The Myth of Mitte. Letter from Berlin 0

By Margarita Zieda, Theater Critic
15/05/2011

A simple walk is all it takes to get the feeling that something in Berlin has changed—a twenty-minute stroll down Friedrichstrasse, moving away from the station and across the river, alongside Friedrichstadtpalast, and then turning at Oranienburgerstrasse in the direction of Hackesche Höfe.

At first it seems like nothing has changed. Wild vacant lots, overgrown with weeds and bushes, stand right in the middle of the city, directly across from a freshly built multistory building that stores and offices have not managed to fill up yet. Just like before, an entire building balances on the verge of collapse above The Oscar Wilde, the first Irish pub in Berlin’s Mitte district; the building was erected in 1912, and during the twenties was one of the most popular dance halls in the city. The old, the empty, and the new continue to live side by side in Berlin. 

The Gentrification of Mitte

But then you’ll also see a rather profound change: the Turkish fast-food chain Döner Kebap, which seemed like an eternal neighbor both for the Friedrichstrasse station and for the alternative culture temple Tacheles, has disappeared from the neighborhood without a trace. Something from Döner Kebap’s vegetarian offerings, only in a more refined presentation and for a higher price, can be purchased at the trend spot dada, which used to be located in the shadow of the Döner Kebap kiosk. Likewise, the smell of frying oil from French fries no longer swirls above the neighborhood, and the cheapest meal in the city, a curry wurst, has moved to clean, well-ventilated rooms, where it is offered as the city’s special brand. Various sausage huts still operate in the distict, but these are the last of the Mohicans, which will probably not survive the next decade as exotic relics.

Berlin, whose charm the city’s mayor one defined as arm und sexy [poor and sexy], is changing. The city is making its own contribution to the global map of gentrification, which sociologists have been drawing since the 1960s, when they first observed the phenomenon in the London borough of Islington, where workers’ families were literally forced out of their homes and replaced by middle-class residents. These big city processes, which can be observed in different ways in New York and Tokyo, are now taking place in Berlin, twenty years after the city was reunited.

The scheme is simple. First, the low rents in a city’s cheaper districts attract artists, whose creative strength and thrill for life transforms the listless streets into an attractive neighborhood, a process that is substantially promoted by fringe galleries.