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

5. The creative sector – a potential terrain for urban resistance?

As the persistence and incisiveness of these new urban struggles remains an object of debate, recent investigations suggest the emergence of consistent new urban social movements (USM) amongst actors and along thematics most critical thinkers have so far been reticent to consider (see Novy/Colomb 2013).

It is well-known that since scholars like Richard Florida and Charles Landry have initiated the so-called “creative turn” in urban regeneration in the early 2000s, “creativity” has become an acclaimed and successful instrument in the neoliberal tool-kit of urban governmentality (Florida 2005, Landry 2000). Its synergic integration with consolidated strategies entailing privatization, touristification and eventisation of urban space, prefigured what critical urban scholars of the network INURA[xv] fittingly dubbed the “new metropolitan mainstream”: meaning a complex, interconnected set of practices of urban restructuring, which can be seen as paradigmatic of neoliberal globalization (INURA 2009).

Yet, despite this suffocating neoliberal embrace (or maybe exactly because of it), over the past years “urban creativity” seems to have developed a stubborn dynamic of its own, increasingly aspiring towards an emancipation from institutional and corporate cooptation.

This is becoming more and more evident in a city like Berlin, which has eagerly implemented its own “creative city” strategy over the past decade – not without a certain success, we should add, at least from a neoliberal viewpoint. To a good degree, this must be acknowledged as a merit of the city’s governing social-democratic major, Klaus Wowereit. His communicative strategy has proven immensely effective in establishing and consolidating Berlin’s image as new “capital of cool”, international mecca for creatives, students and tourists and last safe haven for global bohemia: a cynical and crafty rebranding of the city’s image, perfectly epitomized by the major’s famous “poor but sexy” motto. The reinterpretation of the city’s chronic indebtedness, widespread poverty and increasing social exclusion as soft location factors – initially a desperate move dictated by the sobering post-1990′s economic slump – has gradually unfolded into a comprehensive and somehow coherent, though often erratic strategy of neoliberal urban restructuring. It should not be seen as a contradiction that such a strategy has been implemented by a social-democratic major (at times even in coalition with the leftist Linke party), as so many allegedly centre-leftist experiences since New Labour onwards have shown that they are more then willing and capable of implementing such policies, somehow leaving a strong tatcherian TINA[xvi] aftertaste.

The successful instatement of a narrative capitalizing on Berlin’s historically strong subcultures, including the outspokenly countercultural squatter scene, has greatly favoured the exploitation of those wast reserves of collective symbolic capital Harvey deemed essential to post-Fordist gentrification processes (Harvey 1989). There seems to be a rebound though. While, as we have seen, the inherent dynamics of real-estate financialization have impacted the city with unprecedented intensity over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that the Creative City strategy is facing a conundrum. The conditions on which Berlin’s “creative scene” has thrived for decades – cheap, subsidized rents and a seemingly endless reserve of vacant spaces – are rapidly vanishing because of those very same processes of urban restructuring they helped to ignite, thus leading to new, harsh conflicts.

“Mediaspree versenken”: a jaded success story?

As a response to these developments, new political actors seem to be emerging from the very same groups Florida identifies as constitutive of his criticized “Creative Class” (Florida 2005).

“Mediaspree versenken”(“Sink Mediaspree”[xvii]) has been acknowledged as the first and most prominent of a new series of initiatives dealing with urban restructuring from the perspective of the city’s (sub)cultural sector. Initiated by a heterogeneous set of actors with a robust presence of members from the creative field and the local techno scene, the initiative’s main goal was to stop the realization of a vast project of urban restructuring along the Spree river called “Mediaspree” (see also Bader/Scharenberg 2010). The project was (or rather is) located on the border between the traditional strongholds of Berlin’s leftist underground scene, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, now amongst the hippest areas in town. While the initiative was initially successful in stalling the project, the impact of institutional attrition and subsequent fragmentation of the activists, combined with the new vigour of the local real estate market, has put the Mediaspree project back on track, once again gravely endangering the many clubs and subcultural venues still to be found in the area. Furthermore, it became evident over time that, despite temporary and partially successful attempts to form a vast coalition encompassing militant leftists from the squatter scene, club owners and simple Kiez-Aktivisten (neighbourhood-activists) under the label “Megaspree”[xviii], many actors were following hidden agendas and pursuing diverging goals.

It thus appears understandable that, especially in the field of traditional leftist activism (itself not immune to a certain self-referentiality and rigid orthodoxy), a certain suspiciousness of creatives rising the flag of the “right to the city” remains. This seems justified when looking at recent developments in the Mediaspree area: while corporate actors are ruthlessly implementing their long cherished plans, single actors from the subcultural scene are fighting for a “place in the sun” on their own account, using all the communicative and symbolic means at their disposal. Their projects rise difficult questions, deserving further investigation: to what extent can the “creative class” steer urban development? Is it willing and capable to project alternatives to the neoliberal mainstream, or is it rather creating new laboratories for its biopolitical refinement?

Such is the case, for instance, of two cooperatives, called Spreefeld and Holzmarkt[xix]. Led by former club owners and activists, they succeeded in snatching away desirable and valuable lots of land from traditional investors, and are now putting their visions of socially and ecologically sustainable urbanity into practice. While this may be celebrated as a partial victory by optimists, it must be said that in order to be part of such groups, even more then in the aforementioned case of the Mietshäuser Syndikat, considerable amounts of social and cultural capital are a mandatory precondition, making this a very elitist endeavour. Furthermore, it can’t be overseen how, especially in the case of the Holzmarkt project, countercultural language and symbols have been skilfully integrated into a very professional business plan, comprehensive of a start-up incubator, a restaurant, a hotel and a club, all framed by urban gardening, art venues, organic groceries and a manneristic, aestheticized informalism, reminiscent of a certain bourgeois “slum romanticism”. While it must be acknowledged that the project’s profitability and spectacular appeal have been central preconditions for its financing through a Swiss pension fund, thus thankfully thwarting the construction of yet another glass and steel office building, it should be debated to what degree such a kind of “creative-alternative” urban village, as enjoyable as it may be, will be really capable of granting an authentic “right to the city” for all. Nevertheless, its positive, experimental potential shouldn’t be overlooked: much will depend on the projects implementation over the next years.

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