y Berlin research files are organized under a number of folders, including one for “Tourism Debates” and another one for “Gentrification Debates.” These days, I’m thinking I need to merge these two folders, since the debates have become increasingly intertwined (and often hopelessly confused). In a recent opinion article in Die Zeit online, entitled, “Burn the Tourists” (“Touristen anzünden”), David Hugendick complains that left-political anti-gentrification discourse has taken an ironically xenophobic turn by harnessing anti-tourist (and, more broadly, anti-foreigner) sentiment. Of course, this article is almost interchangeable with a wide range of opinion pieces that have been appearing in mainstream German-language newspapers in the last while, part of a larger (and older) pattern in Berlin of countering critical voices from the left by associating them with violent tactics and contrarian positions.
In any case, although it is debatable whether the writings and official pronouncements issuing from left-political groups are opportunistically harnessing anti-foreigner sentiment to further anti-gentrification goals, such problematic conflations are certainly going on at the more anarchic level of graffiti, online forums, social media, and face-to-face conversations/confrontations. These are all settings where actors are likely to speak without careful consideration as well as grasp at any convenient stereotype or term of abuse that might provide ammunition in an argument. Thoughtful, incisive critique gets mixed up with sentiments like “Fist the tourists!” and everything in between. This kind of discourse shouldn’t be equated with the more deliberate political discourse taking place in newsletters, newspapers, and blogs, but it nonetheless provides a sort of window into how these issues are being re-imagined in Berlin.
So, with that in mind, I wanted to translate a couple of excerpts from Hugendick’s article, as they point to some interesting patterns that I’ve been observing here as well. To begin with, he suggests that popular discussion around issues of urban space have come to be reduced to narrow set of images and themes:
Now, it’s about an excess of baby carriages and organic grocery stores. It’s about “fake” bars and milk-foam density in coffees. It’s about hostels and vacation flats and Swabians and newcomers. And it’s about the rattle of rolling luggage, which is no longer interpreted as a cosmopolitan background noise, but rather as a beacon of doom.
While neither exhaustive nor authoritative, this list provides a handy primer of the major themes that have been in play over the past year or so. Some of these are about yuppie gentrifiers, some of these are about swarming tourists, and some of these are about pretty much anybody that comes to the city with enough resources to threaten local residents’ fragile footholds in the housing market. Unsurprisingly, many of these are symbolic synecdoches, where the most visible manifestation of a particular phenomenon or group comes to stand in for the whole; thus, baby carriages come to stand in for young, upwardly-mobile, primarily white-German heterosexual couples that threaten to turn vibrant, diverse neighborhoods into homogenous, boring bedroom communities.
But in addition to these rather symbolic images of people and objects, there is also a shift going on in what kinds of arguments are being made:
Suddenly, it matters who lived where first and whether one has been living there for four or fifteen years—both of which are laughably short periods in comparison to the age of the buildings that are usually involved in the affected districts. Suddenly, a disappearing form of nativeness comes to be loudly vaunted; a form to which the oak-stool corner bar and Auntie Emma’s shop implicitly belong—and in which homelessness and other signs of poverty sometimes come to fulfill decorative and nostalgic purposes. Suddenly, the banners call to “devalorize the ‘hood,” so that nobody undesirable moves in anymore. Suddenly, one no longer automatically complains about vomit, but instead asks the important question of whom the puke belongs to: if it’s a German drunkard, it’ll be categorized as preservation-worthy “local color,” while the Spanish “Erasmus” student should kindly go back to wherever he came from and puke there.
The last sentence is pure hyperbole, but it actually resonates in odd ways with conversations I’ve had with native Berliners and longtime residents active in the Electronic Dance Music scenes here. I usually end up hearing some variation of this: “We party, too. We get drunk and high and loud and sometimes out of control, too. We’ve been doing this in Berlin for decades. Why is this suddenly the fault of foreigners?” There’s an understandable unease among many of my interlocutors about how many of the problems endemic to Berlin nightlife have come to be exclusively associated with foreign nightlife-tourists. More broadly, though, this paragraph points to the ways in which tropes of nativeness and “I was here before you” create hierarchies that are potentially problematic and counter-productive, especially in immigrant-rich neighborhoods like Kreuzberg or Neukölln. At the base of the gentrification issue in Berlin, it’s not so much about locals and foreigners or natives and newcomers, but rather about the poor, the wealthy, and the opportunistic; everybody wants to live in nice places and in good conditions, but there are sharp asymmetries in people’s ability to access good housing—and there’s a whole cadre of property investors ready to harness that for lucrative profits.