Housing Advocacy

Take Note: Berlin Thrives with a Declining Population and Housing Surplus

A few months ago I wrote a piece for Shelterforce and a related piece for Rooflines on Mumbai. There I argued that our ideas and practices about housing and community […]

A few months ago I wrote a piece for Shelterforce and a related piece for Rooflines on Mumbai.

There I argued that our ideas and practices about housing and community development tend to become telescopic; that is, they tend to get involved in very detailed thinking about a narrow scope of concerns. The cost of this is that we lose a sense of the forest for the trees. In looking at slums in Mumbai, and the policies designed to deal with them, I emphasized the tremendous capacity of slum dwellers to solve many problems collectively without heavy reliance upon professionalized experts. Instilling this sort of capacity was one of the original goals of American community development, but it is a goal that has largely been abandoned. The contrast with Mumbai is one that illustrates the degree to which American community developers rely upon large formal organizations to get things done while also suggesting the price to be paid for such reliance.

Here I want to illustrate another contrast that was explored in some research I conducted in Berlin with the support of the Poiesis Fellowship. Germany is, like the U.S., a society in which formal organizations have replaced many functions that were once performed by communities; likewise, formal transactions have replaced many informal ones. Also, like many cities in which community developers are active in the United States, the challenge in many German cities is one of decline, not rapid growth.

In order to survive as a city during the Cold War, Berlin required government subsidies of local industry. The labor force provided a population to be defended by NATO troops, but it was mostly Turkish. Guest workers settled with poor bohemians, artists and students in the shadow of the Wall dividing East and West Berlin. In 1989, when the wall came down, the government withdrew economic subsidies which resulted in rapid population decline—Berlin was, economically speaking, part of Germany’s new and expanding Rust Belt despite becoming, at the same time, the new capital of a united Germany.
Berlin is a city with infrastructure and housing stock for about 4.5 million people. By 1989 the population had dropped to a bit over 3 million. In an American city this would set the city up for a cycle of crime, drug abuse, and collapsing city services. The entrepreneurial heroes of Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution in the United States tend to be corporate CEOs and wealthy investors. There is little potential for such people to radically transform the way we live in cities both because they are few in number and because they rarely tap into the veins of creativity that are reproduced in everyday sociability and interaction among urban residents. The main characters of Berlin’s revival are radically different from those celebrated by pundits like Katz.

When the wall was torn down, bohemians and Turks who had been on the periphery of West Berlin suddenly found themselves in the very center of the city, turning the neighborhood of Kreutzberg into a battlefield between existing residents and gentrifiers. At the same time, these groups, marginal in many cities, were the civic heart of a New Berlin, having been in the city longer than anyone else. The threat of gentrification prompted both groups to publicly articulate the urbanism they had unwittingly incubated during the Cold War. In those years whole apartment blocks were taken over by squatters who often experimented with forms of communal living. The city became and remains home to one of the world’s more vibrant graffiti cultures. Berlin became a canvas, not just for artists but for those who were creatively reimagining how to live in the city.

Berlin’s unused space encourages experimentation. Walking down the street in the old neighborhoods in the center of the city one can still find courtyards that are given over to livestock and communal food production or play areas for children. Setting up a restaurant in Berlin basically entails appropriating an unused storefront and starting to cook food. Patrons are encouraged to pay what they think the meal is worth. If the night is busy, folding tables and chairs will multiply on the sidewalk.

Compared to the multiple bureaucracies one must deal with to open a restaurant in an American city (department of health, planning, liquor licensing, banks, etc.), Berlin gives nearly free rein to entrepreneurs and their ideas. Both financial and bureaucratic barriers to entry are low. And it isn’t just restaurateurs who benefit from the limited reach of formal organizations. There are boutiques in shipping containers, communes in former mental hospitals. In a throwback to the eighteenth century, parks have become new village commons given over to livestock grazing and children’s play. Unlike in Detroit, for example, where urban exploration must be conducted by the wealthy in order to be done safely, Berlin benefits from strict gun control laws and generous social benefits, so the risks that come with exploration and creativity in public are limited.

The adventurousness and experimentation of Berlin’s residents has made the city extremely attractive to bohemians and artists from around Europe as well as companies that attempt to capitalize on the tremendous cultural vibrancy of the city. Berlin has a real creative class, not the ersatz professional variety celebrated by Richard Florida; and it isn’t just attracting companies, it is creating a radically new way of living in cities.

Berlin has become aware of how unique it is, probably because the city now attracts residents and tourists from around Europe who want to enjoy its distinctive vibe. The city’s mayor famously proclaimed the city “poor but sexy,” a slogan that immediately made its way onto tote bags and t-shirts. Berliners believe it. They also generate their own slogans. When I was last there I ran across a graffito that said in dodgy English “We’re so cool, like New York in the 80s.” As someone who grew up in New York in the 80s, before it was overwhelmed by the sanitizing, standardizing, and gentrifying urbanism of the corporate, elite, and professional creative class celebrated by Katz and Florida, I could only nod my head and agree: “Right you are.”

(Photo by Rundont.walk CC BY-NC-SA)

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