We’re All Staying? Anti-Gentrification Struggles in 1990s Berlin

"Stop Leaving Buildings Empty - Flats For All - Affordable Rents"
"Stop Leaving Buildings Empty - Flats For All - Affordable Rents"

Article from Black Flag #220 (2001) on struggles against the gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.

Submitted by Fozzie on February 3, 2021

Gentrification is a very real threat to the survival of working class communities both in the inner cities and in those rural areas where the rich like to 'escape' to enjoy long weekends and holidays. Those of us threatened by gentrification (or 'regeneration' - which amounts to the same thing) have no choice but to fight, the question is how? After re-unification, communities in East Berlin faced gentrification on a massive scale. Their attempts to fight back are described below, together with the problems they faced. Although the original article was written three years ago, we think it contains important and sobering lessons for anyone attempting to put anti-gentrification politics into practice.

From an article by M Bernt and A Holm

In April 1998 Prenzlauer Berg, like the rest of east Berlin, saw another set of rent rises1 . The key political goal of “Equalisation of Living Conditions" had culminated in rents now costing at least a third of income. The cheaper 'old build' market sector in east Berlin had disappeared and in some areas rents were higher than in the west. This latest rent increase was a milestone [negatively speaking] in the history of the east Berlin 'Neighbourhood Movements' who had fought the forcing out of low- income residents. The introduction of the west German 'like for like' rent system meant that rents and struggles over affordability in east Berlin now were determined in the same individualised fashion as in the west.

In 1992 it had been otherwise. The first (state ordered) 200% rent rises caused a wave of protests especially in Prenzlauer Berg. Meetings of local people led to the formation of the "Wir Bleiben Alle" (WBA) action alliance and demonstrations of up to 20,000 participants. The rent increases couldn't be stopped in the end, but WBA had been the start of a new self confidence in the area. Six years later there was nothing left of this fighting spirit. The attempt by local activists to organise a rent freeze (refusal to pay rent increases) to stop further rent rises failed after a short period of time. The poorly attended meetings, independent advice sessions and a faked 'Retraction of the rent increases' from the Local Housing Company2 failed to make any impact. Affordable accommodation was no longer a political issue that people would fight for. What happened then between 1992 and 1998?

This article seeks to determine why despite worsening conditions, the potential for protest and resistance in Prenzlauer Berg dwindled. To do this we outline some of the key features of developments in the area - Restitution, Gentrification, Media Hype and 'Regeneration'. In closing we look at the effects of gentrification and of people being forced from the area — to shed some light on the 'Neighbourhood Opposition' and dispel some common political conclusions.

Getting the Borough Ready — from Prenzlauer Berg to "Prenzelberg"

Everyone's heard of Prenzlauer Berg — it's "in". Hardly a guidebook is produced without a chapter on the legendary borough. Every month sees the opening of a new restaurant, bar or other amusement facility for the cultural, culinary and economic ruling class and on weekends swarms of tourists come to Kollwitz Platz to discover 'Prenzelberg'. Between 1991 and 1996 about 70,000 people from a stable population of 145,000 moved. The new residents were generally younger than the previous inhabitants, had a higher level of education and to a large extent came from west Berlin or western Germany. In 'regeneration' areas a third of the tenants were replaced. There were hardly any manual workers amongst the new residents and their income was on average 50% above the average for the area and, significantly, was even above the average for west Berlin as a whole.

This process was, of course, gentrification - the movement of wealthier residents into an area which formerly had a poorer population - market mechanisms encouraging an exchange of population from workers and the poor to the better off. The media hype accompanying this process found its manifestation in the conditions of the property market which was shaped by the specificities of the former DDR. The "return of goods to previous owners" (or restitution) affected almost every block in Prenzlauer Berg and sent the property market into a state of ferment. Through 'restitution', many 'former owners' found themselves in possession, overnight as it were, of real estate which they hadn't expected and couldn't manage. Most sold their property on to developers.

