Europe Versus The Hipsters


For Europe’s young people, Berlin is a city of play and freedom. For Southern European youth, once dubbed Generation No Future, the city is often seen as a place where you can have the lifestyle your middle class parents told you would be possible.

According to the myths told by twentysomething Europeans, Berlin is a place where apartments are cheap, where green-left think predominates and you can find a job in your chosen creative field. A decade after hipsters began moving here, this city still provides the melody for the rhapsodies of many Bohemians.

But — as with many legends — the fable told about Germany’s capital today seems to date back to the prehistoric past.

Since 2010, a recent think-tank study shows, Berlin rent prices here have been rising 8 per cent per year. Still, even after those increases, today bunking down in the German capital is roughly two-thirds as expensive as Paris and buying property is even cheaper than that.

Other statistics demonstrate better why rent prices are the talk of the town, even considering those cheap rents. Berlin’s unemployment rate is still stuck at over 11 per cent, years into one of Germany’s largest post-war economic booms.

And those in work here earn roughly a third less than the average German — just over 4,000 Australian dollars per month.

So for years now, faced with rapidly rising rents, thousands of Berliners have been protesting on the streets. In gentrifying neighbourhoods, tenants even occasionally barricade themselves in their flats when the landlord tries to kick them out for redevelopment.

That said, with apartments still relatively affordable, Berliners’ anger over gentrification has not yet translated to major actions. The same is not the case further north in Hamburg. There, apartments are a third more expensive than the national average. Since Christmas, Germany’s second city has been the scene of the country’s biggest riots in years, over gentrification.

Hamburg’s urban conflict began on 21 December, the Winter Solstice, a time where Hamburgers normally forget politics, cram into kitschy Christmas markets and prepare for the journey to their hometowns.

But this Christmas, many thousands of demonstrators battled police for control of the Schanzenviertel, the student and immigrant-dominated neighbourhood onto which professionals and developers have encroached in recent years.

The original demonstration was called due to a local leftist cultural centre and squat, Rote Flora. Taken during the high tide of Germany’s squatting movement, in the 1980s, Flora was resold by the city to developers over a decade ago. But — although the centre has apparently been all but abandoned — the squatters have never handed over the keys to the buildings’ legal owners.

For the left, the centre has become too meaningful to surrender. The Flora has become a symbol of Hamburg’s leftist history and of fears the city is being overrun by yuppies. So on 21 December, in response to threats of eviction, stones and park benches flew as demonstrators battled the police when their demonstration was declared illegal. The air was thick with tear gas and shards of glass from store windows littered the pavement.

Police fought demonstrators long into the night on the Reeperbahn, a red light mile that is known across Europe. That night, dozens of police were injured and hundreds of demonstrators suffered wounds. A month later, the bitterness has not subsided.

Days and nights of rage followed the initial riot, with injuries on both sides. Police officers later also began demonstrating — for more powers. The officers’ union said members might consider opening fire in some situations.

And after that, early in the New Year, senior officers declared downtown Hamburg was now a “danger zone”. This meant that officers now had the right to stop and search anyone passing through without first seeking approval from judges or lawmakers.

Due to Germany’s many past police states, the measure proved controversial. And it scarcely seemed to calm the situation. Leftists and sympathisers took to carrying concealed toilet brushes and gherkins, to protest excessive policing. When local television filmed the resulting stop and searches, the city police force was made to look ludicrous and paranoid.

Simultaneously, as demonstrations and violence continued, the world started to take notice and the US embassy put out a travel advisory for the city. Turkish government supporters, now accustomed to lectures from Berlin on human rights, reacted with an unrestrained display of Schadenfreude. On Twitter, Recep Tayyip Erdogan fans started calling Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel Angela Merkel’s Gezi-Park.

A month after the protests started, the left is still on the streets of Hamburg in its thousands, almost daily. Hamburg police may have now ended the effective state of emergency in the city. And the city reportedly says Flora will stay a leftist centre. Still, protestors say they will continue to protest the intervention of police in city politics.

Rarely has an abandoned squat generated so much fuss. But there are real economic issues at work here. Increases in the cost of living prompted by Germany’s strong economy — are behind the protests. Hamburg’s social conflict could provide a precedent for the Europe’s traditional spring protests. After all, it is not just in Germany where gentrification is a hot topic.

In Sweden, nearly of half of all municipalities now report shortages of accommodation for young people. Statisticians quoted by Stockholm daily Svenska Dagsbladet say that the dearth of housing for young people has grown ever since figures began to be collected in 1999.

In the Swedish capital Stockholm, boarding is all the rage. In London, which draws in property investors from around the world, gentrification has even been replaced by a local variant, “Shoreditchification”, which refers to the transformation of the working class East End suburb into a row of interchangeable art galleries and banker lofts.

So gentrification is happening in cities across Northern Europe. One reason it is happening, according to banking industry sources I spoke to, is the eurocrisis. Monied investors from Southern Europe have been parking their capital in Northern European cities. resulting in potential property bubbles in some places, not least in Germany.

The country’s central bank, the Bundesbank, is apparently considering imposing capital controls to try to prevent too much flighty money entering the German system. In the meantime, though, rising rent and property redevelopments will continue to generate social conflict in inner cities. Hamburg’s hot winter could end up being just the beginning.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.