Updated: Jan 11
By Fabienne Lang
Gentrification. A word often heard smacking out of the lips of disgruntled people living in Berlin. A word often used to describe the swift, and usually unwelcome, change in the city.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines gentrification as “the process by which a place, especially part of a city, changes from being a poor area to a richer one, where people from a higher social class live.”
It doesn't sound so menacing in a dictionary's context, but in reality, it's a darker beast.
Since 2004, Berlin’s property prices have more than doubled. Granted, it was – and to a certain extent still is - an exceptionally cheap capital city to live in. However, experiencing such an expedited increase in rent is almost unthinkable. It’s even more unfathomable given the high number of artists who flock to Berlin to enjoy its well-known affordability, but who end up coming in at the short end of the stick.
To say Berlin is the definition of gentrification is an understatement.
However, certain pockets in the city have withstood some of these massive shifts in prices, and thus, atmosphere.
Yep, you’ve guessed it, Moabit is one of those pockets - to a certain extent.
As we’ve previously written, Moabit isn’t at the top of the list for people moving to Berlin. It’s not close to the city's famous clubs, or its hip neighbourhoods - unsurprisingly the ones that have become the most gentrified - so many people tend to disregard the district.
Moabit has largely withstood full-blown gentrification
I’ll let you in on a little secret, Moabit is often described as the real Berlin. That’s because, for the most part it’s managed to survive so far sans-gentrification. At the very least, without full-blown gentrification.
You still hear Berliners speaking with their distinct accents, you seldom hear foreign languages walking down the streets, you still find a solid smattering of local Kneipen and Spielhallen, rental prices are still affordable, and you don't have to queue for ages to enjoy your Sunday brunch - which, by the way, are as tasty here as in any other quarter. Interestingly, though, these aren't aspects everybody loves.
It appears some Moabiters would welcome a little more gentrification. For instance, when the Schultheiss Brewery on lively Turmstrasse shifted from making bubbly beer for 140 years to selling clothes and household goods as a mall in 2018, people in Moabit didn’t stand up against it, nor did they protest. In fact, on the whole, Moabiters welcomed their new mall as it showed a sign of progress and potential. This paints a very different picture from the East Side Mall's opening in Friedrichshain that same year, which was riddled with protests.
A true Moabiter's opinion
One of these Moabiters who welcomes modernisation is Karsten Saeger. A Moabiter through and through, his family has lived in the hood for generations, and he continues to live here along with most of his family.
Saeger’s grandfather bought a block of flats in Moabit in 1948 – coincidentally where my charming little studio is - and opened a bakery on the ground floor, from where he ran the family business. Karsten, his two brothers, and his mother now continue to run the family rental business together, but as the only family member who still lives in the building, Karsten runs the majority of the rental units.
As Karsten leafed through a copy of the building’s original structural blueprint, we were transported along a historical journey. What used to be one big house linked by long corridors and multiple floors has become an apartment complex filled with 45 flats. It’s a strange feeling seeing your flat being part of what once was just a corridor. And if, back in the day, I had needed to answer a call of nature in the middle of the night, I would have had to stumble down two flights of stairs, across the courtyard, and to the outdoor toilet – which still stands today.
I digress. Growing up in Moabit in the early 60s, Saeger experienced first-hand the many changes the neighbourhood went through. As he walked us through them, a nostalgic pang in his voice picked up, “There was everything you needed in your Kiez (or little section of your neighbourhood).”
On the street where he lived there were three bakeries, a fishmonger, a butcher, a shoemaker, a coal shop, a carpenter, a greengrocer, a newspaper seller, and a launderette. A proper Kiez, in other words.
Since the 70s, these independent shops have been replaced by flats, a soulless Nah und Gut Edeka supermarket, independent offices, a Späti, a gambling Spielhalle in all its 80s glory, a Turkish pizza bakery, a music school, a bartender school, a flashy architecture firm, and more sadly, closed up empty spaces.
"There was everything you needed in your Kiez." - Karsten Saeger
Supermarkets and general stores took over from the 70s, forcing smaller shops to shut their doors after decades in service. The early days of gentrification, some might say.
Even though Karsten longingly spoke about his past, he’s a modern thinker. As a business owner of many flats, he agreed that Moabit isn’t considered one of the hot spots for renters today, that said, he’s never had any issues finding tenants. His main concern is finding appropriate renters. Renters who are fresh and creative, who would liven up the neighbourhood and create new, artistic businesses.
Karsten speaks fondly of his tenants, smiling as he describes them but also stating that only roughly 10% come from other countries – yours truly included. Even though he describes Moabit nowadays as multikulti, he’d still like to see more creative changes and internationalism in the area.
"Why would I live in Moabit? It's so boring!"
Gentrification is a current and heated ongoing debated, but it appears that some Berliners, and in this case Moabiters, would welcome a little more of it.
A large amount of people live in Berlin’s funky neighbourhoods precisely because they have access to the things that have been brought about due of gentrification. When suggested to live somewhere like Moabit, a less gentrified spot, they look down their noses and wedge a grimace onto their faces, “But, why would I live there, it’s so boring!” Do I smell a paradox?
So I ask you: Are people in Berlin truly against gentrification?