The high proportion of reselling, as well as price inflation, had severe consequences for the renovation costs which exploded along with sale prices3 . The current rents for tenants on old secure leases (about 4 — 5 DM / sq M) only covered the purchase costs. There was a financial gap — the old residents couldn't afford huge rent increases whilst new residents were happy to pay three times as much for a renovated flat. The buyers can thank the myth of 'Prenzelberg' and the fan club it attracted for the fact that they weren't stuck in a speculation trap — and instead came out with profits. What this meant for old residents in Prenzlauer Berg in everyday terms was:

  • running down the condition of the blocks,
  • a climate of uncertainty and psychological pressure to move,
  • 'premiums' to convince residents to leave4 ,
  • hired thugs demolishing flats around the tenant,
  • physical attacks, firebombing and sabotaging of services.

In the face of this harassment, the old residents fled, leaving the field open to the new residents — and the population of Prenzlauer Berg was transformed.

Resistance Against Expulsions and Gentrification — "Wir Bleiben Alle" (We're All Staying)

The danger of gentrification was spotted early on. After fires in squatted blocks in DunckerStrasse, the first large neighbour-hood meeting was called and the first group against expulsions and speculation formed. A. local post office was saved, small businesses were organised and there was a successful action against speculators in RaumerStrasse. These served to create and boost the self-confidence of a new activist milieu. It was a very mixed group — New Forum5 , Christian groups6 , small shopkeepers and squatters — and laid the basis for a collective response to the expected expulsions from the area. It led finally to the founding in early 1992. of the alliance "Wir Bleiben Alle.”

The name had a double meaning — one was historical: WBAs, WohnBezirkAuschusse (Neighbourhood committees), served in the former DDR as an extension of the state bureaucracy within a neighbourhood. In Prenzlauer Berg however, in the 1980's, two WBAs had been infiltrated by the opposition and were the core of the movement against the demolition of both Oderberger and RykeStrasse. Through the use of the (ambivalent) history of the WBAs, resistance from DDR times could be used to legitimise struggle against the new rulers as well. Secondly, "we" and "all" indicated an egalitarian attitude. 'Staying" wasn't just for those who fitted in, or those who had the money — nor should Prenzlauer Berg become an 'alternative zoo' — rather everyone who wanted to stay should be able to. Wanting to "stay" was the point where common interests and common problems came from — that was who "We" were.

WBA was mainly known for two actions. One was the widely supported occupation of a block in Kollwitzstrasse —which prevented it from being turned into a hotel (although not into yuppie flats). Secondly, WBA was the only noticeable opposition to the 200% rent rises in 1992 — that took to the streets. Despite massive mobilisation (20,000 demonstrators) and widespread support in the neighbourhoods, neither action ultimately succeeded, yet they did mean that the WBA alliance was widely known and had an extraordinary degree of legitimacy and acceptance in inner city east Berlin.

West Berlin liberal 'public opinion' —essentially made up of west German 'post 68ers' — only noticed WBA afterwards as part of the construction of Prenzlauer Berg as an 'in' district. Resistance against expulsion was incorporated as evidence of the 'liveliness' and 'attractiveness' of the area — photos of the bigger demos are used today in the brochures of the regeneration firm STERN — which was previously active in Kreuzberg and now co-ordinates regeneration in Prenzlauer Berg.7

Winter 1992 saw a decline in WBA. In the following years, despite a series of block occupations, local meetings, and a range of actions against speculators and attempts to drive local people out of the area — a widely supported movement did not exist anymore. We believe the decline was principally caused by:

  • the perception of Prenzlauer Berg as a 'scene borough' — in which resident groups 'outside the scene' were side-lined,
  • the formalising and official recognition of local initiatives / groups in "regeneration areas" and
  • the widespread ignorance and arrogance of the Berlin left.

