Sirens breaking the silence of the night, cars engulfed by meter-high flames. This is not a scene from the banlieues of Paris, but from the trendy Eastern Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, where in recent weeks an ongoing battle against gentrification has intensified. In the past two months alone, 29 cars mostly luxury brands like Mercedes, BMW and Porsche have been set ablaze in Berlin (police believe left-wing extremists are to blame). In a letter published online in January, a leftist radical group called BMW (Bewegung für militanten Widerstand, or Movement for Militant Resistance) admitted to having set eight cars on fire, as a protest, the statement said, against the restructuring of formerly low-income neighborhoods, which has led to higher rents and forced out poorer residents.
The German capital, which this year commemorates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, has undergone rapid changes in the past few years. Right after the wall came down, there was an abundance of cheap living space, especially in the East, where dozens of abandoned apartments and even entire apartment buildings were just waiting for squatters to move in. Today most of the squats have been renovated and transformed into legal, more upscale housing. (See pictures of the Berlin Wall.)
Prenzlauer Berg has gone from being one of the cheapest neighborhoods in Berlin to one of the most expensive, with rents increasing tenfold. At the weekly Saturday farmers market on Kollwitzplatz Square, a stand offers currywurst (sausage with curry sauce), a local specialty, with 22-karat gold leaf and a side of french fries with truffle mayonnaise. The cafés surrounding the square are crowded with attractive young people sipping macchiatos. And pretty girls in lavender outfits hand out organic apples alongside brochures promoting an "urban village" called Marthashof currently in construction nearby. "Quality of life without compromises," promises the slogan on the development's website.
Not everybody, however, buys into this promise. Patrick Technau, a 24-year-old student, organized a demonstration in June 2008 under the motto "F___ Yuppies," which, he says, was also directed at the Marthashof development. Sitting in a café on Kastastanienallee, Technau points to a house with a crumbling façade. "This is probably the only house on this street that hasn't been renovated yet," he says. Technau has lived in Prenzlauer Berg all his life and currently pays $400 a month for his two-bedroom apartment. He's worried that with rental prices continuing to rise, he won't be able to afford to live in the neighborhood much longer.
Technau's demonstration was part of a wave of protests that began last summer, aimed at a group of people that local magazine Zitty has dubbed Porno-Hippie-Swabian, referring to the inhabitants of Swabia, a region in southern Germany. "It's a deliberately exaggerated negative stereotype for people who come to Berlin from the wealthy southern German states and buy expensive apartments in Prenzlauer Berg," explains Technau. Several anti-gentrification groups launched poster campaigns that got the attention of the local and national media. "Swabians in Prenzlauer Berg ... what do you actually want here?" one of the posters read.
Giovanna Stefanel-Stoffel, 54, who together with her husband runs Stofanel Investment, the company behind the Marthashof development, isn't Swabian. Nor does the petite Italian with the friendly brown eyes look like a ruthless capitalist. When she describes Marthashof, she talks about her love of nature and how she would like to recreate the atmosphere of the Italian village she was born in. Stefanel-Stoffel is surprised by the disapproval that her project has sparked among some of the neighborhood's residents. "We're putting our name, money and know-how into this," she says. "We want to be proud, not ashamed. I want to participate in the development of this beautiful city." (See pictures of Barack Obama in Berlin.)
Hans-Jürgen Bernsee, 66, has lived in the same house in Prenzlauer Berg since 1970. The retired electrician, who now works at a local community center, has experienced the rapid change of his neighborhood firsthand. He talks about how suddenly young academics and artists, "people who like to sleep in in the morning," many of them from the West, began flocking to the formerly working-class-dominated neighborhood. Unlike Stefanel-Stoffel, he's not shocked by the recent outbreak of vandalism despite the fact that only a few weeks ago, a car was set alight right outside his window. "It's nothing in comparison to what happened in the mid-'90s," Bernsee says, referring to a wave of similar incidents at that time. Bernsee remembers a night when a gang of masked leftists stormed his neighborhood erecting blockades, throwing Molotov cocktails and torching cars and the local supermarket.
Given Berlin's track record of leftist violence, which still erupts each year during the traditional May Day demonstrations by left-wing groups, it is unlikely that the conflict over the remaining affordable living space in Eastern Berlin will be settled anytime soon. Stefanel-Stoffel, for her part, is not planning to give up. "I'll also recommend to my friends to invest in Berlin," she says. "The prices you get here won't stay for long." And Technau and his friends aren't going to back down either: "We'll continue to speak up, until something will change." Seems like Berlin has to brace itself for a long battle.