In August I went back to London for the first time since I lived there in 2002-3. Walking through the streets of Soho I was really shocked by how much it had changed. But as I turned down Charing Cross Road and walked towards the mess that currently is Tottenham Court Road Station, I became really upset. Where once the street had been a mecca for book-lovers, lined with small antiquarian dealers and well-loved second-hand stores, now sits Chipotle, McDonalds and Superdrug. In the UK newspaper the Independent, ‘So long Soho, Starbucks and Stradas are Taking Over London’s Most Characterful District’ mourns the loss of what the area once was: ‘For 300 years this was one of London's roughest areas, and they want to make it pristine and sharp-fronted. But you need a bit of grime. It's real, it's what this place has always been.’ While some cities have actively worked to halt progress to protect institutions at risk, such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, in Britain ‘a sort of planning anarchy prevails, favouring the powerful.’
In the US, as the New Republic reports in ‘The Rise and Fall of a ‘Cool’ City’, over the past decade ‘Montreal, Portland and Detroit have all been the “new Seattle,” Austin has been the “new Portland,” and Minneapolis has been the “new Austin.”’ The lure of ‘the next big thing’ can bring improved infrastructure — better roads, more health and community services, better funding for schools and hospitals — but it can also kill the essence of what made the city special in the first place.
Detroit, currently engulfed in it’s own gentrification battle, is the subject of Benjamin Markovits’ novel, You Don’t Have To Live Like This. When Greg Marnier, Marny, heads to Yale for his ten-year college reunion, his friend Robert James offers him a way out of the cycle of commercialism that so many of us find ourselves living in: working to make enough money to get by in a job that doesn’t pay enough to get by so working more than is sustainable. As Marny says, ‘There should be a better test of who I am than middle-class American life’. Robert, a hedge-fund manager turned property developer, wants to build a ‘new America’ in Detroit, where cheap housing allows for a more community driven way of life and more room to explore creative pursuits. The desire to move to cities like Detroit can also come from a place of civic duty, or a wish to reconnect with community, as is the case for Marny: ‘In fact, most of us were proud of doing what we were doing, and talked about it proudly, which helped us get along. We wanted to say, here, at least, I know who my neighbours are.’
But while this utopian vision is great for the new, mainly white, well-educated middle-class, the ritualistic ‘cleaning’ of the neighbourhoods only increase the disadvantage to those who made it the place it was. As Marny remarks after going for a drive with the book’s old-Detroit representative, Nolan, ‘He took me around the old Black Bottom neighbourhood, or what was left of it after urban renewal. “Negro removal”, Nolan called it.’ And as Nolan points out later, there are bigger issues of who this urban renewal is actually for, of where the money is spent and for whom: “How much money have you people brought into this city that you didn’t spend on yourselves? On your schools and your houses and your neighborhoods?”
There was a general feeling in the neighbourhood, which I didn’t totally share, that the old Detroit blacks should be grateful to us, for pushing up their property prices and giving some of them domestic employment, mowing lawns, painting walls, that kind of thing, and bringing in stores and bars and restaurants where before there were boarded-up shops. But the stores weren’t cheap and the truth is, you didn’t see many black faces at Joe Silver’s coffeehouse, for example. Most of the old residents kept to themselves.
Markovits completely nails the mixed feelings of someone caught up in gentrification. When my partner and I first moved to Thornbury two and a half years ago, there were signs that things were starting to change from the run-down strip of High St that people ignored past the somewhat aptly titled Separation St. But we loved it — it was quiet, cheap and a great little community. We’d been priced out of the suburbs further towards the city and this felt like a fresh start. The area was full of young families, first-generation migrants who’d lived in the area since they first arrived in Melbourne, and artists who’d been smart enough to buy a house there while they were still dirt cheap. Our apartment was one of four built on top of an old shop-front. We were the first to move in. By the time the other apartments were filled a few months later, winter was blowing through Melbourne. By the time spring started to show it’s face, so did the liquor licensing applications on empty windows. By the time we left, over a dozen new bars and cafes had opened in Thornbury, with around the same number in the process of completion. The old neighbours were still there, but we also knew that by the time we come back to Melbourne, we won’t be able to afford to live there anymore. Yet we played a part in that process — we moved in for the rent that was comparatively cheap compared to the neighbourhoods we’d come from. We’d spent our weekends in those bars and cafes that had sprung up for people like us to drink flat whites and craft beer.
And now we’re in Kreuzberg — ground-zero of the fight against gentrification in Berlin, along with neighbouring suburb Neukölln. Berlin has a difficult history with gentrification, a lot of it coming from the fall of the wall, particularly in areas close to the border like Kreuzberg, Friederichshain and Neukölln. When the wall came down wealthy Germans from the more prosperous southern states bought up tenement buildings in Berlin. Our building is owned by a property group in Munich, managed by another company based in Frankfurt, and we sublet from a couple living in Italy. So when something needs fixing it’s not as easy to fix as knocking on someone’s door or picking up the phone to an office down the road. Berlin is now in a phase known as the ‘third wave’ — native English speakers coming to Berlin for the digital and development communities, the so-called ‘Silicon Allee’. The biggest evidence of this are the so-called ‘third wave coffee’ shops opening to provide English speakers with flat whites, and the small speakeasy-style bars with craft beers on tap. Neither of these things are particularly German. Germans drink coffee differently than the Italian-style espresso Australians do, and they have so many well-made, and cheap, breweries who have been happily providing Germans and tourists with frothy beers for centuries, there’s no real need for craft beer either, other than to keep new arrivals like us, and our VAT-paying euros, here. Because what we’re yet to talk about as openly as the impacts of gentrification arriving, is what happens when the gentrifiers leave. As the aforementioned article in the New Republic discusses, when a city rises, it must also fall, and arguably this is already happening in Berlin where the tides of revoltingly titled ‘digital-natives’ are already seeking the next place to be seen, sparking a back-lash from those who are committed to staying. From You Don’t Have to Live Like This:
“We’re getting out now,” he said. “We’re not going to wait around for bad news.”
