Berlin Lab

Making Controversy Constructive: A Look at the Past, Present, and Future of Affordability in Berlin

The American newscaster David Brinkley, a man well acquainted with controversy, once said: “A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.”

Indeed, when standing amongst the rubble that lies in the wake of controversy, one has two options: to let it lie in heaps and mourn the mess, or use it to build something stronger than what was once there.

I am a believer in the latter option, which is why I see great opportunity in the discussion that has begun in the past few weeks in Berlin.

As most of you reading this likely know, to say that the Lab’s forthcoming presence in Berlin has been politicized would be a gross understatement. Indeed, the Lab has found itself as the spark reigniting debates everywhere, from neighborhood cafes to newspapers and even parliament, about some of the most important and urgent issues in Berlin today, namely housing affordability and gentrification.

The Lab has not yet opened in Berlin and begun tackling these issues there, but with such an important discussion already started, it would be a wasted opportunity not to join in right away.

Gentrification and affordability are by no means new problems. Nor are they problems unique to Berlin. Exact English translations of the antigentrification slogans I have seen spray painted in the streets of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain can regularly be found lacquered onto the garage doors of new houses and pasted onto the lampposts of my own neighborhood in Vancouver. They grace bathroom stalls in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Mumbai, the Lab’s next stop, dhobis (washermen) face off against heartily backed foreign condo investors in a David-versus-Goliathesque battle for the land they work on, now priced higher than land in Manhattan.


But despite the ubiquity of these problems, their roots differ greatly in each city. In Berlin, as in other cities, they are old debates in new clothes, and in order to productively partake in a forward-looking discussion about these things, context is essential.

And so over the coming weeks before the Lab opens on its new site in Prenzlauer Berg, I’m looking forward to using the Lab | Log as a platform to do just that—to explore and better understand the past and present of gentrification, rising rents, and other affordability-related issues in Berlin.

I won’t kid myself and pretend that I’m going to find a one-size-fits-all solution here and now. I would argue that issues around affordability are some of the largest, most debated, and most present issues happening in large cities around the world today. But they are also some of the most complicated. If the answers were simple, we would have already implemented them.

I simply hope that this will be a space for thoughtful and constructive discussion with those who care deeply about these issues, who can provide personal insight, help me learn, and learn with me.

There will be readers who write off this post and refuse to partake in this discussion. You might squirm with discomfort at the idea of engaging in meaningful debate with those under the name of the project at the center of this current controversy. But in the spirit of the Lab’s theme, Confronting Comfort, I challenge you to push past any preconceived ideas that you might have about how this conversation might go, and help to shape what it becomes.

Together, let’s take this opportunity to use the bricks around us to build something that will help us understand how life in Berlin might be a realistic future for those who really want it.

Photos: Christine McLaren.


  • Lohryx@gmail.com

    I propose less of a lesson on the existence of gentrification as a phenomenon but a more courageous attempt made by the Lab to study itself, mainly the internal political interests between corporate sponsorship, the museum, city officials, and mobility. After all, the gentrification controversy is a textbook slip-up of socially engaged projects about the city. Confront your own comfort. Don’t just muddle the debate into abstraction.

    • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

      Thanks for writing Lohryx. I’m curious to learn more from you. Can you elaborate, for example, a bit more on what you mean by the sentence? “After all, the gentrification controversy is a textbook slip-up of socially engaged projects about the city.”  Gentrification is a phenomenon that has been happening for decades now… where do you see the root? Also curious to hear more of your thoughts on how mobility plays into this – an idea I’m currently interested in learning more about.

      • Lohryx

        Temporary events, like biennials, worlds fairs or the Olympics have a long history of sparking infrastructure projects and transforming economies based on tourism. And for obvious reasons these roaming displays are promoted by city officials for their symbolic weight, which is also economic. Lab is very similar, a difference being the way the exhibition is focused on urban issues, social consciousness and participation as it’s reason for existing. That is why it’s more than a bit ironic (even irresponsible) when the Lab, along with its image and it’s mobility, conflict with a neighborhood that did not ask to be graced by such a visionary project. I just think it would be interesting for Lab to take an honest account of it’s own political effect on the places the exhibition visits for short periods of time.

        • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

          Hey Lohryx,

          Thanks for taking the time to write back. In terms of what community engagement has taken place in Berlin, I will have to let one of my colleagues respond, since I am not at all involved with that aspect of the project. You bring up a super interesting point, though, that I do want to quickly reply to personally. 

