Neil Smith: Gentrification in Berlin and the Revanchist State

Neil Smith, author of the seminal book "The urban frontier" (1996) and countless articles on gentrification, spatial scales, globalization and state revanchism, came to Berlin in May and agreed to answer a few of our questions concerning gentrification in Berlin.

This interview should and would have been published in a much more timely fashion - alas the revanchist state himself decided to intervene and incarcerated our friend Andrej (based on his research on gentrification), who formulated the questions below.

Neil was in fact very supportive on behalf of the campaign to drop the baloney charges.

Our initial motivation to do the interview was the local/national misconception of gentrification as a mere market process. Again and again this summer (and before and since) the media and mainstream sociologist (mis-) informed the public by watering down the inherently violent and state supported process to something like: "Gentrification: Poor people move out, rich people move in. Fancy English word for common stuff".

This interview is not going to change that, but at least we tried :-)

Thanks to the Berlin Mieterecho for the permission to publish the English version. A German translation and additional information is available at their website [PDF, Issue 234].

And special thanks to Neil Smith for his time and support, we owe you one!

In Berlin we find different grades of gentrification due to the Berlin wall. In some areas in West-Berlin gentrification started decades ago, in some quarters in East-Berlin the gentrification process is quite dynamic. You have been analyzing gentrification processes for nearly 30 years. How do you describe the general principals of such urban dynamics?

Gentrification occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates urban neighborhoods that can be profitably redeveloped. In its earliest form, gentrification affected decaying working class neighbourhoods close to urban centers where middle and upper middle class people colonized or re-colonized the area, leading to the displacement and eviction of existing residents. The central mechanism behind gentrification can be thought of as a 'rent gap'. When neighborhoods experience disinvestment, the ground rent that can be extracted from the area declines meaning lower land prices. As this disinvestment continues, the gap between the actual ground rent in the area and the ground rent that could be extracted were the area to undergo reinvestment becomes wide enough to allow that reinvestment to take place. This rent gap may arise largely through the operation of markets, most notably in the United States, but state policies can also be central in encouraging disinvestment and reinvestment associated with gentrification. But only wealthier people are able to afford the costs of this renewed investment. Integral with these economic shifts are social and cultural shifts that change the kinds of shops, facilities and public spaces in a neighbourhood. Early examples of gentrification might include the Islington area of London or Greenwich Village in Manhattan but by the 1970s there were many recorded cases of gentrification in Europe, North America and Australia. In Berlin, early examples of gentrification were recorded in Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, among other neighbourhoods, but the fall of the Berlin Wall released a huge stock of housing that had undergone considerable disinvestment, leading to a widespread gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte.

We notice an increasing application of new urban strategies of small scaleinterventions in disadvantaged neighborhoods to recreate a 'social stability'there. One instrument of this strategies is supporting the settlement ofartists, designers, and other creative professions in the targeted areathrough the offering of temporary but favorable commercial space(Gewerberaum). How do such strategies fit in the context of gentrification?

Since the 1970s, gentrification has shifted from a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market to a large scale, systematic and deliberate urban development policy. Gentrification has deepened as a comprehensive city-building strategy encompassing not just the residential market but recreation, retail, employment, and the cultural economy. It has also spread geographically to Latin American and Asian cities with Shanghai and Beijing, for example, displacing hundreds of thousands of poor and working class residents. As a generalized urban strategy, gentrification weaves together the interests of city managers, developers and landlords, but also corporate employers and cultural and educational institutions which depend on a professional workforce. It is also the paradoxical but logical outcome of environmentalist demands for more dense living, pitting But these large scale strategies are also integrated with much more local initiatives, and city managers around the world have become enamoured of the idea of the 'creative city'. As a matter of citywide strategy, they attempt to attract a so-called creative class of artists, intellectuals, entertainers, designers, high-tech engineers to specific gentrifying neighbourhoods. This strategy was probably pioneered in New York's Lower East Side where in the early 1980s landlords who were unable to rent commercial properties offered them at cheap rents to artists, giving them 5-year leases. After 5 years, with no rent control on commercial properties and with the neighbourhood now gentrifying rapidly, landlords began to demand 400%, 600% even 1,000% rent increases to renew leases. The artists had done their work as the shock troops of gentrification and were themselves displaced. This more localized strategy is especially popular in places where perhaps there are more stringent rent controls or greater state regulation of the property market generally. The gentrification of Berlin has been more fragmented and slower than in London or New York, for example.

In Nord-Neukölln we had noticed an increasing moving in of students, an enhancement of real estate deals and increasing rent prices. Nevertheless, in the debates about this dynamics gentrification alerts were dismissed by the argument of the bad image of the neighborhood (which were opposed to the lifestyles of pioneers and gentrifies). Did you know examples of social neighborhood structures which were 'too bad' for gentrification processes?

