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When Small Businesses Become a Gentrification Battleground

Recent fights over a puppet theater and a cake shop have Berliners asking: Who does the city belong to?

Konnopke's sausage stand
Konnopke's sausage stand is one of the few long-standing businesses still in place in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Gentrification can create some pretty unlikely battlegrounds. In the past, Berlin’s conflicts featured some of the usual suspects:  luxury housing, vacation apartments, rent control, and tourism. This month, it’s mostly about a puppet theater and a bakery.

In Germany’s capital, small businesses are becoming a focal point for frustration over rising rents and changing neighborhoods. As older central neighborhoods gentrify, local spaces that used to be landmarks are now being swept away by the various pressures that come with the transfer of city districts to newer, wealthier residents. In a phenomenon repeated across many cities, Berliners are asking themselves: At what point is your old neighborhood not your old neighborhood anymore?

In East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, that tipping point may have passed long ago. In the drastic sanitization of the area, a current fight over a local children’s theatre can seem like one of the final nails in the coffin. Located at its current site among Prenzlauer Berg’s grand early-20th century tenements since 1996, Theater o.N has existed in Berlin since 1979—long before German reunification—when it was the only independent theater company in East Germany. A small but respected troupe specializing in children’s theater and puppetry, it has had its lease terminated because neighbors can’t stand the noise it produces. The theater doesn’t run very late, but residents living directly above complain that they only need to open their back windows to hear the shows.

That’s right. Some residents of Prenzlauer Berg have just fought a winning battle to spare themselves the din of marionettes being jiggled on strings. The case reads like a caricature of a process that happens in many cities, by which wealthier residents are attracted to an area partly by lively nightlife and culture, then work to get this scene shut down once they’ve settled in. That such a closure is possible in Prenzlauer Berg is partly because the theater closure comes at the end, not the beginning, of a process of displacement.

The neighborhood was once East Berlin’s bohemian quarter. Un-renovated and run-down in the 1970s and ’80s, a distinctive mix of artists, dissidents and people who had generally fallen through the cracks of East German society congregated in the grand but shabby tenements here, living in buildings shunned by better-connected people who, quite understandably, preferred centrally heated, well insulated homes in modern buildings. Even before the wall came down, Prenzlauer Berg was a center for LGBT nightlife.

Since reunification, it has quickly moved through a brief period as a self-branded artistic quarter into a trim, elegant stomping ground of Berlin’s post-reunification elite—most of them originally hailing from Germany’s west. The gay bars and clubs are largely gone, and the children’s theater is one of the last vestiges of the area’s former cultural and social scene that’s left for neighbors to campaign against. Some may now enjoy quieter evenings, but they might start struggling to remember why they wanted to move there in the first place.

But when it comes to preserving local businesses, there are losses as well as wins. West Berlin’s Kreuzberg also has a reputation for harboring alternative lifestyles, and its older streets have faced a wave of hyper-gentrification. Much like Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg’s pre-reunification population was dense with dissidents of a sort—squatters fixing up dilapidated old buildings mingling with Turkish immigrants and a working-class German population who found it the cheapest, easiest place to find a home. Jutting out somewhat into East Berlin, the Berlin Wall’s construction made it a backwater. Since reunification, its location just south of the city center has seen it change dramatically, although Germany’s robust tenancy protections have done much to keep its original residents and atmosphere in place.

This month, some of these residents have also been staging their own fight to save a local institution—a café and bakery that’s been a neighborhood fixture for 15 years. Normally, fancy bakeries are just the sort of business that moves into newly wealthy areas. It’s just that Filou, the bakery under threat of having its lease canceled, isn’t especially fancy. It’s one of those pleasant but humdrum local businesses on which less wealthy residents rely. Campaigners in the immediate area say that it risks being pushed out because the landlord wants to rent the premises out to a business that can scrape back a rent hike with higher prices. Adding an extra layer of piquancy to the fight is the fact that the building’s owners are based not in Berlin, but in London.

Places like Filou are a kind of community backbone. Residents receive an implicit message to move on when they find that all their local stores sell now is organic spelt bread at $5 a loaf. It’s also true, however, that more expensive new businesses are as much a reflection of changes that have already happened as they are catalysts powering that transformation. The new businesses wouldn’t come if there weren’t people already on site ready to patronize them. For now, however, the fierceness of the backlash shocked the landlords, and Filou’s lease has been renewed for three more years.

Seen in widescreen, it may seem trivial to fight over a cake and coffee shop—and maybe even a kid’s theater—when Kreuzberg’s prettier streets are draining poorer residents like a leaky bucket. At the same time, it’s on this intimate sidewalk level that city residents feel change most keenly. You might not notice the tenants three doors down moving out, but when your local café, shop, or bar goes, it’s easy to feel estranged and alienated from your own backyard. Businesses may not be as vital as homes, but they act as a root system preventing the community topsoil blowing away. That’s why battles to preserve them are intense, frequent and ongoing: When they go, a sense of belonging also disappears.

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