Since the reunification of Germany in 1989, Berlin has undergone the longest and most ambitious construction boom in recent memory. So much so that even guidebooks to the city find it difficult keeping up with the speed at which neighborhoods are evolving. The pace of urban development and gentrification is so quick, areas once passed off as gritty and unsafe just a few years ago are touted in the travel press today as the next hip and creative enclaves.
Few cases of urban regeneration are as convincing as that involving the Mitte district in central Berlin. The area was among the first to be abandoned by residents fleeing to the West sector immediately after the Wall was torn down in 1989. Fast-forward more than 20 years later and the Mitte district is virtually unrecognizable to those who grew up in or fled the area. Corporate headquarters, luxury shops, and apartments for the wealthy now occupy what was once the desolate geographical heart of Berlin.
The transfiguration of Mitte is not unlike the experience of New York's East Village in the 1980s or Alphabet City in the 1990s, and since the start of the new millennium, parts of Brooklyn.
The pattern of gentrification is similar in both cities: poor immigrants, artists and students attracted to low-income neighborhoods with cheap rent, a tolerant atmosphere, and some distance from law enforcement, form a diverse and creative community with a thriving ethnic restaurant and independent art scene. Over time, real estate speculators buy up the cheap property—driving prices up and displacing the original residents, who in turn seek out new neighborhoods.
In Berlin today, Kreuzberg is at that tipping point between hippie and hip. The neighborhood in the former West Berlin is remembered most as the scene of running battles between activists and the authorities in pre-unification Germany. Creeping gentrification aside, the neighborhood has retained much of its multiculturalism and liberalism and, since the 1980s, a staunch environmentalism. Today, Kreuzberg is still a bastion of left-wing radicals, emerging artists and musicians, not to mention a sizeable population of Turks and Asians—a diversity that expresses itself via a heady mix of ethnic restaurants, organic cafés, vintage shops, art galleries, and underground dance clubs. It's only a matter of years before the neighborhood follows in the footsteps of Mitte. Until that day comes, the colorful spray-painted landscape and refreshing rawness of Kreuzberg, will remain home to the city's most dynamic and diverse generation of Berliners yet.
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This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 7 2012.