          I remember when the Olympics came to Vancouver in 2010, how divided the city was about its feelings towards them. Vancouver is already the third most expensive city in North America to live in, and yet has the largest most out of control homeless population in the country. It was hard for a lot of us to imagine and accept that a government that could not manage to shelter the 2000 people sleeping on the streets each night, could afford to spend millions on a sporting event. But of course there were a lot of people who were also excited about the games as well, and saw the good side of what they could bring. I can remember being on the high street of my neighborhood where the torch was supposed to come through on the last leg of its relay journey through Canada to the Olympic stadium. I found myself standing dead center between a row a cheering kids, parents, teenagers, etc waving Canadian and Olympic flags, and a row of black block protesters who had laid out a row of barbed wire and a sign that said “Community Not Olympics.” The contrast was striking.

          I found myself somewhat less torn, however, when a colleague and friend of mine (who actually eventually served as one of the Lab Team Members in New York), Charles Montgomery, decided that instead of spending his time squabbling over whether the Games were good or bad, he would just ensure that something good would come out of them. He ended up founding an organization called Home for the Games which essentially acted as a broker for people wanting to rent their houses out to Olympic visitors for massive amounts of money. The catch was that a minimum of half the money would be kept by Home for the Games and distributed to two very reputable homelessness charities. Obviously people could choose to just rent their homes themselves and keep all the cash, but in the end hundreds of people used Home for the Games, and they collected around $50,000.  Now the project is being passed on to London. I volunteered for the organization and, although it never put me completely at ease with the way my city/province/country was spending our tax dollars on the Games, the most important thing to me in the end was that its potential was at harnessed for something good. Plus, it was really fun. 

          I guess that’s a long winded way of saying that I hope to see the same in Berlin – that those who may be skeptical will at least try to see the Lab as an opportunity that they can harness and use to make good change in their city.

          In my opinion some of the best programing that happened during the Lab’s run in New York city was run by people from the community who were very very skeptical at first, or had even protested its presence, but who gave it a chance and tried to use it for the good of their neighborhood. (Staple Lower East Side community activist Clayton Patterson ran a brilliant series of Sunday workshops http://blogs.guggenheim.org/2011/08/insider-of-the-outsiders/, including a really cool one from a community health activist, Dr. Dave Ores http://blogs.guggenheim.org/2011/09/the-doctor-is-in-it-for-you/. Another group that had been working in the neighborhood for years trying to turn the space the Lab was on into a culture park used it to get their project off the ground and do all their community visioning http://blogs.guggenheim.org/2011/12/whats-next-first-street-green-and-the-future-of-first-park/ – their first programs on the site launch this week! http://www.boweryboogie.com/2012/04/first-street-green-reopening-for-earth-day/ )

          It would be cool to see the same in Berlin.

          • Lohryx

            Right, there will always be compromises and ways to deal with it, which is probably better then just complaining. After all, to be anti- gentrification you basically have to be anti- capitalist and that’s a tall order. BMW surly would not want to represent that.

            I have a different question for you. Do you know how the lab is documenting their events, the conversations and the controversies both in the center and on the peripheries? I’m assuming there is some kind of record keeping for the final exhibition. If so, could you put me in contact with the one who is leading this? Thanks!

          • Anonymous

            Hi Lohryx, feel free to send any questions about documentation or the project to bmwguggenheimlab@guggenheim.org and we’ll get your questions in the right hands.

          • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

            Is that true, though? I think to say that anti-gentrification and anti-capitalism necessarily have to go hand in hand is missing a critical aspect of what gentrification is, by definition.

            Of course one part of gentrification is “progress” or “revitalization,” as it’s usually put, and change in a neighborhood’s physical fabric. But the other key part of it is displacement – that those changes lead to a rise in cost of living such that the people that live there and are part of the community can no longer afford it, and are thus pushed out. 

            So maybe you have to have a certain economic belief system to think that those physical changes are a positive thing — (though even that is worthy of discussion, as there are a lot of different ways that a neighborhood can change like this, and I would argue that some of them are much better than others. It’s pretty easy to argue with Crate and Barrel or Macdonald’s coming into the hood. But if Joe X who lives, plays, and pays taxes in the neighborhood/city, wants to start a small business and fill a niche in the area that currently isn’t filled, the discussion is a bit more complicated) — but I don’t think the same holds true for the other side of the coin; anyone can choose to believe that people being displaced from their communities is a problem.

          • Lohryx

            I thinks its pretty well established that the causes of gentrification are inherent to the economic function of capitalism -  the accumulation and mobility of capital. That can be in the form of Walmart or Joe x’s bakery.

            I don’t see how you can think seriously about one without inevitably confronting the other.

             Of course this conflict has a human face, and dramas that move emotions through stories, first hand accounts, and and alternative was to criticize the criticism, develop the jargon, perpetrate the rhetoric, mainly, to confront the problem adjacently, through the books of academnics or lectures of urban planners.

