How has Berlin changed over the past fifteen years?

It is narrated by the writer Vincenzo Latronico, who lived there for some time and dedicated his last book to her

Writer Vincenzo Latronico is among the Italians who, in recent decades, went to live in Berlin as young men, then stayed there for a while – in his case from 2009 to 2014 and then from 2020 to today – and thus managed to observe the latest major transformations. Latronico talks about it in his new book Berlin key (Enodi), where he explains what has changed with gentrification, that is, the process by which the rich come to live in a former slum and open expensive clubs and shops, which affected a large part of the city and which Latronico already spoke of, written also on mail.

We publish an excerpt from the book in which the palpable changes of the city, where fifteen years ago low-cost housing and other spaces were plentiful and relatively cheap, today are scarce, are accompanied by the way Berlin has changed also in the common imagination.

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The idea of ​​a transformation so rapid as to generate a permanent sense of loss is in some measure essential to the history of the city, which arose where there was all the country; More importantly, a city as large as Berlin, twice destroyed and rebuilt, divided and stitched together, attracts and expels new inhabitants like rising and falling tide. The flow that started in the 1980s and never stopped continued to build a real social tier based on the period of arrival, with those milestones indicating rank membership that kept updating: having landed in time in Tegel before it closed, there only in BER; But also: Made by Love Parade; Who heats the house with coal? who had a bathroom in the kitchen; Who paid the rent with the signs? who could occupy; Who saw the wall? who saw Bowie. I arrived in 2009, and in this list, in addition to Tegel, I have only one yes.

This succession of time becomes a hierarchy of legitimacy, because seniority, in our minds, translates into access to a somewhat more authentic urban experience. Indeed, Heysel [Franz Hessel (1880-1941), autore di un libro su Berlino scritto nel 1929, ndr]Describing Berlin’s decline as a tourist attraction, he added: “A few years ago everything must have been much more sinful.” Those who arrive in Berlin always feel a little late, as if the very fact of being able to experience that deprives the city of something more real. It was true of me, and at twenty-four I envied those who landed at Tempelhof; And that goes for me, for at thirty-eight I envy someone else’s apartment.

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The stratification of expat waves also spreads over time in space, because over the years the expat attraction pole has shifted quite accurately on the map. It consists of a centrifugal vortex, clockwise: Kreuzberg Boy in the late 1980s; KW Mitte in the ’90s; then Prenzlauerberg for the Italian tenants; Friedrichshain where Berghain was to open shortly thereafter; Channel Neukölln when I arrived. It’s not just a series of anecdotes: the dates (1987, 1992, 2001, 2006, 2010) mark the moment when each of these neighborhoods witnessed the heyday of new business. This subdivision of flows has generated definite enclaves and surprising homogeneity, equivalent in the eyes of expatriates to what the Little Italy was of 20th-century emigration. For example, artists, especially Europeans born in the 1970s, gather in Prenzlauerberg; The landlord of the house in which I spent the second lockdown belonged to the same wave of arrivals in Berlin as the artist who hired Andrea and me in 2009. It was their apartments that helped define the images that would also influence me.

The social homogeneity of the different neighborhoods makes them, so to speak, age with their inhabitants. Around the time of my first arrival, the generation that populated Prenzlauerberg had grown bored of partying and rooted: strollers with studded mountain bike wheels suddenly flourished in the courtyards of what used to be Bregnansberg. Time is running. Now, a decade later, the pinnacle of carriages is in the Landwehrkanal. […]

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The development I have described is the recent development of all major western cities. The emptiness that Berlin filled – the symbolic and the physical – meant that the process here was more rapid and violent; But it is not unique, because there is nothing more unique. This process is what is defined by the acerbic term “optimization”.

There is an obvious perspective from which a negative change occurs: it is the perspective of those who were there before, those excluded from the luxury of things or marginalized by the luxury of images, who have become victims of scarcity. There is an equally obvious perspective from which this is a positive shift: it is that of those who arrive later, seek material or symbolic well-being, and are flattered by scarcity, because they experience it on the other side of the fence. They are relative perspectives: what comes next for a person arrives before all who follow. They are also political points of view: the survival of spaces unimproved to extract profit can be a sign of inefficiency or a margin of freedom.

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Talk of gentrification usually stops here, and it is this denunciation of the aporia that makes it stinging: in conclusion everyone finds exactly what led to the building. But trying to develop it further shows something. If you suspend the evaluation of each money question, what is left is the optimization process, i.e. flattening the odds upwards. What happened to Berlin is that it got better in general – it has more cultural and culinary offerings, safer streets, more beautiful buildings – but it has lost everything that is particularly unique. It is no longer a specific series of pockets of marginalization, wealth, culture, opulence, or inefficiency defined by twentieth-century history; It is an improved sample of the western city.

But even this complaint is false. Real Berliners are outraged or despaired by rising costs and a sudden housing shortage, but they don’t grieve the loss of some mythical authenticity, which to them seems like a scam for morons. “In most cases,” Kenshi writes in Ellen Allen’s biography [una dj berlinese nata nel 1968, ndr]He spoke involuntarily of me: “It is precisely those who have been established for a few years who complain about the high rents. Elaine is not part of this choir. One well remembers the sadness experienced by West Berlin when it was a deserted place that no one wanted or could visit. Now his hometown is as big as New York.”

Undoubtedly, living in Berlin today is much more pleasant than it was in the past, to the extent that it offers many aesthetic and gustatory pleasures, at least to those who can afford them. And, as Ellen notes, this makes the city cosmopolitan: the same pleasures of certain areas of Stockholm, Milan, New York, Paris and London are offered to those who live there or pass through for tourism. And the ways in which tourists and new residents experience the neighborhood are surprisingly similar: the same single-origin coffee, the same laptops and natural wines, and the same furnishings at home or in an Airbnb. Except for a few historical incidents that have been turned into a picturesque anecdote to flavor the experience of the place – the wall is cheering It’s bin ein Berliner Dessert Explosions – Walking along the Landwehrkanal, you won’t find anything quite different from what Isola in Milan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and Grünerløkka in Oslo have to offer.

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The homogeneity I am talking about, the homogeneity celebrated by Ellen Allen and nostalgic and rediscovered by anyone taking an easyJet flight to a European capital, is different from the homogeneity imposed from above on the identical branches of a multinational corporation, which today seems compromised and superficial. On the contrary, what the island communicates with Prenzlauerberg and Gronerlocka – although very similar – is individuality and unique and special character. This similarity between different singularities must therefore be understood as a consequence of parallel co-evolution, as when several mathematicians without speaking to each other arrive at identical solutions to the same problem. The problem is how to maximize profit extraction. The solution is to replace reality with image.

In contrast to reality, which is literally everywhere, the image testifies that this part of reality is unique and special. This wine is handcrafted with ancestral techniques. The sourdough for this pizza is a hundred years old. In this neighborhood artists occupied factories. In this city there was a wall. And in an age when docility and uniformity make us think of dictatorships or the blind consumerism of the twentieth century, the best way to certify that something is special is to show it as authentic, that is, to tell a story about it.

It’s the story told to me, in 2009, about the poor and sexy city, full of artists and emptiness. It is the story that resonates in the books you mentioned. It is the story told today of programmers who accept a lower salary than in the United States to enjoy the city’s vibrant atmosphere and transcend. It’s the story I’ve been desperately needing since my return to Berlin in 2020, once I realized that what drew me there ten years ago was no longer true.

It’s 2023. And I haven’t found it yet.

© 2023 Giulio Enaudi Spa Publisher, Turin
Published in agreement with the Italian Literary Agency

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