The Battle of the Bars on Kollwitzplatz

In no area of Prenzlauer Berg are the effects of gentrification so clear as in Kollwitzplatz. By 1994-95 the transformation of the area into a tourist zone had become intolerable for residents. Deafening noise from the pub goers of the 100 or so bars in the area (population 12,000), cars parked on pavements, and above all the shopping monoculture lead to, for the first time since the decline of WBA, significant tenant protest. Whilst yuppie shops opened, the shops used by old residents were forced to shut as rents rose. The Pensioner's rooms, Post Office, bakers, fruit and veg shop and the local children's library were all replaced with posh restaurants, cafes and health food / delicatessens. Apart from the direct effects of traffic and noise, the commercialisation of the Kollwitzplatz quarter had two apparent effects on the social conditions of the area:

The destruction of the established range of small businesses also meant the destruction of living conditions in a neighbourhood which relied on mutual support.

The traditional shops, which often allowed credit or payment on account, were also places where people could meet — the 'hardware' of the local 'network.

The new 'offerings' are aimed at a better-off circle of customers - reflecting the shift in population. These new shops also function as an advertising vehicle for speculators in the area - for private flat seekers, the existing yuppie infrastructure of the area helps make Prenzlauer Berg attractive.

The resident protest against gentrification was aimed primarily against the most advanced structures of gentrification — the new cafes. With a mixture of anger about everyday disturbances and an unarticulated class consciousness — a large proportion of the local population, in a series of meetings with the Borough, demanded an end to the serving of booze in the open air after 10pm8 and for a halt to further restaurant and cafe developments.

However, this meant that the initiative was taken out of the hands of residents and sent into the distant horizon of what was possible through official negotiations. The discussions dwelt increasingly on questions of noise emissions and boundaries and ended up bogged down in the never-never land of bureaucracy. Police reports of the time also show an increase in individual attacks against yuppie targets - ranging from damaging car paintwork, abusing yuppies, and slashing tyres to repeated smashing of yuppie restaurant windows. Neither tactic worked - today the old residents of Kollwitzplatz are a minority. They've given up and moved one by one to quieter areas.

The media and many leftists (including former squatters) portrayed workers and their families, who had to get up early and needed to sleep, as philistines who wanted their quiet boring neighbourhood back. 'Cultural life is a part of every metropolis, and if it was too loud for them here', they should, 'move to Kopenick', an outer suburb of Berlin often characterised as a village.

The fact that the residents of Prenzlauer Berg had in the past been positive in their reception of 'culture' meant that this belittling of their needs, and the preference given to those of the yuppies, was even harder to combat. The interests of `pioneers' and 'gentrifiers' so dominated the public discourse over 'Prenzelberg' that the problems of the rest of the population were ignored. The voices of the 'foreign' sections of the population were excluded and the lessons of the Kreuzberg experience had been learned.

According to the Berliner Zeitung, for example, the disturbing aspects (Turkish people, autonomes, junkies) had been conveniently left in the west.

"The big difference: Delis, fashion and lifestyle in this neighbourhood are no longer seen as manifestations of the class enemy... In Prenzlauer Berg no one is emptying buckets of shit on posh restaurant floors as once happened in Kreuzberg's Oranien-Stage. No anonymous groups calling themselves 'Class Against Class' are firebombing delicatessens. And autonome polit-groups are nowhere to be seen."9

Increasingly, initiatives which didn't fit into this picture failed to attract publicity for the problems of residents, as the myth of "Prenzelberg" became dominant. Protests were incorporated, as evidence of the colour and rebelliousness of the borough. Social conflicts were depoliticised and instead turned into cultural artefacts. The media didn't even mention the 1998 rent rises as they were only a problem for the diminishing number of older tenants.

Co-operation not Conflict -being crapped on consultatively

As WBA broke up at the end of 1992, the remaining activists joined consultative committees10 in the regeneration areas. Invitations to participate in the changes offered a glimmer of hope that the developments in your local area could be influenced. But after five years these efforts must also be seen to have failed. The effects of the formalising and legalese-ing through the 'Betroffenenvetretungen' have been at least as devastating for the movement against expulsions as the dissolution of co-ordinated resistance through the media discourse of gentrification.

