An Interview with Director Andreas Wilcke “Gentrification is not a law of nature”

What makes a city a good place to live?
What makes a city a good place to live? | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke

From 2011 to 2015 documentary filmmaker, Andreas Wilcke, monitored the booming Berlin real estate market. In his film, „Die Stadt als Beute“ (The City as Prey), he shows its negative effects on the city and exposes the chief culprits behind this misery.

Mr. Wilcke, in one of the first scenes of your film we see Klaus Wowereit, the former Governing Mayor of Berlin, on his election campaign tour. Wowereit warns people against trying to preserve Berlin as a metropolis trapped in a morbid, but charming, biotope. What did he mean by that?
 
He is referring here to a very specific image which the city still subscribes to even today – that of the poor, but hip, metropolis. Wowereit himself actually promoted this image in an interview back in 2003 when he described Berlin as “poor, but sexy”. This first scene takes place in 2011 on a boat trip through the Köpenick district in the eastern part of the city – the boat passes a number of derelict wastelands. What Wowereit is trying to say is that instead of wallowing in nostalgia, the city now has to tackle the problem and invest, only in this way does Berlin stand a chance.
 
That sounds understandable.
 
Of course, it is sensible to invest in urban development. And nostalgia is never a good thing, if it puts the brakes on meaningful and important developments. Unfortunately, this development does not seem to be working particularly well in Berlin. The city is in fact going through many changes and, what is more, at a very high speed. But the price to be paid for these changes is way too high.

Why?
 
Diversity, curiosity about other people, social coexistence – all the things that are part of city life are threatened with falling by the wayside. In my own district of Berlin, Friedrichshain, for about ten years I have been watching how the retail outlets are dying a death, how low-income earners have to move to another district, because they can no longer afford the rent there. Some time ago a friend from a foreign country visited me. After a taking a walk through my neighbourhood he was quite shocked that almost no older people were to be seen on the streets.
 

In your film you tracked down the cause of all this and identified the culprit – the booming Berlin real estate market.

Yes, although it was very important to me to avoid a classic offender-victim approach – although this may be suggested by the title of the film (The City as Prey). My aim was not to show the real estate brokers, who appear in the film and who of course say some hair-raising things, as greedy predators, who pounce on poor tenants and drive them out of their homes. That kind of analysis was too superficial for me. The real problem in Berlin is not the real estate market itself, but the fact that politicians have failed to regulate it. The brokers are not the bad guys, they are merely acting within their own realm of logic. They do, however, have an extremely one-dimensional idea of what should go into making a city a good place to live. And it would be bad if this vision were to become even more widespread.

What does their vision look like then?
 
From the perspective of many brokers, a city has to be nice and expensive in the centre and the further away from the centre cheaper and uglier. The notion that students living in former “in-districts” such as Kreuzberg or Mitte develop almost automatically into high-income earners who are willing to pay more rent to live in a beautifully refurbished district is particularly widespread. Those who cannot afford it, have to move to the neighbouring districts. This displacement effect, also called gentrification, is considered to be inherent in the system.
 
Well, is it inherent?
 
No, gentrification is not a law of nature. Berlin, in particular, is characterized by a large variety of social strata in its inner city areas. This makes the city interesting – also for investors. It should now be the task of the politicians to ensure that the housing market itself does not destroy exactly the thing it is trying to promote.

  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
    Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey)
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke
  • Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) Die Stadt als Beute | Photo (detail): © Andreas Wilcke

In this respect, your film draws a rather pessimistic picture.

Yes, unfortunately, it does. First of all, it was actually a dubious political decision that got the ball rolling for the Berlin real estate market. In 2005, the Berlin Senate sold 65,000 state-owned apartments to a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs – with the aim of filling their own empty coffers. This was an indicator for many investors that it might be worthwhile getting into the Berlin market, too. For a long time any regulatory measures were considered superfluous. The official standpoint was for a long time – the market is relaxed, there is enough housing available.

In the meantime, however, they have realised that there is need for action, right?
 
They have, at least, put social housing at the very top of their political agenda, and all kinds of measures have been introduced to stem the growth in rents. For example, in 2015, a ban on converting rented property into privately owned property in so-called “protected milieus” was passed. These are areas in which the heterogeneous social composition of the residential population is to be preserved. Unfortunately, I am afraid that I have to add that there are many loopholes in this conversion ban, which people are gladly making use of.
 
Is the realm of politics capable of curbing the negative effects of the market?
 
That is hard to say. Local politicians are well aware of the problem. Unfortunately, they have very little room for manoeuvring. The official line taken by Berlin is still to acquire funds for the empty coffers and to make the city attractive to international investors.
 
Your film ends with a collage of almost suburban residential areas – all of them construction projects in the middle of Berlin. Is that in itself a sign of resignation?
 
Not necessarily. It is simply what is left of the positive growth rhetoric at the beginning of the film after having looked at the real world of construction projects. What is actually coming about in many places in Berlin are in fact suburbs inside the city – architectural and social monocultures for higher-income earners. I think this is a very bad development. I simply wish politics would decide to intervene in this case.

The director Andreas Wilcke Photo (detail): © Kay Ruhe Andreas Wilcke grew up in a small town in the state of Brandenburg and has lived in Berlin since the early 1990s. He studied at the Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie (Ostkreuz School of Photography) in Berlin and has been working as a documentary filmmaker since 2009. He directed, produced, wrote and shot his long-term project Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Prey) all himself. Over a period of several years Wilcke shows in the film the consequences of the building boom, of exploding rental prices and of gentrification for the city of Berlin. Die Stadt als Beute was launched in German cinemas in 2016.