Berlin’s Mitte neighbourhood has built up a reputation for being the city’s cultural hotspot. It’s known as the home of galleries and designers’ studios and all the independent and inspiring shops and restaurants needed to serve and feed fashionistas and artists. But the property market is putting an end to all of this.
The renowned gallery C/O Berlin is moving out to make way for a fancy hotel complex and shopping centre – it has to leave its base in Oranienburger Strasse by March 2011. But before that another Mitte landmark will vanish. “Tacheles”, across the street from C/O, where 30 studios offer artists cheap spaces, will close down in the next few days. HSH Nordbank wants to auction off the property.
Cultural centre Acud and concert venue Schokoladen, two more edgy originals in Mitte, are also threatened with closure. Some 5,000 people recently protested against the pace of gentrification but according to one expert they are 20 years too late.
“First there are the pioneers, and with them comes the symbolic upgrading – then there’s investment and gentrifiers are moving in – and when almost everything is upgraded, the last pioneers of upgrading have to leave,” writes Andrej Holm, a social scientist at Oldenburg university, on his Gentrification Blog. Although he adds that the developers are also 20 years out of step. “While the international debate is about brown-field, new-build, super and rural gentrification, in Berlin-Mitte the pure gentrification models of the 1980s can be observed under laboratory conditions.”
Even C/O accepts the inevitability of its departure. “If you look at how rundown Mitte was 20 years ago, development has not been a bad thing,” says the gallery’s spokesperson Mirko Nowak. “The caravan has passed long ago,” he adds, referring to the illegal parties and underground events of the 1990s.
“The processes can be explained in a relatively simple way by the yield gap between current and potential returns of the property,” says Holm drily. Today artists are renting cheap space in districts such as Neukölln and Kreuzberg. “Fortunately Berlin is big enough to permanently let new parts of the city enter the psychological map,” says Nowak.
But even if you acknowledge that Mitte will never again be the laissez-faire laboratory of 15 years ago, it’s still depressing to witness a once lively local street such as Oranienburger Strasse turn into a subculture theme park for pub-crawls and Ukrainian prostitutes. “No Berliner goes there anymore,” says Nowak. As his gallery is right in the middle of this alcohol-fuelled theme park, being forced to move might not be a bad thing after all.
But a city that wants to attract the world’s creative class should have a more sophisticated development strategy. Berlin could have bought the spectacular old building C/O resides in and turned it into a much-needed municipal art gallery. Another proposal was for the building to combine a gallery space for C/O, a Vitra store and a hotel.
“We need at least 300 paying visitors a day so we do want tourists and Berliners,” says Nowak. He hopes that the city’s senate will at least help him find a new property. “After all we are a child of Mitte.”