The rights set out in the regulations for regeneration projects show dearly how limited the scope for action was. The consultation committees could

"be consulted on the appointment of experts and consultants, ... should orally or in writing assist in providing information to the public,- can make comments and suggestions on the preparations and carrying out of the regeneration works."

A real say in terms of a veto on regeneration and building decisions never existed - and fundamental criticism of regeneration work was next to impossible.

This model of 'consultative regeneration', imported from Kreuzberg, had been critiqued in the 1980's by the Berlin academic, Karl Hornuth,

"... it incorporates the potential for protest into its structures via active co-option. It brings groups previously not participating into the consensus model for urban restructuring. It transforms heterogeneous demands, interests and needs of 'interest groups' into manageable problems and actions."11

The results were casework, limiting to the 'do-able' and localisation of protests. Instead of guaranteeing "everyone staying" we were limited to the individual 'project' - the regeneration of a square, pressurising regeneration authorities to act against specific speculators, saving old chestnut trees from demolition squads etc. This had happened in Kreuzberg - but what made things different in Prenzlauer Berg was that the state was now relying heavily on private finance for regeneration. In west Berlin, many conflicts had been settled with state cash - but in Prenzlauer Berg, the state's responsibility for problem resolution was very limited. The privately funded 'regeneration state' set the agenda. Attempts to discuss the general thrust of regeneration were not tolerated - instead activists were limited to 'one problem at a time' work on administratively defined problems and solutions. Under these conditions many former activists retreated, disappointed and overworked. In some areas citizen participation now means only one person representing an area.

As they co-ordinate the process of 'upgrading' a given area, the regeneration authorities still spout the old aims of "socially responsible and consultative city development" in publicity material. The pretence of protecting residents from expulsion - limited by time and amount in a non-statutory rent guarantee after modernisation12 — is a pacification measure to ensure the easy restructuring of the area. For example, the regeneration company responsible for Prenzlauer Berg - STERN - spares neither money nor effort to declare on billboards and glossy brochures the rare successes of "consultative regeneration." The traditional protest potential of citizens movements from alternative milieus have been rendered complicit through the Green Members of City Council and the occasional rebellious gestures from regeneration apparatniks. Without an obvious and above all realistic alternative, many residents accept the half-baked regeneration praxis as the lesser evil. Likewise 'consultative regeneration' depoliticises conflict over the future of the borough - success in negotiations become a matter of whether on a personal level relationships with bureaucrats are good or not.

Although it was almost impossible to break through the toothless 'representation model' - the KiezLaden (community centre) in Dunckerstrasse, which originated from an anti-state (and non-funded) position - was able to maintain some momentum, organising street protests and occupations. Through the perspective of 'neighbours helping neighbours' the ability to mobilise tenants also existed -particularly around empty buildings... which wasn't possible in the semi-professional consultative structures. But against a background of resistance to particularly crass speculators, there was a tendency for activists to be pushed into being anti-speculator fire fighters, running from action to action. The possibility of a generalised critique of the praxis of regeneration was not possible from this position.

‘Radical' Critics and Radical Ignorance - the neighbourhood movement without the left

Another reason for the weakness of the movement against expulsions was the strength of the 'Radical left' in Berlin -which drew in many WBA activists, locked them into in endless navel gazing and finally diverted them from all political involvement. The movement against expulsions was, at best, ignored and at worst demonised by the left. The critics had two main points: first that the initiatives in the neighbourhoods were 'reformist' ("we want more than low rents don't we?"). Secondly that 'false neighbourhood identities were being established' -defending an imaginary homogeneous neighbourhood would lead to attacks on marginalised members.

Already in 1992 — the WBA peak -useful energy had been wasted by meaningless discussions on a leaflet from the autonomen13 scene reading

"Against a Left Nationalist position of the 'poor german tenants' - for an anti-fascist barracks from Bendzko to Bieitscheiclplatz."

Instead of discussing how to radicalise protests, resolve urgent organisational issues or prepare for the possible rent strike, WBA spent valuable weeks discussing how to repair its image in the Berlin left.

