Photo credit: Paul Donoughue

As the first spring sunshine spread across Berlin earlier this month, locals witnessed a strange reproduction of history. Down by the Spree river, Berliners were fighting to save the very wall they once fought so hard to destroy.

A 20-metre stretch of the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art display and the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, had been marked for removal to make way for an apartment complex. On March 1, about 400 Berliners turned up; so did a whole bunch of riot police. The largely peaceful protest was a success: the work was postponed, and developers will meet city officials later this month to discuss a possible alternative. Still, the 63-metre-high residential tower will go up — 36 luxury apartments, reported to sell for as much as €7000 per square metre — and the long argument about the gentrification of Germany’s famously liberal capital will continue.

Gentrification is a complex issue. According to an article in the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce Magazine, it’s been variously praised and condemned over the last few decades. Some of the best research uses New York City as an example. Columbia University’s Lance Freeman and NYU’s Frank Braconi wrote in 2002 that gentrification is a ‘nuanced thing’: while some entrenched communities are displaced through rising rents, others stay and benefit from a revived neighbourhood.

In Australia, the effect is subtler. Still, it’s happening: a 2011 report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found low-income and immigrant households in Sydney’s Newtown, and Melbourne’s suburbs of Richmond and Yarraville were being pushed out of their homes by huge increases in rent and living costs.

So, what’s an old piece of the Berlin Wall got to do with gentrification? In the two decades since German reunification, while unemployment has been high and the cost of living low, Berlin has become Europe’s cultural heart. This is a city with three opera companies. Entire neighbourhoods light up with gallery openings; an entire island is dedicated to state museums. And it’s not just about art. The city is frequently touted as the Silicon Valley of Europe. Soundcloud started here, Mozilla is based here. Go to one of the city’s many werkstatt cafes and you’ll see table after table of young start-up executives, illuminated by the glow of their Macbooks, taking advantage of the creative freedom afforded by low rents.

For many years, the Tacheles building was a ragged, architectural symbol of New Berlin. A former East German department store, Tacheles was taken over by artists post-reunification. It thrived, later becoming a major tourist attraction. But in 2011, despite the artists’ demonstrations, the eviction notices arrived. In September last year, the last artists left. The property, a prime piece of inner-city real estate, is soon to be developed. Now, Berliners fear a similar fate awaits the East Side Gallery. It’s a fear of the Great crushing the Small, of the True losing out to the Trite. It’s the commercialisation of their great Bohemian utopia.

Photo credit: Paul Donoughue

Some locals say Berlin needs to stop crowing about gentrification and rising rents, and allow developments — like the one at the East Side Gallery — that will generate Berlin-based profits, create jobs, and attract high-income households. Germany might be Europe’s saviour, but Berlin is Germany’s weak point: the city’s economy has languished since reunification, with unemployment almost twice the national average. There is growing discomfort, particularly in the country’s affluent south, about the rest of Germany supporting Berlin’s laid-back lifestyle.

But the dismantling of the city’s second most popular tourist attraction can’t be a smart move from a financial point of view. Tourism is, after all, a major industry here: almost 11 million people visited in 2012, according to city figures, a 10 percent increase on the previous year.

The fight over the East Side Gallery is, therefore, a fight over the city itself. It’s a fight between those who want economic development and prosperity on par with other European capitals and those who want to keep Berlin, in the oft-quoted words of mayor Klaus Wowereit, ‘poor but sexy’. And the fight won’t be settled until the city — from its lawmakers to its developers to its citizens — embraces a middle ground. Yes, Berlin needs to keep moving forward, but dismantling a cultural icon like the East Side Gallery (and who knows what next?) is not the way to do it. The hundreds of protestors seen this month were likely the same citizens — the artists, the entrepreneurs — that make this young, vibrant city a top destination. Alienate them, and they’ll leave — heading east, probably, to the next cheap, ex-Soviet city. What’s needed is a balanced approach to development — a middle ground between preserving culture, welcoming tourists and lowering unemployment.

As for the East Side Gallery, featuring the painted murals of over 100 international artists? Its immediate future — and the future of the ideas it represents — remains uncertain. But I wouldn’t bet against the tough, proud Berliners. Twenty-three years ago they pulled that wall down; today, they’re more than capable of keeping it standing.


Paul Donoughue is a writer and musician in Berlin. He writes for various publications and worked previously as a reporter for News Limited. He performs under the name Big Strong Brute.