Gentrification of East Berlin neighbourhood creates controversy

An old East Berlin neighbourhood is generating some new controversy as wealthy "outsiders" drive up housing prices and force the traditional residents away, reports the CBC's Karen Pauls, on special assignment in Berlin.

Newcomers change working-class area to yuppy haven

Convenience store owner Mike Segel has painted over graffiti, which translates as "Yuppies Out," but it returns the next day. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

An old East Berlin neighbourhood is generating some new controversy as wealthy "outsiders" drive up housing prices and force the traditional residents away.

The controversy heated up earlier this month after an interview in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper by Wolfgang Thierse, the vice-president of Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag.

Thierse moved to Prenzlauer Berg long before the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany fell in 1989.

In the interview, he joked he’s part of an "endangered species" in the neighbourhood, which was originally home to the working class and bohemians, full of underground bars and lots of nightlife, a centre of dissent against the regime.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and was previously posted in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

Since the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the area has been gentrified. And in the last decade or so, wealthy professionals with young families have moved to Prenzlauer Berg from all over Germany.

Thierse said the newcomers have taken over renovated apartment blocks, posh shops, cafes and playgrounds, transforming the neighbourhood into a yuppie haven.

They’ve driven up rents to rates the original residents can no longer afford, so they move away, usually to the outskirts of the city, taking with them a cultural identity long associated with the area.

"I hope the Swabians [outsiders] realize they are now in Berlin. And not in their little towns, with their spring cleaning," Thierse told the paper. "They come here because it’s all so colourful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can’t have both."

Swabia is a region in southwestern Germany, but the term Swabians usually refers to anyone not originally from Berlin.

Thierse was forced to write a clarification in the Berliner Morgenpost this past weekend, after getting thousands of critical emails and even hate mail.

In it, he said he welcomes all newcomers and is not an enemy of outsiders.

On Tuesday, though, someone set up a website calling for the creation of  "Free Swabylon." The group said Thierse should be forced out of the neighbourhood.

Someone also covered a statue in one of the local parks with their regional specialty, Spatzle noodles.

German politician Wolfgang Thierse came under fire after poking fun at the newcomers in his neighbourhood. (Christian Charisius/Reuters )

There are people moving into other areas of Berlin from all over the world, but Prenzlauer Berg has become the focus of concerns, explained Matthias Bernt, an urban studies researcher at the Leibnitz Institute for Regional Development in Dresden.

"The most unsympathetic Berliner, the most hated Berliner is the Prenzlauer Berg mom. It’s the cliché for an ignorant yuppy," Bernt said, adding he lives in the area himself.

Much of the frustration is from Berliners who see the unique characteristics of the neighbourhood fading away, replaced by a homogenous community that could be in any city in the world, he said.

"But I don’t think it makes sense to talk like [Wolfgang Thierse] anymore. When Prenzlauer Berg is a neighbourhood where 80 per cent of the original population has been displaced, where is the point to put the blame on the residents who live there now? It’s just too late."

Many young, professional families have moved into the neighbourhood, displacing working-class families and artists. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Walk along Kollwitzstrasse, one of the main streets in the district, and you may see evidence of the backlash.

Graffiti on the wall of Mike Segel’s convience store reads, "Yuppies Raus," which means "Yuppies Out."

 "It’s not for me. Ist nicht von uns. It is bad," Segel said in broken English. "We paint [over] it and the next day the same. Comes back, yes."

Segel is one of the original residents, born here 41 years ago. But even though he continues to work in the neighbourhood, he and his family have been forced to move away.

"The price is too high," he said, adding quickly that he likes the wealthy newcomers and the tourists because they’re good for business.

Backlash forced Wolfgang Thierse to clarify his comments about newcomers to Prenzlauer Berg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"I’m one of the newcomers," said Barbara von der Mulbe  as she bit off pieces of a banana to feed her children, three-year-old Philip and Judith, who is nearly one.

"Lots of young families came here because it’s quite a hip area, which is nice for newcomers. I got lots of friends here. My people have lots of friends, lots of young families with a good background."

Von der Mulbe and her husband moved to Prenzlauer Berg three years ago. She feels safe and comfortable surrounded by people very much like her.

She understands the frustration of long-time residents and those who have had to move away, but doesn’t like being blamed for the changing face of the neighbourhood.

 "I don’t think it’s the newcomers to blame. It’s capitalism," she said.

'I don’t think it’s the newcomers to blame. It’s capitalism.'—Barbara von der Mulbe, Prenzlauer Berg resident

von der Mulbe believes the resentment is part of a larger, societal problem – a feminist issue.

"There are some bad vibrations here, especially … against moms like me. Young women who got their children when they liked to, got a good education, have a good background, are quite self-assured.… The Prenzlauer Berg mamas, the latte macchiato mamas, women who … really look after their children," she said.

"Those moms are young, good-looking, self-assured, well-educated and they do what they want, [so there’s] a kind of jealousy and some distrust people have against women who know what they want."

Unlike the original East Berliners who lived there, the debate over Prenzlauer Berg isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Newcomer Barbara von der Mulbe feels safe and comfortable raising her family in Prenzlauer Berg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at