In the eye of the storm: Urban Transformations in Berlin – Realities of Crisis and Perspectives for Social Struggles


1. Introduction
2. Historical Background: Regulation and Resistance in Fordist Berlin
3. Boom and Crisis in Berlin Real-Estate: Financialization as a “glocal” phenomenon
4. Gentrification as new condition for social struggle
5. The creative sector – a potential terrain for urban resistance?
6. Conclusion
7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The following text summarizes our group research for the summer school program “Teaching the Crisis”, held in Berlin in September 2013. We have re-evaluated our findings based on the discussions and lectures held during the course of the seminar.

Our main concern is to understand realities and dynamics of crisis in the urban context of Berlin. To external viewers, Germany in general and Berlin in particular may currently seem as moderate social-democratic islands amidst a sea of neoliberal turmoil – the proverbially quiet spot in the eye of the financial storm that is devastating Europe. The fact that Berlin as well as Germany are generally perceived as a case of “exceptionalism”, as a sphere untouched or even profiting from the current European and global financial crisis confronted us with the challenge to move beyond the concept of crisis as a one-dimensional, spatially confined phenomenon and point to the complexity and interrelatedness of local, national and transnational transformations.

In doing so, we built on the assumption that neoliberalization is not a universal and unilinear process, but mediated, variegated and (re-)produced by specific historical and geographical contexts. “Cities are not just relay stations for a singular, unchanging, world-encompassing neoliberal project, but are better understood as institutional forcefields positioned within (and continuously transformed through) an always mutating and unevenly developed landscape of regulatory reform, experimentation, circulation” (Brenner/Theodore 2002: 1093) – and social struggles. The latter is crucial in our approach.

Our research thus started from the subjective experiences of crisis that are voiced in social struggles in Berlin today: They can be found in the field of real estate and housing, where rising rents are leading to increasing segregation and displacement. They can also be found in the (subculturally dominated) struggles around the commodification and commercialization of urban space. Both processes stem from a new global dynamic of financialization as well as from national and local policies of de-regulation and privatization. At the same time, the speed of these processes and the resistance that they evoke account for the city’s specific historical legacy: the character of Berlin as a tenement city and as a city of counterculture is at stake.

In this article, we further elaborate on these instances as local phenomena of crises and fields of struggle, involving new forms of activism and resistance. Firstly, we explain the specific historical conditions that have shaped Berlin’s urban politics during Fordist times with particular regard to the regulation of the housing sector. Here, we take a closer look at the role of social movements (especially the squatters’ movement) and explain its interaction and conflict with Fordist forms of urban planning. Secondly, we describe the (de-)regulatory shift to neoliberal urban politics and examine its consequences for the housing and real estate sector. In taking a closer look at the recent real-estate boom and the related process of financialization, we can see the current transformation as one that encompasses different spatial scales as well as political, cultural and subjective dimensions. Departing from that, we draw attention to the question of new urban movements in Berlin. We discuss new struggles around rising rents and displacement as well the role of the so-called “creative class” in its ambivalence as a resource for capital and a possible source of resistance. With these two perspectives, we try to investigate the potential, the dilemmas and the specific resources for urban movements to confront the particular reality of neoliberalization in Berlin.

Furthermore, our research repeatedly confronted us with the ambivalences and complexities of the concept of “crisis”. In a seemingly paradoxical way, in Berlin economical and political crises often coincided with a flourishing of (counter)culture: vice-versa, economical growth and political stabilization often led to a progressive disappearance of those celebrated spatial, legal and cultural “grey zones” on which the city’s independent scene has always thrived. Beyond the neoliberal platitudes that try to present the current crisis as a period of opportunity, lies a truth that points towards potential spaces of liberation to be found amidst the rubble of economical and social breakdown. This said, one should always be cautious when generalizing findings from the german capital, given the unique conditions that bred them – as we will see in the following paragraph.

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