This Isn’t Berlin of the 90’s

Graffiti artists give the city a voice – in some cases, one that shouts out against a changing demographic.

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Gentrification of the city is a real and tangible phenomenon, even to a weekend visitor like myself. The first time any sign showed up on my radar was during the walking tour, in which our guide pointed out graffiti shouting “YUPPIES ROUS,” or “YUPPIES OUT.” The graffiti pictured above complains about yuppies (Young Urban Professionals) making the rent go up.

el bocho street art gentrification

This piece of street art by El Bocho depicts a young woman in professional attire, whose speech bubble says “sometimes I am scared of all the colors…,” perhaps a commentary on the distance between the poor artists and the newer crowd of of middle and upper-middle class workers that are populating the city and pushing rent prices through the roof. Frustration about rising rent doesn’t only live on city walls, either – when I went salsa dancing at Havanna, I met and chatted with a German police officer about what it was like living in Berlin. For him, rising rent poses a real problem – in the past two years, his rent had doubled. Salsa dancing also introduced me to at least half a dozen Spanish immigrants – many leave Spain por la crisis, or “because of the economic crisis,” and seek work in places like Berlin.

salsaPeeps Hanging out with some Spaniards while out salsa dancing.

Since the World Wars, the heavy industry that once drove Berlin’s economy has declined, with groups like tech start ups attracting a new wave of immigrants. Xin, who I met on another night out, left Spain’s unemployment-stricken economy to find work at a web start up in Germany. He acknowledged the changes happening in Berlin and recognized that he was, in fact, a part of the gentrification taking place in the city.

On the other side of the equation lie the artists that originally found homes in Berlin’s cheap housing (or even squatted in abandoned buildings). The formerly inexpensive cost of living in Berlin allowed art and culture to thrive in the 90’s, but the artistic landscape of the city has shifted in recent years. At the art exhibition at Urban Spree, I spoke with street artist Lake while perusing sketches and photos of his art. His thoughts on the changing composition of Berlin’s citizenry?

It’s not my city anymore.

street art by lake  Street art by Lake. Photo used with permission.

In years past, artists used to come to Berlin and fill it with art. Nowadays, many foreign artists come to Berlin to enjoy its culture and art scene but leave less behind than before – according to Lake, the newer wave of artists take from the city without contributing much back to its art scene. His words hit a note of truth, at least in the juxtaposition between Lake’s work and another artist at the gallery with whom I spoke. A photographer who was exhibiting a collection of shots of tattered posters against colorfully painted city walls told me she was spending a few years in Berlin before she planned to move on to another city. It’s a good city for working, but not for selling art, she told me – highlighting the fact that she’ll likely leave Berlin with a plethora of visually interesting urban photographs to sell elsewhere, but leave little behind for the city itself. 

So I’d heard about it from a tour guide, a regular citizen feeling the growing pains of the city, a yuppie immigrant joining Berliners as part of the new demographic, and a street artist that had lived through the city’s changes since the 90’s. That the city is undergoing gentrification is undeniable. Is it a bad thing? To some, gentrification means mourning Berlin of the past and harder times for the “starving artist” class. But to others, it’s a part of life taking its course and the city moving forward.

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One thought on “This Isn’t Berlin of the 90’s

  1. At first, I was not sure when I read the word ‘gentrification’ that, as they say in the movies, ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means’, but by the end, I was in sync with your thoughts. For me, gentrification is a re-birth of sorts, re-establishing value in a place that was all but abandoned. Of course, with that re-birth comes dislocation for some, …. and the cycle continues.

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