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Save Berlin: Restless natives

With the Berlin elections on September 18, gentrification is on everyone's lips. From "Oma Anni" to the squatters of Rigaer 94, Dan Borden looks at the ways Berliners are fighting the G-monster.

Image for Save Berlin: Restless natives
Rigaer Straße. Photo by Angela M. Arnold (CC BY-SA 3.0)

With the elections coming up, one topic (still) on everyone’s mind is gentrification in our beloved Hauptstadt. Dan Borden outlines the most recent battle on Rigaer Straße 94 and the tools Berliners have always used to fight the G-Monster. For more, check out Andreas Wilke’s documentary Stadt als Beute, premiering September 8.

In July, Berlin’s gentrification crisis made world headlines when armed evictions in Friedrichshain sparked the city’s worst rioting in five years. Thirty-five hundred leftist protesters fought off an army of police sent to remove long-time residents of Rigaer Straße 94. Reports labeled the squatters as “hardcore leftist militants” armed with a stash of weapons.

Those “dangerous militants” are the remnants of Friedrichshain’s squatter heyday who’ve lived peacefully in the area since the 1990s. After the Berlin Wall fell, hearty West German youths crossed the Spree, renovated the district’s abandoned flats and built a vibrant community. Many former squats are now incorporated and protected, but others are in legal limbo. Property developers like the London-based owners of Rigaer Straße 94 (R94) want to convert those buildings into luxury flats and are using the police to empty them, one by one. The riots at R94 were the reaction to months of police surveillance and raids, the defensive fury of cornered prey.

With Berliners electing a new city government on September 18, “gentrification” is on everyone’s lips. It’s not just rising rents – it’s the rent-driven displacement of long-time residents. The problem is, Berlin’s politicians like to cherry-pick which residents to protect.

Campaign posters for both the SPD and Die Linke parties show 95-year-old Anni Lenz, declaring “Oma Anni bleibt.” The lifelong Berliner and celebrated “Mietrebel” is battling an investor’s sky-high rent increases to stay put in her 1920s housing complex. Politicians standing up for a grandma is a no-brainer, but neither party would fight for the embattled residents of Rigaer Straße 94.

That generation of squatter-pioneers who crossed the Spree not only rebuilt Friedrichshain, they turned the grey Berlin Wall into the East Side Gallery – Berlin’s #1 tourist attraction – and converted an empty factory into Ostgut, the precursor of Berghain. While many have moved on – to Wedding, Detroit or heaven – some still live on Rigaer Straße. When police from as far away as Bavaria stormed R94 on July 9, their long-time neighbours poured into the street banging pots in support. Today’s hardcore leftist militants, with their costumes derived from last century’s “punk” fashion and quaint technologies (the “stash of weapons” was a grocery cart filled with cobble stones), are post-Wall Berlin’s equivalent of America’s Amish folk. What indigenous population deserves protection more?

Barring a shock upset, Berlin’s new boss will be the same as the old boss, Mayor Michael Müller, lording over a coalition government that’s happy to dispatch gun-toting police to speed gentrification. Fortunately Berlin’s citizens have our own arsenal of weapons to fight back.

Squeaky wheels

Between 2008 and 2014, rents in northern Neukölln shot up a whopping 80 percent, but the average renter’s hands are tied, right? In 2013, Tom Küstner founded a citizens’ group, “Bündnis für bezahlbare Mieten Neukölln,” with the lofty goal of keeping local rents affordable. In July, after years of arm-twisting, they convinced the city to bestow Milieuschutz protection on a swathe of Neukölln from Schillerkiez to Rixdorf. This zoning law preserves a district’s milieu, or way of life: rental flats can’t be upgraded with luxury features or sold off as condos. Combined with rent restrictions, it goes a long way toward reining in landlords’ greed.

Righteous drones

When Berliners can’t convince their government to do the right thing, they fly over their heads and change laws via public referendums. Activists are still fired up by the landmark May 2014 vote that shot down the city’s billion-euro development plan for ex-airport Tempelhofer Feld. Expect a flock of plebiscites on next year’s EU ballot including a demand for more Berlin bike lanes.

Big sticks

You can’t overestimate the role of civil disobedience in shaping this city, from the West Berlin artists who squatted a derelict hospital and created the Künstlerhaus Bethanien to the East Berliners who stormed the headquarters of their secret police and founded today’s Stasi Museum. 1970s activists defied police to derail a highway through the heart of Kreuzberg and, in its path, created dozens of affordable housing projects.

Twenty-first-century rent rebels like R94’s punks and grandma Anni Lenz show Berliners are still primed to fight the power. After months of battles, that London-based investment company has lost its patience and wants to sell Rigaer Straße 94 to Berlin’s city-owned housing company DeGeWo.

R94 bleibt!