Note: Yesterday, I vented on my blog. It’s important to know that it was a rash blog post, which usually isn’t a good idea. I used very strong words, maybe too strong. (See the comments on the other blog posts for more.) I’m writing this after sleeping on the whole issue to elaborate my position.
When I read that the Guggenheim Lab‘s stay in Berlin was about to be cancelled, I was incredibly frustrated. Not so much by the announcement, but by the reasons: A local initiative has opposed the art space on the grounds of fighting gentrification (the latter of which I don’t disagree with) and with a very violent rhetoric, speaking “for the local community”. This I disagree with. Let me explain.
I, too, am part of a local community. I don’t believe that there is one community, but many, and they all have different interests and agendas, which sometimes are mutually exclusive.
I, as a local, welcome the Guggenheim Lab to Kreuzberg. I would love to see them here.
I’m a local, as big city locals go. I’ve lived in Berlin fore more or less ten years, six of them in walking vicinity of the very spot that the Guggenheim Lab was planned to be installed on. I feel like a local, I identify with the neighborhood and the city, with the subcultures here. In other words, I love the city, and the Kiez. I help organize non-profit community events like atoms&bits Festival, Ignite Berlin, TedxKreuzberg and others. I also helped put together a conference on urban spaces, Cognitive Cities. I live in a house owned not by a faceless investment bank but a nice neighbor. I run a local business (even if it might be a very non-traditional one). So I don’t feel like I need to do much to prove that I’m part of some local communities.
Many of these communities include expats, too. People who moved to Berlin in pursuit of one dream or another, or maybe just chasing after a good time, or striving to travel the world and learn a thing or two on the way. I, too, moved here from a small south German town. Many of my friends are transplants like myself, having grown fond of the city and having gotten involved, some from other German towns, others from across Europe, the US or Asia. Does that make them less of a Berliner? I don’t think so. My girlfriend was born in the US (but grew up around here), the two friends I founded our company with moved here just to do this, our office neighbors are Dutch, Austrian, American, German and Canadian. In other words, it’s a diverse neighborhood, a diverse city, and that’s well as it should be.
The cynic in me wants to know who the people behind the initiative are, the ones who claim to speak for the local community, and who want to decide who’s ok to do stuff here, and who isn’t, and what kind of stuff. The cynic in me says, it’s probably people who moved here just as well, and by doing to helped foster the very gentrification they claim to fight, only now they’re a few years in and growing structurally conservative. But that’s the cynic in me, and I’m trying not to let him take over my thinking.
So instead, I’d like to add my voice to the public debate. That seems to be the most productive, fair and democratic way to go about it: If one minority yells loudly and drowns out the other voices, speaking up seems like a good idea. It’s the plurality of ideas that makes a democracy, so I’m adding another one. Apologies for the dramatic words, but there you go.
I’m betting there are others like me in this part of town who very much welcome the Guggenheim Lab to the neighborhood. Another local community, or an overlap of many other local communities. So I’m thinking about putting together a little microsite to voice that opinion, and contribute to the discussion. More on that later.
A few notes as background: As for the over-arching issue of gentrification, I do see this as a huge problem. And we’ll need a political solution to foster local development without uncontrolled gentrification. Some possible tools to help keep things under control have been discussed for years, and still sound sensible to me: Limits on the amount of residential spaces that can be used for commercial purposes, regulation of rent increases and similar instruments. Also, I think that public access to the water front is an important issue, so that should be part of the discussion, too. And lastly, the Guggenheim Lab of course shouldn’t just dump a container into the hood and preach to the locals; I haven’t talked to them, but I assume that’s not the plan. I also can’t judge if the threats were really so severe that cancelling the whole thing would be appropriate, but that’s not for me to decide. I believe in chilling effects.
Disclosures: As co-organized of Cognitive Cities Conference, I’m very interested in urban development projects of this kind. All said here is purely my personal opinion, I do not speak for my company or any clients there, of course.
Update 23 March 2012: Several people pointed out – rightfully, it seems after reading up some more – that no threats of physical violence were issued and that the local police just estimated an elevated risk. My apologies for following the initial reports.