There was an Edeka on Reichenberger and Forster Straße up until 2014, if I remember correctly. It closed down; the map of displacement in Kreuzberg 36 tells us:
Bis Ende Oktober 2014 Edeka Filiale – seitdem Umbau in 3 separate Einheiten. Ehemaliger Pächter konnte keine bezahlbaren Räume in der Nähe finden. Dadurch kein Lebensmittelladen mehr im unmittelbaren Kiez.
The sign read “to let” for a while, then constructions began. I expected a new restaurant, possibly a café, maybe a vintage store. And indeed, one of the smaller entities that were created, became a franchise of a Berliner ice cream parlor. The other place is a café in which you can get an Espresso and have your precious leather shoes shined. An incredibly tacky idea, in my opinion.
Then, the big cut of the former Edeka on Reichenberger Straße was turned into a “soap” boutique store. The Australian franchise is known from other lively residential [1. Achtung: sarcasm] neighborhoods such as Mitte and KaDeWe. You can expect an aesthetically designed luxury and lifestyle beauty product. It’s a remarkably big brand. It’s definitely more expensive than other brands, and you can deduct, from the aesthetics of the store and the products on the shelf, that it’s targeted towards a crowd with an awareness to pretty things and who obviously can afford this kind of exclusivity.
Gentrification: In Perspective
You may ask yourself “what’s so different”, and rightly so. After all, the whole area around the Reichenberger Kiez has been – slow and steady – transformed into a neighborhood for affluent people. Rising rents and the difficulties in finding affordable apartments have been criticized loudly for the past years. Some people say Kreuzberg is long over, anyway; others are still holding on to their rights as tenants, and to their neighborhood as mixed, unsegmented, lively residential areas which are tolerant and open towards everybody.
Why is this store different from all the other fancy restaurants, cafés and vintage stores that cater to a crowd with certain aesthetic and financial values?
Judging from the reactions of my friends and the few people who live in my neighborhood, this particular, international company, which is ordinarily associated with high street shopping and luxury, has put gentrification into perspective for people who thought they were safe from it. Put differently: those who assumed THEY were the ones displacing, have finally realized that they are indeed victims of a vicious economic cycle. They are now acknowledging that they are being left behind.
This international enterprise makes visible what was long suggested by the rising rents, and the extraordinary flips of rented apartment buildings into condominiums: most of us can’t afford to live here anymore (relative to our income). I am explicitly not just talking about “the poor”, the immigrants, the Hartz 4 Empfänger. This fancy soap boutique is making crystal clear that displacement doesn’t stop at low incomes, even the middle class is being pushed – and always have been. I am talking about myself, about the students, the self-employed, the so-called hipsters and some of the yuppies (who are usually blamed for gentrification issues). In fact, it’s making clear that we are all always very close of being evicted, and of being pushed into the category of the precariat.
The left-wing activists have been fighting against this trend for a long time. They saw it happening with cafés like Five Elephant, and more bars and restaurants that they couldn’t afford to visit, whether because of financial or cultural reasons. Meanwhile, we – and I include myself here – have celebrated these changes as the rise of quality for the neighborhood. And we’ve indulged in them. For us, it wasn’t expensive. It was just right. Some of us had the chance to become entrepreneurs even, without the financial stress and pressure of other metropoles of the world. It’s not black and white. I wouldn’t blame myself for seeking a better life. I blame myself for not seeing that it was just an illusion, at the cost of others.
It’s important to note that there is still a difference between, say, an Apple Store on Sonnenallee or a McDonalds on Skalitzer Straße, and a co-working space or a local artisan bakery in the respective neighborhoods. While the latter concepts definitely upgrade the Kiez economically and are therefore also part of the gentrification process, an international company like the one in question is neither a meeting point (like a café), nor does the money generated stay in Berlin. The fact that the Reichenberger Kiez is not a high street or shopping street at all just emphasizes the outrageous decision to let a store like this open right here. Where are our politicians? Why are we leaving the hard, local work to others?[1. I don’t want to be hypocritical. I am only at the beginning of reflecting my own presence and actions in my neighborhood (and obviously, on this blog too). There’s a lot of youthful naivety when it comes to living in Berlin: I didn’t see the consequences of the gentrification dynamics before. How could I? It took a few years to warm up to this community, and it took even longer to feel responsible for its changes. ] Of course: because making enough money to survive in Neu-Berlin is enough of a distraction. Oh, the irony.
Who’s Left Behind?
I’ll be the first to say that the former Edeka on the corner was a horrible supermarket. The prices were ridiculous, the hygiene questionable and the cashiers grumpy. But it was my supermarket. I regularly stood outside the premise to complain with my otherwise strange neighbors about the conditions of this place. I regularly forgot my money and was still allowed to get my groceries (I paid them back, don’t worry). It was personal. It was a meeting space. That’s why grandmothers love to go the market, I guess. We shouldn’t have less of that. We shouldn’t isolate ourselves from the people who live in our Kiez, even when they seem like they’re the enemy.
A store like this – in a residential area, no less – takes away the necessary space for social interaction. I want to say that there’s also a difference between this store and the car-loft on Reichenberger Straße (which, in it’s time of conception, was also met with extreme criticism): while I’m not an avid supporter of luxury housing, having affluent people in a neighborhood isn’t the problem. The problem starts when they bring their fancy, convenient environment. Which they can. Because they have the money and influence.
It’s a demeaning moment for everybody who can’t afford to shop here: to realize that you are not only part of the problem, but that you’re also – soon – going to be the victim as well.
Not all changes are necessarily bad. But some are worth a closer look in order to understand the mechanisms of urban development, and how our Begegnungsräume are being wasted on commercial space. Ultimately, it might be too late to save the Kiez. I’m sorry for my contribution. Too little, too late.
But now it’s not enough anymore to just stand there and be shocked. It’s time to do something. And I’m open to any suggestions (involving politics, not throwing stones. I’m not scared, I just never hit the target and usually hurt myself).