“What bad news?”
“Whatever form it takes. I’ve got that prestorm feeling. This time I’m going to listen to it. Also, it’s too cold here. It’s just too cold.”
“So where are you going, back to Phoenix?”
“I never liked it there. Somewhere else. Maybe Austin, but it’s expensive now. These hipster types have a lot to answer for. Everywhere you used to find a decent quality of life, they come and drive up the price.’
But in both Thornbury and now in Kreuzberg, the same things that are built for our pleasure are the things that are changing the neighbourhoods from the ones we wanted to move to in the first place. It’s something The Atlantic hit on after the recent ‘Cereal Killer’ riots in London. Here they quote Japonica Brown-Saracino, a professor of sociology at Boston University who studies gentrification in U.S. cities:
“There are people who move into a neighborhood because they’re attracted to certain qualities of a place,” she said. “On moving, they recognize that they are part of transforming the things that they value about a place. And they end up working to forestall some of the transformation, protesting in the streets for affordable housing, trying to hold onto community centers or certain commercial institutions that they regard as linked to longtime populations.”
You Don’t Have to Live Like This is a slow-burn. I think Max Liu’s description in The Independent of it being ‘like a season of The Wire scripted by J M Coetzee’ is a pretty good analogy. But there’s a reason that it’s slow and awkward and messy and uncomfortable at times. There’s a reason why it never really resolves and there’s no clean break. Because that’s life. I know that’s a cheesy thing to say, but I think it’s true. The problem with gentrification is that it doesn’t just happen overnight — it is a slow-burn that you often don’t realise has happened until it’s too late to go back. What can those who have called these neighbourhoods home for decades do but sit by and watch? Occasionally you’ll read about a multinational succumbing to public pressure and building elsewhere, or rent caps or incentives for local business, sure. It’s a difficult issue fuelled by all the sorts of tensions we’re reluctant to talk about. Markovits’ novel isn’t perfect, but he’s brave enough to talk about the stuff that we not always are.
One of the things Markovits hit right on in You Don’t Have to Live Like This was the role of Joe’s — a new, shiny coffee shop built just after Robert James and his friends move to Detroit. At first Marny seems uncomfortable about it’s presence, but soon enough it becomes the place where he meets friends and spends his Saturdays. ‘That is the trouble with being a pioneer. You want a new life and you set up an outpost and soon it looks just like the life you left.’ In our first few months in Berlin we looked for the best flat whites in our neighbourhood. Both my partner and I had regular cafes in Melbourne and we thought that in finding our place here we needed to find our new favourite cafe. Our new favourite place to sit and drink coffee, read newspapers and do crosswords, eat leisurely breakfasts on weekends. But soon we became pretty uncomfortable being served flat whites and avocado toast by Australians with little-to-no German-speaking abilities when in Germany. And once we became more comfortable with our new surroundings, we realised how much we were missing out on by trying to eat the same breakfasts we’d order in Thornbury or Fitzroy in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Because Germans take breakfast very seriously. So seriously in fact, they have a verb dedicated to the act of eating breakfast (frühstücken).
German breakfast plates vary according to who has made it and where you are. For example, in Hamburg last weekend I had a plate of salmon, crab in dill sauce, rollmops, a boiled egg, some cheese and some vegetables. The day before in the same town I’d had a small bowl of bircher muesli with quark, some yoghurt with fruit salad, and a plate of mozzarella, cucumber and capsicum with cream cheese and jam. My partner often gets a plate of mixed sliced meats with cheese, an egg and some fresh fruit. All these meals are designed to be eaten with a hearty basket of bread that is brought to the table to share, though of course I sadly have to eat the ingredients as they are. But actually with this much variety and protein, other than the tantalising smell of the heady-yeasty dark German bread, I don’t feel like I’m going without. So now I’ve started to make these little plates for myself at home. They are a great way to use up little bits and pieces left in the fridge and can be made with whatever you have at hand, whatever is cheap at the supermarket or market that week. Some things that feature regularly on plates at cafes are: sliced processed cheese, which is a guilty pleasure of mine; a boiled egg; fresh (cream) cheese, with or without herbs mixed in; some fresh vegetables like cucumber and tomato; and something sweet, either fresh fruit or jam or both. Now that we’ve discovered these mixed plates of joy, we won’t be eating eggs benedict again until we’re back in Melbourne, in whichever suburb we can still afford.
Recently I discovered a beautiful blog The American Guide via their Instagram account. The concept is to revive the Depression-era guidebook series by the same name, and is self-described as ‘part archive curation’, ‘part documentary travel’. ‘It’s here to keep a state by state record of an America coming out of the Great Recession and beyond: to document people and places both pretty and hard because, all things being equal, that’s what makes America, America.’ It sounds overly-patriotic but actually these are beautiful portraits of the people and cities that don't make the tourist guides, that fully feel the effects of economic difficulties, yet the everyday snapshots show a genuine warmth to the day-to-day of the towns featured.