This photograph is taken in Prenzlauer Berg, a 19th century neighborhood dominated by tenement buildings in former East-Berlin. This short essay argues that it is a good example of a Lefebvrian counter-space “running against the grain of the dominant […]” (Leary (2009), p. 204).
Prenzlauer Berg was “a unique sociotope, more individualistic, more colorful, and more non-conformist than anywhere else in East Germany” (Urban (2007), p. 28)
During the communist occupation and the separation of east- en West-Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg was “a unique sociotope, more individualistic, more colorful, and more non-conformist than anywhere else in East Germany” (Urban (2007), p. 28) – in other words, inhabited by artists, bohemians, dissenters, et cetera. During this time, Prenzlauer Berg was a peripheral part of Berlin due to its relative position the wall.
Until 1990, housing was subject to state planning and control (Berlin, 1997, p. 301) and “rents [in Prenzlauer Berg, DH] were extremely low and did not vary much according to location and quality of dwellings. Appropriation and exploitation of land and property was abolished” (Berlin, 1997, p. 302).
Shortly after Germany’s unification however, the communist practices of nationalization and rent control were abolished, and since the wall had been destroyed Prenzlauer Berg’s relative location shifted to quite central which increased the potential land value.
Prenzlauer Berg transformed, much to the dislike of the original artists and bohemians who saw their rents rise and the social fabric of the neighborhood change because bohemians and intellectuals moved out and ‘bourgois’ middle class moved in.
One of the traditional explanations for gentrification is rent gap “the disparity between the potential ground rent level and the actual ground rent capitalized under the present land use” (Smith, 1979, p. 545), and this is exactly what happened in Prenzlauer Berg: by investing in tenements (by renovation) and the neighborhood (facilitate a modern, western urban middle class lifestyle), Prenzlauer Berg transformed, much to the dislike of the original artists and bohemians who saw their rents rise and the social fabric of the neighborhood change because bohemians and intellectuals moved out and ‘bourgois’ middle class moved in. Hence the protest which has been painted on one of the buildings reminding us that gentrification has unwanted side effects for the less affluent.
When Lefebvres famous spatial triad is applied to this case, the analysis becomes more geographical and a little less historical. Following the ideas of Healy, 2007, p .204 in Leary (2009), this paper interprets this triad as follows: “
Spatial practice: the physical city […].
Representations of space: rational, intellectual conceptions of urban areas […].
Spaces of representation: emotional and artistic interpretations of city space imbued with cultural meaning which […] can lead eventually to the production of a counter-space.”
Now, what happens in the case of Prenzlauer Berg on Lefebvres three spatial levels?
Now, what happens in the case of Prenzlauer Berg on these three spatial levels? Firstly, the physical fabric of Berlin changes dramatically: the wall is tore down, Prenzlauer Berg becomes a centralized district and the tenements become privatized, renovated and surrounded by other facilities that didn’t exist under communist rule.
Secondly, on a rational level, the way Prenzlauer Berg is valued in terms of rent gap, changes as well: suddenly the neighborhood becomes an attractive investment opportunity. Analogue to the revaluation of Liverpool Road Station in Manchester “from a site of deteriorating industry to one of historic value”, the revaluation of potential rent “plays a crucial role in the production of” Prenzlauer Berg (Leary (2007)).
And finally, on an emotional level too, feelings about and towards Prenzlauer Berg shifted. During the sixties, seventies and eighties, Prenzlauer Berg was felt as ‘artistic’ and a place of relative bohemian freedom. After the unification, it became a rather affluent, bourgois middle class neighborhood because the actual artists were dispersed to quarters like Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg where they could still afford to live.
The dominant representation of space in Prenzlauer Berg of today is that of a rather expensive neighborhood for double income households, who plan or have children and who enjoy a modern urban lifestyle – farmers markets, cofffee bars, taking your young children to day care in a container bicycle. The above photograph is reminding us that another representation of space pre existed this narrative and has opposed / is opposing the current one. Therefor, it can be considered as a counter-space.
Urban, F. (2007). Designing the past in East Berlin before and after the German reunification. Progress in Planning, 68(1), 1–55.
Berlin, E. (1997). The transition from people ’ s property to private property residential areas, Applied Geography 17(4), 301-314.
Leary, M. E. (2009). The Production of Space through a Shrine and Vendetta in Manchester: Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad and the Regeneration of a Place Renamed Castlefield. Planning Theory & Practice, 10(2), 189–212
Neil Smith (1979): Toward a Theory of Gentrification A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People, Journal of the American Planning Association, 45(4), 538-548
Healey, P. (2007) Urban Complexity and Spatial Strategies (London, Routledge)
PS. This picture is taken form the internet. I made more or less the same photograph when I was in Berlin two years ago, but I was unable to find it on my computer.