Mayday 1997 saw an escalation of the controversy. The organising group for the "Revolutionary First of May" wanted to export Kreuzberg's traditional May Day riot to Prenzlauer Berg. But local groups resented and criticised the Mayday group's Stalinist approach and crass understanding of local social conflicts and conditions. In the Interim14 some 'militants' responded, describing the melange of tenant / neighbourhood initiatives as 'pro state' and Prenzlauer Berg as infested "by left liberals and DDR era alternative movement fetishists who make radical left politics impossible in the area." The controversy ended in public mud-slinging - the demo organising group saying that the groups working in Prenzlauer Berg had a "german garden gnome style mentality",

Now, discussion between the revolutionary mainstream and local groups hardly exists. The bogeyman which had been built, is still stubbornly represented as the reality of neighbourhood politics. WBA is still caricatured as a closed white community, which opposes immigrants, as Nimbys, and as territorialist against... every sort of cultural, social and political 'other.' The fact that this bears little relation to reality doesn't seem to matter.

A residents' group from an area where the main population are east German, will probably concern itself with the rights of east German tenants and not the rights of migrants, junkies and homeless people living in other areas. But to conclude from this that the group seeks to defend 'its area' from migrants, junkies or the homeless is an allegation which cannot be sustained. In fact the neighbourhood groups:

  • took joint action with the homeless eg. the squatting of Koliwitzstrasse 89,
  • co-operated and worked with travellers,
  • protested against the police raids against junkies
  • on the 'legendary' demo against rent rises in September 1992 one of the 3 speakers was a refugee who spoke about the situation of migrants here in this country.

Why do die critics on the left so stubbornly insist on labelling the neighbourhood movements as nationalist, despite ample evidence to the contrary? In our opinion, they can't deal with the reality because this may force them to question their own identity ghettos (white, middle class, student, west German). The key concerns of the scene can be seen from the shifts in critiques offered. At the start of the 90's the demarcation line for the Kreuzberg left was that of opposition to the Greens —the old rejection of reformism. Nowadays 'construction of identity' is the clear leader. The shift came around 1993, as the west German middle class left in Berlin found itself in a minority position. Even in Kreuzberg the effects of neo-liberalism were being felt. Multiculturalism was becoming uncomfortable — classes where 70% of students from non-German speaking backgrounds were not 'OK' for the children of the old left. A discourse about law and order developed in the heart of the autonomous scene — for example against the 'Turkish pitbull fraction' who had taken the autonomist wall murals about building self-defence bands too seriously.

A mass exodus set in — the ageing alternative milieu from Kreuzberg, Schoneberg and Charlottenburg moved to east Berlin to the Spandauer Vorstadt or to Prenzlauer Berg — where the world was still German but alternative. But the existing east German residents were less than overjoyed by the arrival of these west German 'brothers and sisters'. East — west conflict brewed — some west German students (living in Prenzlauer Berg) have said they feel like "Jews in the Third Reich" - 'identity' becomes a problem if it's not your own.

A consequence of these denunciations is the almost total abstention of the (radical) left in rank and file tenant's groups in the suburb. If leftists had mucked in with the rank and file initiatives in Prenzlauer Berg they would have been outside of their traditional networks and risked losing these altogether. The dogmatic 'left critics' therefore caused further segmentation of the potential for resistance, which still remained in their milieu.

Perspectives for Resistance in the City — what's left?

