If you’re curious about the state of Berlin–the formerly “cool” side of it, that is, and as seen from the well-informed perspective of a young freelance writer who is basically an expat despite his German citizenship–look no further than Thomas Rogers. His series of long-form essays on the matter, published in Rolling Stone, New Republic, The Awl, and most recently New York Magazine–props for churning four of these bad boys out on essentially the same topic without egregious redundance–paint a complex, somewhat grim picture of the scene’s rapid gentrification: in short, the old Berlin is watered down and gone and ain’t comin’ back, and some Berliners are none too pleased about the catalysts of change. Namely, a flood of “affluent” English-speaking expats/foreigners like Rogers (the Awl piece is a brutally honest meditation on his conflicted guilt) and a rise in so-called “post-tourists,” which by his loose definition are essentially travelers posing as and attempting to live like locals; more on the latter in a minute.
As he notes, however, it’s not that simple:
Of course, this doesn’t just have to do with foreigners; it has to do with the dynamics of the European housing market, and the recession, and globalization, and, most of all, greedy landlords and flawed housing policy. But given that many of these gentrifiers don’t speak a word of German and leave after a few months—once their savings, their drugs or their tourist visas run out—the anger is easy to understand. Imagine if your cheap New York neighborhood was suddenly filled up with rich European party girls who don’t speak a word of English and spend their afternoons taking MDMA in parks. Who would you get mad at?
This topic–gentrification, the changing face and habits of the modern traveler, MONEY–is obviously a big bucket of worms and well above my pay grade here. Much (so, so much) has been written about gentrification and its complicated dynamics, and I’m not inclined to do anything more than poke that bubble. I’m frankly tired of talking about it and hearing about it, perhaps because I have lived it, I was a part of it, and I saw it accelerate out of control in Brooklyn, where by the time I left for Singapore (for reasons other than to “escape,” to be clear) I sometimes sounded like one of the bitter Berliners in Rogers’ essays.
I arrived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, our planet’s Ground Zero of Modern Hipsterdom, in May 2003. (I use the dreaded “H” word merely for its understood connotations, though I loathe its overuse and ambiguity.) The first time I’d seen the area was the summer of 2000, when I lived in Chelsea for a few months while interning at Artemis Records. Remember the delightful little ditty “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Yeah, I’m the guy who stuffed that CD single into manila envelopes bound for radio stations across the US, so feel free to blame or thank me a little.
At Bedford Avenue on a random weekday afternoon, I looked around and wondered where this cool, artist-driven scene was that I’d read about. It was dead; not much to it. A record shop, a coffee shop, a few shitty cafes, hardly anybody walking around; fine, but not what I was expecting. Clearly there was much, much more going on “behind the scenes” at that point–gentrification was well underway–but I was 22 and dazzled by Manhattan and didn’t see any reason to spend much more time exploring Brooklyn when I had less than two months to see the proper city.
I moved to New York “permanently” in October 2001, first to Astoria and then, following the inevitable breakup with the college girlfriend, to Williamsburg. Even then, living off Graham Avenue–three stops on the L-train from the city, two stops past Bedford–felt a little remote. It wasn’t, of course, but like on Bedford in ’00 there wasn’t all that much to it, at least on the surface, compared to today. I quickly learned to love it for that very reason.
By then the dominoes were starting to fall on the Bedford area, but it was still nothing like today’s corporate-cool candyland for the monied (some flaunt it, others hide it in trust funds). The waterfront, now all gazillion-dollar condos and organic-recycled baby strollers, was still gloomy and a little sketchy–a friend and I were once ticketed for drinking 40s in a fenced-off, derelict area that is now East River State Park. It would take many years for the “Bedfordization” to spread to my quiet little corner of Williamsburg; fucking A, it sure is there now.
Is it strange to feel a little gutted about a shitty tattoo parlor moving into a space that for decades had been occupied by a tombstone shop that doubled as a bakery?
Anyway, you know how the story goes; if not, google “williamsburg brooklyn gentrification” and have a blast sifting through the results. As I say, I played a small role in the area’s change during the 2000s: not among the first wave of modern gentrifiers, but certainly not among its most-recent waves. I was somewhere in the early-middle, which I think gives me… hmm… let’s say it gives me some right to bitch a little about the rich-kids-posing-as-starving-creative-types and the bankers who’ve helped ruin a lovely little neighborhood that I also helped ruin. Is that fair?
I still love WillieB and Greenpoint, warts and all; I spent 10 formative years of my life there, so I’m not here to rag on it. Though, I’m not sure if I’d live there again; I’m not sure I could afford it anymore now that I’ve passed on to my brother-in-law the pre-war railroad apartment I lived in the whole time, the one with the monthly rent that is still “under market value” for the neighborhood, but the one with a rent now verging on twice as much as when I first moved in due to a now-annual $100/month increase due to “rising costs.” (Fuck you, greedy absentee landlord.)
Here’s the thing about all this: the grand bargain of living in a big city–New York, Berlin, London, Bangkok–is that sweeping change is inevitable, and that nobody owns the rights to the city or a neighborhood because rights don’t exist. Doesn’t matter whether you grew up there or moved there 20 years ago or five years ago. Change is on its way, always–it’s only a question of how and when, not if. Such is the nature of life and time passing.
