted itself on mega-projects, and bailing out a public banking consortium involved in dodgy property deals.
What followed were neo-liberal lite policies to shore up city finances: selling and offloading assets, including the botched privatisation of the Berlin Water Company, traced by Ross Beveridge and Matthias Naumann. Meanwhile processes of gentrification, analysed by Matthias Bernt and Andrej Holm, continued to spiral out clockwise from Prenzlauer Berg across the boroughs of central Berlin, gradually becoming the nexus not just of internal, national migration but international immigration. This phenomenon in the city, of individual initiative, people taking advantage of cheap space and low costs of living, has, rather than any grands projets, been the process that, by making Berlin a magnet for the young, has transformed it into a global centre: but one for electronic music, art and digital start-ups. It is an image, both crystallised and given traction by the phrase: ‘poor but sexy’, coined by the mayor, Klaus Wowereit, in a television interview in 2004. A prescient model perhaps for how austerity in a city can be turned to advantage: from one that suffered it a good decade before the rest of Europe.
This image of a city that developed: of youth, digital start-up, club and party culture, does indeed echo an earlier model, but that of the liberal ‘Babylon on the Spree’ model of the Weimar years: one of the pleasure and creative capitals of the world.
But the final section of the book, Berlin Contested, explores the flip-side of this: the blow-back from botched city finances, social fragmentation and rising inequality. Most prominent has been the recent rise in mass protests, expressing public discontent at the selling off of public land for new developments that are only now breaking ground, although often resulting from property deals wrapped up years ago. One of the most prominent of these protests − discussed by Jan Dohnke in Spree Riverbanks for Everyone! (2013) − was the ‘Sink Mediaspree!’ campaign which partly succeeded in blocking a scheme for mixed-use development which had tried crudely to cash in, both on the ‘creative Berlin’ brand, but also on a prime riverbank site adjacent to the line of the Berlin Wall that had remained undeveloped.
These big developments in Berlin remain fairly few and far between compared with the property deals and speculation continually transforming London, but they signify far more prominently on the urban landscape of the city, whose USP has been the vast tracts of liminal, empty space even at its centre, spaces that speak both of history but have for the last decades also seemed to offer a literal metaphor for the city’s openness, and potential to new arrivals.
They are now gradually disappearing under generally mediocre new buildings. And meanwhile tellingly, Berliners appear increasingly to be getting more disillusioned with their city. This is a trend identified by Johannes Novy in Berlin Does Not Love You (2013), its title, coming from the message on stickers that appeared suddenly across the city in 2011, seemed to symbolise the alienation and anger of people, with a city for which previously there has been an almost sentimental identification − with it commonly embodied as the bear of the city’s crest. Thus while an earlier cartoon in the book, shows a cuddly version of this bear − the city − crucified on the back of dodgy property deals, now it is the city itself that is perceived as implicit to such deals − not protecting, but actively cutting across the interests of its citizens.
This book underlines how, while Berlin may for a time have gained the moniker of ‘hippest city on the planet’, it seems to have become less lovable and liveable for many of those who live there.
The Berlin Reader, A Compendium on Urban Change and Activism
Editors: Matthias Bernt, Britta Grell and Andrej Holm
Publisher: Transcript Verlag