What can he drawn out these experiences? An opposition movement against gentrification in Prenzlauer Berg and other areas, can in our opinion only be built if:

  • a real rank and file mobilisation takes place, which doesn't rely on spectacular actions or symbolic politics to achieve media coverage — but which does directly intervene in the material conditions of the borough
  • a confrontational politics of regeneration can be carried through which can develop the conditions for concrete and hopefully successful negotiation options for the residents and include a generalised critique of previous regeneration practices ]
  • organisation which ignores the disastrous fragments of the left occurs and social struggle around real social conditions can be developed, without exclusivity and self- imposed limitations

Taking on "social problems" in a neighbourhood doesn't directly challenge social relationships, but it does put them under scrutiny. Rather than engaging in moralistic arguments we want to look at all options for concrete social projects and mobilisations. This approach does not directly challenge the question of ownership — it 'only' interferes with the right of owners to do what they want with their properties. Yet we think it is less important to always stand on the correct side of the barricades with the correct political position than it is to develop coalitions with other social groups. Urban politics must be based on the content of social conflicts and organisationally consist of the widest possible mobilisation.

The changes in Prenzlauer Berg affect the people you'd expect. They're an attack from above on residents who can't pay their rent; on old people who find their everyday existence made harder by the closing of local small shops and post offices; and on young people who find the ex-squatted alternative venues dumb, and can't afford the prices in the new bars. Concentrating on the politics of everyday life does not necessarily mean welfare work, because the failures of individual solutions also contain the possibility of generalising and radicalising them. Taking 'small problems' seriously is the essential basis for credibility. To establish a movement from below can only be done on the basis of continuous local work, an empirical analysis of the specific conditions and the skills to make strategic as well as short term demands to resolve concrete problems and conflicts.

The authors have worked for many years in various neighbourhood initiatives in Prenzlauer Berg.

  • 1German rent laws allow rent increases of 10-30% every 3 years to ensure that the ‘like for like' rent of flats are similar in a particular area. Berlin is defined as one area and the policy has the effect of raising low rents in east Berlin to meet the market rents in west Berlin.
  • 2Local Housing companies are based in each east Berlin borough and were 100% state owned but independently managed. Now the LHC for Prenzlauer berg owns 20% of the housing stock
  • 3The usual price for an un-renovated home in Prenzlauer Berg is 800 — 1000 DM / sq M. This price can be included in the renovation costs (and therefore can be passed on to the tenants). The renovation costs for most blocks in east Berlin are very high due to the decades of neglect.
  • 4While these are declining, sums of DM 5,000 are still quite common in the private sector —previously up to and over DM 10,000 could he offered as 'fuck off quick' money to tenants. The remaining public sector tenants receive no home loss payments, but can recharge the Local Housing Company for costs.
  • 5 The main DDR Opposition group on the left in the 1980s. The main DDR Opposition group on the left in the 1980s.
  • 6 significant in the unofficial peace-movement in the 1980s & influenced by liberation theology
  • 7STERN was a major renovation firm and the vanguard of 'consultative neighborhood regeneration'. After the end of the DDR, STERN greatly expanded its activities and today has its base of operations in Prenzlauer Berg. Now STERN is broadening its base to include regeneration of Prefab style tower blocks in Brandenburg and the 3 km holiday home project of "Strength through Joy" (Nazi Social Club) in Rugen (Baltic Coast of eastern Germany).
  • 8there is no effective closing time for cafes in Berlin
  • 9'the picture book punks have disappeared' Berliner Zeitung 7/12/95
  • 10 State recognised 'Betroffenenvetretungen' comprising 50% tenants, along with representation from shop keepers, owners and building workers.
  • 11Homuth, K: Statik potemkinscher Dorfer. Behutsame Stadterneuerung mid gesellschaftliche Maclit in Berlin — Kreuzberg, Berlin 1984
  • 12 After modernisation the owner can add 11% of the costs of renovation onto the rent but then must wait five years before the next 'comparative' rent rise (to bring the rent levels up to the Berlin average). This five year limit has been challenged by the Berlin Senate as being too long and inhibiting private investment. In other words, the 'guarantee' is probably not worth the paper it is written on…
  • 13 Autonomous left - a heterogeneous movement set somewhere politically between Maoism, Italian Leftism circa 1967-77 and anarchism - with strong radical feminist and third worldist influences.
  • 14The fortnightly underground Berlin autonomist magazine — not illegal to hold a single copy but can be to have more than one or to help prepare it (due to laws about supporting / publicising criminal or armed political activities).