Students, whether close to universities or in more distant neighbourhods, are part of the process of 'cracking' neighbourhoods that many other professionals may be unwilling to colonize. The question whether a particular neighbourhood will or will not gentrify depends on the depth of the rent gap and the particulars of local policy, but it also depends on many other local issues, neighbourhood characteristics and so on. If the rent gap is deep enough, I don't think any neighbourhood is 'too bad' for gentrification, but at the same time there is no guarantee that a particular neighbourhood will in fact be gentrified. Consider Harlem in New York City. In the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem was an international symbol of urban decline, a 'bad neighbourhood'. Not least, this was the product of racism as Harlem in 1980 was 97% African American. More than 20 years ago I interviewed an African American state bureaucrat in charge of trying to gentrify Harlem and as he put it: 'If Harlem is going to be gentrified, whitey is really going to have to get his shit together'. Today, Harlem is gentrifying intensely, and has been after a hiatus in the late 1980s. African American professionals, students, lawyers, gays, white yuppies are all moving in, and property prices are sky rocketing; Columbia University is planning a huge university development in the area. If Harlem can be gentrified, I don't think any neighbourhood is immune. Or we could point to the early gentrification along the edges of Dharavi, the huge slum in Mumbai that is currently being dismantled. Neighbourhoods gentrify in different ways, however. Some are cataclysmic, especially when there is centralized state sponsorship or large scale institutional involvement, but others may gentrify slowly. Some become highly exclusive and exclusionary whereas others may remain more mixed hipster 'hoods for a comparatively long time. The different fortunes of these areas depend on many things such as patterns of building ownership, state regulations, class structure and cohesiveness, community opposition, entrepreneurial initiatives. What ties all of these experiences together is the class shift in the neighbourhood and the greater or lesser degree of displacement (direct or indirect) that ensues.

From the academic debate we know the controversy about the 'right' explanation of gentrification processes. Many studies tried to explain gentrification by changing lifestyle orientation, changing demographic patterns and changing working conditions (demand side explanation)? You have and (continue to do so) strongly argued for an economic explanation (supply side explanations). How do you appraise the relationship between demand-side and supply-side explanation today? Is gentrification more a yuppie-problem or areal-estate-problem?

In the Lower East Side in the 1980s one of the anti-gentrification slogans was: 'Die Yuppie Scum'. I still have a T-shirt given me by a friend with this slogan. It was an effective slogan for scaring off yuppies, and indeed the gentrification of the area stalled until the city evicted homeless people and protestors from Tompkins Square Park. But 'Die Yuppie Scum' is not a very good analysis of gentrification. Even Yuppies have very limited choices in the housing market, albeit far more choices than the poor. By contrast, the owners of capital intent on gentrifying and developing a neighbourhood have a lot more 'consumer choice' about which neighbourhoods they want to consume, for the purposes of gentrification, and the kind of housing and other facilities they produce for the rest of us to consume. There is a huge asymmetry between the power of multi-millionaire capitalist corporations in the market and the 'power' of someone trying to rent a flat on an average city income. So while the question of consumption and the availability of consumers is by no means irrelevant, it is secondary to the far greater power of capital.

What are the implications of an economic perspective on gentrification for neighborhood struggles? What are the central conflicts for anti-gentrification-initiatives and what kind of coalitions are possible and necessary?

To the extent that gentrification has itself become a global urban strategy, anti-gentrification struggles have to work within this context. Local strategies are vital and have to highlight displacement, eviction, and the loss of services and jobs in neighbourhoods leaving the existing working class stranded. But such struggles also need to have the global situation in their sights. Gentrification has become a strategy within globalization itself; the effort to create a global city is the effort to attract capital and tourists and gentrification is a central means for doing so. Some neighbourhood activists - in North America I am thinking about people inspired by Jane Jacobs - have tried to rally small-scale gentrifiers to fight large scale urban redevelopment, but this is itself a gentrification strategy aimed at providing neighbourhoods for the so-called creative class. The same can be said about 'regeneration strategies' endorsed as a central plank of urban policy by the European Union. In Britain especially, but elsewhere in the EU, 'regeneration' has become little more than a gentrified word for gentrification. A kinder, gentler eviction is still an eviction. Instead, I think we need to start to think in terms of tenant collectives and neighbourhood councils. These would both take over increasing responsibility for organizing neighbourhood housing and at the same time build the power locally to force state anti-gentrification legislation - rent control, anti-eviction legislation, increased public housing, and so forth. But in addition to such local organizing, anti-gentrification organizers should be working with global social justice movements. Housing is a question of social justice, and gentrification is part of a wider global capital accumulation. Many gentrification projects today are designed, built and financed by international capital that makes decisions at a planetary rather than local scale. The case of the Beijing Olympics is only the most obvious. There, in preparation for that sports event which is also a bonanza for Chinese capitalists and the state, several hundred thousand poor and working class people have been summarily displaced from older neighbourhoods in the city facing massive redevelopment. This connection between anti-gentrification struggles and world social justice movement activists can be extremely threatening. The recent desperate invocation of Section 129a of the German legal code, initiating 'terrorism' charges against seven people, including several gentrification researchers, demonstrates exactly how threatening these connections can be. Class politics is equated with terrorism. Our response should be to intensify the connections among activists at different scales while refusing the state's hysterical equation of class opposition with terrorism. Anti-gentrification struggles are part of that work.

Gentrification has transformed into a means of taking revenge on homeless people and the working class, the revanchist city exacts revenge against all who are victimized by neoliberal capitalism.

Thank you, Neil!

Neil Smith is Distinguished Professor for Geography and Anthropolgy at the City University of New York (CUNY). He publishes widely on urban questions. His latest book is: "The endgame of Globalization". There is very little of his work available in German. The most recent is his article "Rächen und Renovieren" in our just published book: Kontrollierte Urbanität