Philip Hensher: Bohemia has fallen to the bankers

The steady flow of young people into Berlin has become a torrent. The city’s purpose is vanishing

Saturday 05 February 2011 01:00
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This week, 2,500 police assembled outside a large apartment house in Friedrichshain, in Berlin. Their object was to evict its inhabitants. Liebig 14 is a former squat-turned-commune; the owners had decided that they wanted to convert it and renovate the individual apartments, before renting them on the open market.

Feeling runs high in Berlin about this sort of thing, and the huge numbers of police reportedly had to overcome barbed wire and concrete barricades inside the house. A thousand protesters gathered outside the building and the campaign spread into affluent areas of the city. There were unconfirmed reports that a paintball fight had been mounted inside KaDeWe, the city's opulent department store.

Still, the inhabitants were eventually evicted. It feels like the end of an era. The commune, established for 20 years, is one of the last of its kind. The tenants had reached an agreement with the Berlin housing authorities, and subsequently with its private owner, to go on paying rent at 1992 levels. In Friedrichshain, then a very undesirable neighbourhood, that is reported to have been about €1 per square metre per month. Now, the new tenants will have to pay the market rate, about six times that. Goodbye to Berlin.

Berlin has always been a home for the dispossessed, the alienated, the hard up, the politically engaged and minorities of all sorts. If you want to meet a transsexual firmly committed to the pre-1989 Communist Party, say, then Berlin is probably the place to go. (There's almost certainly a group of them, meeting weekly.) In the 1920s, sexual minorities and political extremists found like-minded souls in the post-imperial city.

After the Second World War, a quirk of international treaties meant that German inhabitants of West Berlin could not do military service. Many thousands of young people, especially after 1968, went there to construct an alternative society. Unexpectedly, a form of the Alternativszene was also to be found on the other side of the wall, and East Berlin's intellectual scene could even produce some people who looked very much like dropouts. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, the alternative lifestyle first flourished, moved from place to place and now, it seems, has started to collapse.

I spent a hell of a lot of time in Berlin in the course of the 1990s. A first wave of immigration into Berlin in 1990 dissipated; the crowds went away and the only people left were those committed to not working very much. It was unbelievably cheap to live there. My first base was in Kreuzberg, the long-time centre of political dissidence in the West, as well as a Turkish quarter. (When Ronald Reagan visited Berlin in the 1980s, the police decided to save time and just closed off Kreuzberg, refusing to let anybody out, presuming that most of the protesters would be somewhere in there.) After that, a friend lent me a flat in Prenzlauer Berg, in the old East.

It was beautiful, slightly shabby and cost, I think, 350 marks a month – really nothing. All around, if you looked through the double doors of any Wilhelmine apartment building in the district, in Kreuzberg or even in Mitte, the historic centre, you were apt to glimpse a blitz of graffiti on the inner walls, some pounding gloomy techno and a dozen dreadlocked youths sitting on the stairs opining over a giant spliff. I heard all the time that Kreuzberg "was not what it was", that people were moving on.

You heard stories from Friedrichshain, then a terrifyingly lawless quarter. There was a famous anarchist squat next door to a far-right skinhead squat. Pitched battles would break out at unpredictable intervals. The whole thing was perfect bliss.

It's all gone now. Friedrichshain wouldn't scare anyone these days, with some super-chic bars and restaurants; Prenzlauer Berg, once so gloomy and brown-coal, is Yuppie Central, as the old hands will tell you. My old Kreuzberg friends have moved out to some exceedingly grim locations, as if to make a point. And the Kreuzberg strip has changed. There used to be anarchist bars, impromptu parties, illegal bars on boats – one sank into the Landwehrkanal one memorable night, pitching the punters into the drink. Not so much now. These days, if you go into that famous dive, Roses, on the Oranienburgerstrasse, it still looks the same, but the voices are different. You might see someone consulting a guidebook under the table; you will certainly hear American and English and Australian voices.

In recent years, the steady flow of young people from the English-speaking world into Berlin has turned into a torrent. The routine is well established. If you come from London or New York, Berlin is still extremely cheap. You don't see how prices have sharply risen for Berliners in recent years – you just see the comparative bargain of a beautiful flat for €500 a month. So you move in, for six months or so; you don't act like a tourist, but just settle into a neighbourhood. You might tinker at a novel, or even try painting; you get to meet other English, or Americans, and pretty soon there is a nice little expat community, just in your few streets.

I lived very much like this in Berlin 15 years ago, minus the English expats, so I'm not really in any position to complain, or call this "lifestyle tourism". It's undoubtedly a very good thing to experience a foreign culture at a level greater than the weekend city break. Still, you hear the same complaints over and over again.

Those apparently grungy New Yorkers and Londoners strike many Berliners as rich, or so they say. They don't really care about the neighbourhood; they don't contribute to the city; they don't learn German; they only hang out with each other. And so it goes on. Undoubtedly, the willingness of lifestyle tourists to shell out for a nice flat doesn't encourage landlords to go on being patient with communities like Liebig 14.

But where are they to go next? Is there anywhere left in the world for artists and dropouts and anarchists? Or is everywhere becoming like London, with the bankers turning up in a district eight months after the artists? Berlin's purpose is vanishing; perhaps it's time to look at some of the abandoned industrial cities deep in the East. I see that an estate agent in that legendary shithole, Eisenhuttenstadt, is selling an empty, giant flat for €60,000. Huge windows, great light, no neighbours – highly squattable, I would say. It may be time to move on.

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