How Authenticity and Gentrification Destroys Communities

“Gentrification, at its deepest level, is really about reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes and toward being spaces that generate capital for the rich.”
Peter Moskowitz

Neighbourhoods gentrified by profit driven developers, chain stores grabbing plots of land in every trendy part of the city. Authenticity, a basic desire of the individual, is being replicated by city planners down to smart looking vintage chain stores determined to be the most authentic second hand something in town, to the redevelopment of whole neighborhoods into painted versions of what heartfelt authenticity is supposed to look like.

Automatization is what you might expect of a well developed consumer society. Decisions about how we do things, how we live, and what we want to do to keep busy at the weekends can all be drilled down into an App that we keep on our smartphones.

We have accepted automatization as a way of life; Smartphone Apps that claim to carry out tasks that were previously the work of our brain power, algorithms that follow our internet movements and serve up juicy advertising that looks right up our street.

Now, we can search for an apartment, and have the description and price saved into an app, which will later remind us to check it out. Our decision making process is being hijacked, and we are sublimily told “not to worry, we’ve got you”, by the big online vendors.

Most of these automatic processes are still being tweaked and perfected to work accurately. The common business process is to send a product into the world and see what type of feedback the paying customers send back. We used to call this type of feedback a complaint about faulty goods, today, it’s an accepted way of developing a product.

Recently in my own neighborhood in Berlin, city developers and the local council used exactly this method of placing the product, and finding out what the locals had to say in the form of feedback.

Bergmannstrasse, or better known as the “Bergamnnkiez”. It is a neighborhood that has been under fire from gentrification planners for several years.

Planning permission to refurbish the street, and development into a modified version of an authentic bohemian community, sold to affluent buyers and renters at an extortionate price, will make everybody in City Hall happy. The developers then feel even more empowered about their groundbreaking concepts of gentrification.

The property companies that have swing and clout in Berlin are mostly British, American, and East European companies whose only claim to the city is an office in Friedrichstrasse. They don’t live here.

Kreuzberg, Bergmannkiez, is a trendy place to live. The streets are populated with neat, authentic looking cafes that offer cocktails and meals, snacks and a community feeling that makes a tourist feel that they are experiencing the authentic Berlin lifestyle.

The average price of a lock-up style shop unit is around 7,000 euros, you get in, open shop, and begin trading only after you have paid the property broker three months rent as a commission, and put down a 20,000 euros deposit for security on the rented property.

Two summers ago the council decided that they’d sweeten the arguments about change in a well functioning neighborhood by offering a “community meeting place”.

This was immediately put into construction in the form of an ugly orange-yellow, metal, one-piece bench set that was fitted to the side of the main street — in the bays where cars and trucks normally park.

Local residents laughed at the effort. Believing it to be a joke, or a temporary model of an idea. Most believed it would be upgraded into something more fitting for a community that knew its stuff about socializing.

There were three version of the monstrous metal framework. Each one looked as much like the last twisted and box-shaped combination. They came one summer after the next, and cost around 150,000 euros to construct and fit.

Individuals crave the feeling of realness, authenticity in the form of living among their own type of people; middle class, affluent, bohemien, artist communities, working class neighbourhoods. All this is on offer in any city, but today, you’re going to have to pay for it — it’s business as normal, and authenticity is being bottled up and sold off the shelves.

The orange bench in Bergmannkiez is supposed to authenticate the community, to help locals communicate with each other and feel safe and happy in their street. The local Government and property developers want us to know that we shouldn’t worry about a thing, “we’ve got you”, is their message to us.

They have problems with community feedback simply because it doesn’t match their expectations. The feedback is basically that this community has got a Platz, Marheinekeplatz at the end of the street, people have been meeting their for more than 100 years.

An indication of how successfully the organic growth of the community is, can be found in the historical developments of a market hall next to the Marheinekeplatz, a weekend flea market, and the regular family meet-ups that occur each weekend.

Opposite the Platz a large red brick building served community sports over the years — but today, due to gentrification, any community proposals about the building that can’t be fully monetized are rejected as not feasible.

If doesn’t look profitable, it isn’t a community project. Another coffee shop is monetization and therefore has the function of attracting shoppers to the area. There are already countless coffee bars in the area, but coffee and cake encourage a shopping experience that sparks feelings of communal authenticity.

The average consumer is a complex creature. On a personal basis, authenticity can be defined as the way a person views the world and therefore acts in a community. Morally, authenticity connects beliefs with living standards, style of living and what is visually and materially seen as essential to happiness.

On another level we see how neighbourhoods are developed on an organic level. Artist communities are supportive of social interactions between people with similar goals — the lack of competitiveness among artists can create a harmony not found in business communities.

Business is by nature a selfish pursuit, tough and hard against the competition, driven by simple needs that are valued above moral standards, and prepared to destroy cultures, organically formed standards, and communities, while claiming that change is necessary for progress.

Whose progress, and what type of progress? This is often answered with vague notions of better facilities, improved performances in structures of local government or councils, and the need for modernisation in how people shop and sell in the high street.

Shops, cafes, and recreational facilities are all part of a community. Shopping is a part of a cultural activity, the goods sold are used as everyday objects by locals and fit their needs for a more comfortable lifestyle.

Shops selling clothes are great for everybody, places to buy food to take home and cook, or to eat in a restaurant is the modern living experience. The interactions created between vendor and buyer, promotes communal living.

When this basic act of communal living is hijacked by corporate business, uniformed into an easy to operate franchise that spreads all over the World, it creates communities where the feeling of “we make this neighborhood what it is…” disappear, it is replaced by corporate logos, instead of art, squeaky clean store fronts, with interior designs that aren’t much different than a hospital waiting room.

The act of meeting the vendor in any franchised shop or cafe, and attempting to interact like an authentic human being with interests in the offer, becomes a stressful experience. It becomes a cold transaction that creates impersonal living. It’s non-authentic. It dishonest to our aims in life.

Corporate business knows one thing; if it can dominate a neighborhood, then it will eliminate any need for small vendors. They buy enormous stocks, or produce the goods themselves to price bomb and destroy local competition. The message is, “we’ve got this — not you”.

The enjoyable experience of meeting a cafe owner, spending five minutes chatting with the local store owner, is destroyed. We are forced to buy food and clothing wherever it’s available — at the big mega store that caters to all our needs.

Complaints about big franchise businesses moving in to smaller communities have been voiced for many years. Nobody wants to live in a Starbucks, Mcdonalds, Mega-store community. Not even the middle classes, even though it was the middle classes who invented it.

The complaints can’t be morphed into corporate-speak that sounds like a community desire for big change. The complaint isn’t feedback on how to adjust the sound of the vendor’s offer and work on winning the hearts and minds of residents.

A complaint about having our authentic lifestyles hijacked and thwarted with each new corporate favorable law that is passed, is still a complaint.

Authenticity is a powerful characteristic of human beings. We need it to rise above the muddy fields of a drab and uninspiring lifestyle.

Our complaints can easily be connected to the threat that as perceived, a disrupted lifestyle that made people happy in their community.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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