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

Increasing rents as a condition for political struggles

Gentrification is more recent at Berlin than in other German cities like Hamburg or Munich. In the last years Berlin got to a point, where not only single neighbourhood but the whole city center (marked by the circular railway ring) is affected by different shapes of gentrification – individual agency is highly reduced and institutions to directly confront and to make responsible for what is happening progressively disappear. “Berlin seems to be a laboratory for all the variations of gentrifications one knows from the international literature” (Holm 2013).

Nevertheless it is – at least in Germany – still difficult to follow the tenor of “post-politics” and “post-democracy” (discussed e.g. by Zizek following Ranciere): Municipal and state institutions can still be held responsible for the sell-out of real estate and building that was mentioned before, even if this is almost completed. Or for passing a new law that weakens tenants rights (which happened 2013[ix]). That implies that there exist structures like institutions, laws, public spendings and so forth, that may be worth to be defended, transformed or expanded again, such as happened when the initiative Energietisch (“round table for Energy”) tried at November 2013 to re-communalise the production of energy by referendum[x].

But there are also houses managed and owned by funds, new migrants arriving from Eastern and Southern European countries, some global actors are speculating with real estate in Berlin and tourism is becoming a big economical sector in the city what puts Berlin in competition with other (global) cities.

All this is well connected to very local dynamics and conditions for gentrification. During the last decades displacement pressure increased, leading to evictions due to the gap between long term rental agreements and new contract rents. In other areas living apartments are transformed to holiday flats for tourists. Most permitted construction projects are linked to the idea to concern Berlin’s high unemployment: and thus hotels or offices are built while social housing aren’t. Or rents increase despite long-term rent contracts through “energy-related renovations” and modernization of houses and simultaneously channelling money from public funds into house-owners pockets.

In this context new questions are emerging: Who will be attacked or confronted in cases like the one of Reichenberger Street 114, where the house was sold by auction and bought from some non-German investor? Who will be addressed besides the state or municipal institutions and politics?

Increasing rents became the condition for political struggles in Berlin. And struggles point to answers to urgent matters.

The dilemmas of insurgent political agency

Even if the changes of housing market and urban planing stress the very local and historical political decisions taken, it appears to be less and less promising to organize only around distribution of municipal resources. The difficulty for struggles lies in detecting the practices that link local political programs and authorities with global developments. Gentrification at Berlin is whether just a global, too complex (unstoppable) situation but neither can it be understood just through the local.

Taking a city-wide awareness about the all in common problem “increasing rents” as given, daily perception of ongoing processes got radicalized and politicized, people start to feel affected, talk as affected. Traditional institutions like social-democratic and leftist parties but also traditional tenants consultations and older movements like the housing movements are still in search for explanations and solutions. Most scientists and journalists join in the chorus of problematizing but not focusing on possibilities for changes – that exist. And most political groups stay in their sub-areas of competences loosing sight of most processes and actors.

In the meantime fear regarding the future becomes a motor for mobilization and new forms of protest appear. Or mainly still have to be found, as there doesn’t exist any direct connection between being affected, struggling and being involved in political movements. It seems that new movements are needed – but not easy to find.

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