Berlin’s visitors (part 2)
I first visited Berlin a few years ago, and, like so many people, I was struck by how many people pass through the city, attracted by its aura of easy-going coolness. Some are tourists, some are artists,some are backpackers who appreciate the low cost of living, some are academics…Berlin is like a nodal point in the flows of people in and around Europe: most people, at some point, travel to Berlin and fall in love with something about the city.
Like so many, after i visited, I wanted to return, and did so this month. I was struck all over again by Berlin’s coolness and relaxed creativity, but I also thought that something had changed. There is now a more noticeable sense of tension in relation to the many visitors who flow in and out of Berlin. This manifests in various ways. Local residents told me that there is a lot of tension in gentrifying areas, where bars and backpacker hostels have opened up, with residents repeatedly calling the police to complain about noise. Individuals running the various walking tours around Berlin neighbourhoods report that locals often make angry or aggressive comments as they pass by (and this happened to the ‘street art walking tour’ that I went on, as we walked through Kreuzberg). Visitors, whether tourists or outside investors snapping up cheap property, are seen as key contributors to the gentrification process, which results in rents going up for locals and communities either fragmenting or being displaced. there is perhaps a little less warmth towards visitors in some areas than there might have been a few years ago, especially in those areas where gentrification is actively underway.
There’s lots more to say in relation to the complexities of what’s happening in Berlin, but it’s interesting here to look at the various visual traces of the tensions around ambivalence (or sometimes even antagonism) towards those who visit Berlin.
Here’s a tour group, being introduced to the enormous Victor Ash mural in Kreuzberg. The guide was earnestly explaining to the tourists that having this mural on the building will increase the building’s value.
All around Berlin, you can find these stickers, revisions of the ‘I heart Berlin’ (or New York or London or wherever) tourist cliché. They read ‘Berlin Doesn’t Love You’. These ones are located right next to the Victor Ash mural, a site at which almost every walking tour will visit.
Another sign of the ways tourists make problematic incursions into the city: property investors buy up all or most of the apartments in a building and rent them to tourists/ short-term visitors. The names of individuals next to entry bells disappear; instead all you can see here are the agency codes for each apartment. Previous residents will have been bought out; any community within the building has been destroyed.
And here’s a beautiful building in Kreuzberg: the one with ‘DACH’ rollered onto its roof (which is funny because ‘dach’ means ‘roof’ in German. It is dilapidated and empty right now but has been bought by a foreign investor and will be turned into a boutique hotel:
As part of the investor’s control of the space, the facade is now rented to approved advertisers, whose ads are taped on to the outer hoardings, with tape proclaiming that unauthorised additions will lead to prosecution. Sigh.
At the same time, of course, since spaces can never be entirely tied down in the way the company obviously hope, various individuals have added tags and other ‘unauthorised’ images. You can see a pasted-up poster that speaks of ‘reclaiming our city’ and you can see a lot of these political posters, protest slogans and anti-gentrification graffiti around the city. So, like all cities, Berlin is in flux, undergoing change. But the ways in which it is resisting and contesting those changes are writ large on the surfaces of the city.