            But why is it so hard for those involved in processes of gentrification, like Lab, to stand up and admit the how and why of their own implication, to take responsibility rather than sending it back to abstract discussion on either end of the cause/effect spectrum. I think there is a pretty easy answer to this question and it deals with public perception and reputation in the interests of making money. And then we come full circle.

            While I believe that the end of gentrification is only at the end of capitalism, im not saying that’s easy, or even advantageous in the revolutionary ways it is often prescribed. But thats not to say we shouldnt be looking for serious alternatives, and isn’t that the role of Lab in the first place?

            That’s why I think Lab is susceptible to criticism that its program is not bold enough to fulfill its own visionary agenda, other than through the semblance of progress that is at the heart of BMW’s sponsorship, a marketing strategy which is whole reason Lab can exist, right?

          • ber

             Well put!

            I don’t think the Lab will be questioning the economic status quo either.

  • ber

    Christine,

    I think a lot of Berliners already take it fence that BMW-Lab thinks of itself as an event that “reignites” the debate about affordabilty and gentrification. As if no one cared about it before. That is not the case at all. Even political parties realized they have to address these issues – which they did in the elections last year.

    BMW-Lab seems to suffer from acute overestimation regarding their capabilities to change the current situation.

    Sometimes solutions can be simple – but I don’t think BMW would promote that the property market needs to be strictly regulated.

    • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

      I don’t think anyone is saying that nobody cared about these issues before in Berlin – I certainly am not, and I certainly don’t think I’m the first and only one to have ever tried to tackle the topic. Perhaps I’d have put it better by saying that debate has flared up in a new context around the Lab. 

      I personally would like to engage with the people who have been, as you say, thinking and talking about these issues for a long time. I’d simply like to be part of that discussion. I propose we set aside the “who” argument, and pick up the “what” argument, which is ultimately what really matters. 
      Can you suggest some people who have been having good conversations around these topics (property market regulation or otherwise…) that I should contact to chat with?

      • ber

        Hi Christine,

        Andrej Holm does research about gentrification and is often invited on panels/events about that topic (see his blog: http://gentrificationblog.wordpress.com/)

        There are initiatives like “Mietshäuser Syndikat”(http://www.syndikat.org/) who try to get houses off the market and into the hands of the inhabitants.

        Similiar to that, I think the whole subject of Genossenschaften (e.g. “Bremer Höhe” http://www.bremer-hoehe.de) need to be discussed as well.

        • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

          Hi Ber,

          Hey, thanks so much for sending these links along. Andrej Holm is very familiar, but the others are new to me and it looks like they do interesting stuff. I look forward to checking them out further.

          Do you know, by chance, Empty Homes (http://www.emptyhomes.com/)? It’s a British organization that works to get abandoned properties into the hands of people in need of housing. It kind of does the opposite of Mietshaeuser Syndikat, with seemingly the same goal – trying to put abandoned houses back *on* the market so that people who can’t ordinarily afford houses, can. It seems to be a bit of a fine line, though, and I don’t think it’s regulated, for example who buys the houses, so I’m always curious to hear what others think of the organization. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts. 

          Take care,
          C

          • ber

            Hi Christine, thanks for the link.

            There is also a swiss foundation which supported cultural projects like Rotaprint in Berlin:
            http://www.maryon.ch. Maybe they are interesting for you as well.

  • Maryvanvalkenburg

    I just landed in Berlin today, and I’ll be here teaching for the next 6 weeks. Unfortunately I’ll be gone by the time the Lab opens. I’m staying in Friedrichshain, which I can clearly see is gentrifying. It reminds me of Alphabet City in the 80s to 90s, when everything changed so much. From my point of view, since gentrification hasn’t been completed here yet, it’s a breath of fresh graffiti, since I’m a New Yorker who still pines away for the gritty 70s. So all I have is the merest first impressions, but I must admit I’m thrilled to have internet access in this restaurant on Simon-Dach Strasse.

  • PrenzlauerBerg Resident

    How nice of you to first become part of the gentrification issue in Berlin and *then* (feebly) attempt to look into the issues surrounding it by way of a high-minded blog entry looking for “solutions.” Your lack of self-awareness is astounding.

    Looking forward to your imminent departure,
    Berlin

    • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

      This is quite an old post now. I hope you’ve also managed to take a look at some of the others I’ve published in the past several weeks. I’ve learned a lot about the context of affordability issues here… though of course there’s an endless amount to learn, like in every city. But we all have to start somewhere if we’re and I have been grateful to those who have been so open to helping me learn about what’s going as well as what some people are doing to try to work past it within their own communities.