How Berlin Battled Gentrification

From the moment the Wall came down in 1989, Berlin has been steadily rebuilding the damage done by decades spent on the frontline of Cold War isolation. 

Today, it’s skyline is twinkles with luxury new high rise buildings snaking along the banks of the Spree, while areas like Potsdamer-Platz have been transformed into American-inspired shopping districts. But the city’s raw and teeming underground remains staunchly at odds with this questionable vision of a modern Berlin.

Since reunification, youth culture started to take on a radical and dominant new form in the German capital. A culture of finding and conquering dilapidated free spaces away from the formerly oppressive government gaze became an integral element of Berlin’s DNA, and would lay the foundations for the city’s artistic dominance in a variety of disciplines, most notably electronic music.

Today, much of the free space is gone. Major development projects intended to inject luxury capital or tempt new industry to Berlin has usurped the artistic community; leaving them as vulnerable as they are in every major city caught in the fervor of growth. But despite the intensity of the battle, the artists of Berlin have learned to fight back, recognizing and leveraging their economic and cultural value to a city once famously described by its mayor Klaus Wowereit as “poor, but sexy”.

There are key lessons that Berlin’s art scene has learned over the last fifteen or so years that can be translated to any major scene fighting against the aggressive encroach of gentrification. And as major cultural powerhouses like London, New York and San Francisco find their scenes increasingly sterilized, there’s never been a more crucial time to heed the advice of Berlin’s art activists.

Learn to Speak Politics

Sascha Disselkamp in his club Fiese Remise. Credit—Juliana Matos.

One crucial lesson that the Berlin scene had to collectively learn was how to speak the language of the politicians. Sascha Disselkamp, founder of the Berlin Clubcommission and owner of Sage, first brought the city’s finance minister into his club in 1999 after a series of shut downs forced the club scene to come out of the shadows and fight for the economic recognition it deserved. Recognizing that the tourist board was using the unique nightlife scene to tempt in more revenue, Disselkamp demanded better operating conditions and protection from authorities trying to shut them down.

Today, the Clubcommission is an active element of the municipal government, and its spokesperson Lutz Leichsenring admits having an “exotic” presence in the stuffy chamber of commerce. “We are pretty deep in the political system,” explained Leichsenring. “Many of our executive board members are also part of the political parties, and I myself am part of the chamber of commerce. it’s very important to have open dialogue with the groups like real estate businesses and the tourism board to understand how we see things and how we would like to make things happen.”

Form a Coalition

The Clubcommission at work

The aforementioned Clubcommission has been arguably the most important structural development for the Berlin club scene. Disselkamp, along with fellow scene luminaries Marc Wohlrabe (Flyer Magazine) and Falk Walter (Ipse, Arena, Club der Visionäre), recognized that without this kind of unifying lobby group, the scene would be unable to defend itself against the rampant gentrification that was rapidly shaping the city’s landscape in the early 2000s.

The Clubcommission represents the interests of over 120 clubs in Berlin, and aside from providing legal counsel, they also negotiate rates on basic services like soundproofing and electricity.

The Clubcommission should be considered the blueprint for every scene. The problem of clubs being sacrificed to make way for luxury developments is not unique to Berlin, but by forming a coalition, recognizing and leveraging economic value, a scene can better defend itself.

Fund Artists

L-R: Katja Lucker (Musicboard), Pop-Kultur curators Christian Morin and Martin Hossbach. Credit—NPR Berlin.

The Berlin Musicboard was founded in 2013 as response to the popular music scene being largely overlooked for government funding, despite contributing arguably more revenue for the city. Operating with around €2m in funding for artists and initiatives, the Musicboard funds residencies, events and festivals, such as Pop-Kultur.

One of the key elements that the Musicboard supports is how international Berlin is, and the organization’s managing director Katja Lucker believes that this is one of the German capital’s strongest virtues. “Nowadays almost 60 percent of our funding is going to people from all over the world,” explains Lucker. “They have to be Berlin based, but it really doesn’t matter where they come from, and I think that this is really what Berlin is all about.”

Make Creativity an Industry

Tresor founder Dimitri Hegemann, a key player in developing the industry of clubbing. Credit—Juliana Matos.

Every major city in the world has some kind of significant creative industry, but Berlin’s was particularly crucial to the city’s economic well being. With clubs like Tresor, Berghain, Watergate and events like Love Parade, Berlin was becoming just as well known internationally for its music scene as it was for the remnants of Wall and historical museums.

The city made its clubs and nightlife a center point of its branding, and sought to capitalize on Easyjet’s short haul flights to the city by making weekend clubbing benders an affordable reality.

While this has been fraught with issues, its success can’t be disputed. Approximately one third of Berlin’s 12m tourists come for the nightlife, and the Visit Berlin website boasts that, “Berlin...remains one of the world's fastest-growing cities in the tourism business. The high growth, especially among international guests, shows that we have been able to establish the German capital internationally as a tourist destination and have increased the attractiveness of Berlin in new markets.”

There is no question that much of this growth is attributed to the city’s reputation as the best club scene in the world.

Engage the Community

Pamela Schobeß and Lars Döring, owners of Gretchen. Credit—Juliana Matos.

Aside from the comparatively low rent, cultural institutions like clubs and art galleries in neighborhoods like Kruezberg and Friedrichshain are what make the areas so precious to those that live there. And it’s very important for the residents to be made aware when the big budget development projects come rolling down the street, because the impact can be catastrophic.

The federal government-owned Dragoner area of Kruezberg was set to be sold to a Viennese consortium for €36m back in 2015. The Berlin government had made an €18m bid for the space, intending to develop low income housing and protect the local small businesses, but this was set to be undone by a federal government clause that public land must be sold to the highest bidder.

The local residents formed an action group called “Stadt von Unten” and fought against the sale on the grounds that this kind of private investment would lead to dramatic changes in the working-class neighborhood.

Experimental music venue Gretchen is located in Dragoner, and would have been caught in the firing line. “We have lots of initiatives here in Berlin that fight for the rights of low income people against luxury projects,” Gretchen’s Pamela Schobeß told the Creative Footprint. “This was really a community thing, because they realized that if someone spends €36m they will need to make that money back. It won’t just be the clubs that suffer, but the whole area will change.”

Ultimately, the neighborhood managed to stop the sale of the land to the international developers, and the residents recognized the power of organizing, mobilizing and engaging the local businesses in the fight to defend their neighborhoods.