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Is trendy East Berlin losing its edge?

By Catriona Davies for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rising rents have driven former residents out of central East Berlin
  • Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg districts became popular with artists after the fall of the Wall
  • The changes have led to some tensions between old and new residents

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In February, we visit Germany and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- At its home in a beautiful 19th century building in the center of Berlin, C/O Berlin photography gallery attracts 200,000 visitors a year to see exhibitions from the likes of Annie Leibovitz.

But the gallery faces eviction from its building, one of the last remaining unrenovated buildings in the hip Mitte district of East Berlin, at the end of March.

C/O Berlin occupies the former headquarters of the East German postal service, which its owners plan to convert into a shopping mall and hotel.

Mirko Nowak, a spokesman for C/O Berlin, said: "It's one of the last landmarks in Mitte where you can still see the old Berlin. It's a big, rundown 140-year-old building with a certain atmosphere. It's what Berliners and tourists want to see in Berlin."

The owners of the building did not respond to requests for comment.

The story of C/O Berlin has been repeated many times across Mitte and the neighboring Prenzlauer Berg district. Formerly rundown areas popular with artists, the neighborhoods have been slowly gentrifying since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

After reunification, creative types flocked to the low-income central eastern districts, attracted by low rents and plentiful space for studios. But in recent years these artists, musicians and activists, along with the former low-income residents of East Germany who preceded them, have been priced out by rocketing rents.

The transformation of these neighborhoods prompted Alessandro Busa, a doctoral student at the Center for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin, to make a short documentary film about the area.

His film focuses on a tenement building in Mitte that he used to live in. Typical of many in the area which housed Berlin's Jewish ghetto before World War II, the property had originally belonged to a Jewish family, some of whom had been exiled or sent to concentration camps after 1938. It was occupied by Nazi troops during wartime, and later passed to the ownership of the communist council when Germany was divided.

After the Wall came down, the surviving owners or their children were able to claim their houses, Busa said, but they weren't interested in moving back to Berlin, so sold it to a property developer.

Over time, there was a progressive eviction of the tenants, he said. "No one was harassed or forced out, but some were offered money to leave. Some just couldn't afford to live in the area anymore, others decided to move elsewhere."

"The building has now been turned into high-end apartments."

Busa's film, called "Ein Berliner Haus," or Last Summer in Berlin Mitte, captures the alternative lifestyle of some of those who made the district home.

When he moved into the house in 2003, it was one of the last remaining houses in the street that had still not been renovated.

"It had outside toilets, each shared by four or five tenants and coal heating. These houses had been steadily neglected by their owners and there was very little control on the premises," Busa recalled.

I can't be against better housing, but if it means people can no longer afford the rent, it becomes a bad thing.
--Antje Seidel-Schulze
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The residents of the building represented a mix between former low-income residents of East Germany and the pioneers of gentrification -- the artists, activists and drop-outs who moved in after reunification.

He went on: "There was a special atmosphere. One woman created a beautiful garden in the yard and we used to do open air movie nights or barbeque parties, and anyone could come in off the street."

But as more affluent residents have moved to the area, organic delis, cafes and upscale boutiques have now replaced many of those artists' studios.

Antje Seidel-Schulze, a social scientist at the German Institute of Urban Affairs, was born and brought up in East Berlin, but moved to the West in the late 1990s.

"I left East Berlin because of gentrification," she said. "I wasn't able to pay the higher rent, and I felt that it wasn't mine anymore.

"I can't be against better housing or better infrastructure, but if it means people can no longer afford the rent, it becomes a bad thing."

At times, the process has led to tension that has erupted in clashes. Around 2,500 police officers were deployed to evict long-term squatters from an alternative housing project, known as Liebigstrasse 14, in the Friedrichshain district of East Berlin, earlier this month, according to local media.

Germany's Bild newspaper and Der Spiegel magazine reported that 1,000 protesters supporting the squatters assembled near the building, and numerous arrests were made.

More often though, the battles are more low-key, and carried out on a personal level.

Matthias Bernt, who was born and grew up in Mitte, has rented the same apartment in Prenzlauer Berg for 20 years, during which time the building has been sold six times.

In 1998, after the original Jewish owners of the building were traced, it changed hands three times in one week. It ended up with a property developer in Hamburg who wanted to renovate the building and double the rent, Bernt said.

He argued against the plans and eventually negotiated a rent freeze. But two weeks ago, the newest set of owners announced each apartment would be sold separately, again casting uncertainty on Bernt's future.

Bernt, a researcher in gentrification and urban renewal at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, said the spirit of the neighborhood has altered with the influx of new money.

"It used to be a very mixed area. It brought me into worlds that were different from my own. Now everyone is a similar age, university educated and above average income. It's pretty boring."

The issue may be reaching a tipping point.

Bernt said: "Gentrification has become a political issue. We have city elections in Berlin next year, and rent increase is one of the top issues for the election."

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