Berlin is “the place to be” because here it is possible to live out certain lifestyles that have become impossibilities in other places. The lifestyle fixated on in Berlin is a lifestyle of leisure. The word leisure is too often conflated with idleness. While some would strive to be idle, for most leisure seekers, leasure means free time, that is, time not spent working. What the specific aim of these leisure hours is varied, but the value put on free time is almost universal among the mostly young, mostly creative, mostly non-german Berlin bound emigres of the past 2 decades.
A search for leisure, is a search for a low cost of living. First and foremost: cheap rent. In the back of my mind while i search for a new room (i’m currently looking) is the comparison to rents now compare to how they were to 2 years ago (10% lower). And if you have some friends in their late 20s and 30s (i do) you might even get to mentally torture yourself by comparing your current options to stories of €250 a month flats in prenzlauerberg in 2001.
Low rent means artists can make enough money to live and not be mentally and physically exhausted. More time free from work means more time for possibly unprofitable personal creative projects. It is little wonder why this possibility bred and attracted so many anarchists. For some of them, this insulation from the alienation of a 9-5 job was liberating. And willing to drive down costs even further by living in housing conditions that middle class sensibility would find unacceptable, opened up greater possibilities.
There is something innately human in the search for free time. I distinctly remember asking a BCB admissions assistant how much free time my full course-load would leave me. I asked this, not because i wanted to sit around and do nothing all day, but because i wanted to make sure i’d have time to read Marx outside of class and go to political meetings and lectures regularly.
As Berlin’s reputation grows and rents rise, this promised land of leisure lifestyle, becomes more and more untenable. And it is tempting to search for who to blame, and mainstream ‘left’ discourse gives us an answer; it’s this emigre ‘creative class’ coming in, hyping everything up, and causing rents to rise.
The classical account of gentrification is that an influx of a ‘creatives’ descends upon a de-industrialised or otherwise traditionally working class neighborhood, causing its original residents to face rent increases and eventual displacement. Clear is the plight of working class people in a city. A city cannot function without them, and therefore has a duty to offer protections in the form of affordable housing and rent controls for these residents.
Gentrification is part of a process that while superficially benefiting a certain class (artists, international emigres, ‘yuppies’, students) over others (displaced working class people). This new creative social strata of residents reaps the benefit of comparatively low rents from where they came. But in the end, this change in demographic mainly materially benefits wealthy property owners and housing developers. It’s a simplification of a complicated process, but demand for a neighborhood makes it acceptable to raise rents, even when nothing is don’t to tangibly improve those residences. It’s this class of property owners who contribute nothing of substance to society, and it is them who are to blame for gentrification, not the artists. Gentrification is the instrumentalizing of the cultural capital that comes from a vibrant arts scene or student culture into the growth of real capital in the hands of a property owning class. It is silly to argue that the creative class is the victim. But it’s undeniable that they are exploited under the same system which exploits the people whose apartments they’re filling, and that the same people are benefiting off of both.
I say this not to absolve me or (being honest) most of the people in my social circles the “guilt” of being ‘gentrifiers’. But for Berlin or any city to stay a livable place, where everyone strive for more leisure, we’ll have to look to a strategy for change other than guilt.