Cities and scenes go in and out of style. Oh, we certainly don’t have to like it; nobody wants to see their neighborhood turned into a tourist attraction or a gentrified pit of asshats. In Bangkok, where I lived off and on for about 1.5 years, in a sort-of “post-tourist” capacity between 2008 – 2011, I’d like to take figurative hammer to skull of some of the latest wave of expats intent on introducing their fucking Brooklyn into “my” sacred Bangkok. Yes, I see the irony in that statement.
We can kick and scream and moan and bitch about change, but there’s precious little we can do about it, especially in today’s Shrinking World of the Untethered Professional. The matter of “how” change happens, however. And how quickly. That’s the vexing issue, with Bangkok, with Brooklyn, with Berlin, and with other smaller, “up-and-coming” European cities Rogers touches on his essays. The Berlin case study is an interesting one.
Some of the anger Rogers details in Berlin is, I think, misplaced and unproductive, which isn’t to say I don’t understand it. I’m also not pro-gentrification, whatever that means (and as if anybody would say that they were). Read this bit from his NY Mag piece and tell me you don’t sympathize with some of the anti-tourist sentiment:
[Rachel] Martin-Austin, who doesn’t speak German, gets around using her Google Translate app — “you have to hold it really steady, but it’s pretty cool” — and doesn’t have any patience for locals trying to confront her about her lack of German skills. “I can tell when it’s going to happen, and I just become super aggressive,” she says. “It’s the New York in me.”
No, it’s actually just the awful bitch in you.
I’m curious as to why the Berliner vitriol seems squarely aimed at Americans–last time I checked we didn’t have the market cornered on being difficult and culturally insensitive–but that’s just an aside, and may simply be a numbers game. There are two interrelated, yet distinctly different issues explored here: change (call it gentrification if you prefer) in cities spurred by expats/foreigners, and change spurred by a new type of tourism (“post-tourism”).
I’m most interested in the dynamics of “post-tourism;” I’ll go ahead and remove those annoying quotations from here on out. Here’s how Rogers explains it:
Post-tourists tend to avoid staying in hotels, they aren’t as interested in major tourist attractions, they combine work with travel, they’re looking for unconventional experiences, and they prefer to hang out in residential neighborhoods.
Hi–by that definition I’m a poster boy of post-tourism. To cite just a few examples, for our two-week stay in Amsterdam last year my wife and I rented an Airbnb flat in largely residential Oud-West and loved the area; we essentially did the same thing in London for five weeks, splitting our time between flats in Islington and Hackney; ditto for a week in Sydney’s Annandale ‘hood. Our favorite experiences from these trips were those which happened well outside of tourism’s beaten path; that’s the case for most of our travels.
The upshot for me, the traveler, of traveling in such a way should be fairly obvious, and in fact is a tenet of most modern travel-writing (the practical, actionable kind), including my own: going off the beaten path and “living like a local.” The repercussions of growth in this type of travel–for residents and as Rogers details in colorful detail–are both tangible (higher costs of rent/property/etc.) and intangible (dealing with pissy Martin-Austins at your favorite corner bar and cafe).
Now that travelers are going off the beaten path with more frequency, in rising numbers, and for longer periods of time, descending like red ant colonies into the more interesting parts of town–like in Berlin–those people actually living in those areas are fucking pissed. That’s a compelling dynamic and twist to the global tourism boom, isn’t it?
Two parting observations:
– I’m not defending anybody or any group of people here, but I assume the Berlin gallery owner who hung a sign in the window which read “Sorry, no entry for hipsters from the U.S.” doesn’t travel him or herself, and that the TV writer quoted in NY Mag doesn’t travel much, either. If they do, surely they hang a big ol’ camera ’round the neck, strap on the fanny pack, and toodle around between whatever the main attractions are wherever they’re visiting, eating in the shitty Italian restaurants near the city’s biggest sights, staying in the shittiest hotel district, drinking at the shitty overpriced themed bars. It would be insanely hypocritical of anybody bitching about post-tourists to be anything but a “traditional” tourist when they themselves travel.
(Also, are “hipsters” from the UK, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, South Korea, Brazil, and Iceland allowed entry into that gallery? I’m not standing up for Americans–on the contrary, we’re quite capable of being fairly awful travelers on the whole–but that strikes me as a rather silly distinction. Then again, maybe he or she had just met Martin-Austin.)
As I say, nobody wants to see their neighborhood turn into a gentrified tourist trap. Fuck no. That said, being aggro and smug isn’t going to keep anybody away; hey, didn’t work for me in Brooklyn. It’s not “your” Berlin or “my” Bangkok or Brooklyn, as much as we would like it to be, no matter how long you’ve been there. For better or worse, the world belongs to the world.
If/when your neighborhood goes south to the point where you just can’t deal with it any longer, there’s probably, unfortunately, just one solution: move to the country, or move to a like-minded, up-and-coming neighborhood/city/country… and kickstart its gentrification.
– Whether traveling in the traditional or post-traditional mode, we all still have a responsibility to be responsible, particularly those of us settling into a city for two weeks, two months, two years. Consuming a local culture–taking and taking and taking and taking some more–contributes to destruction of a local culture. I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal here, but when I travel I go out of my way to be respectful of the communities in which I visit and, in some cases, live in.
I aim to blend in, in that I don’t get drunk and rowdy in the streets just because I can, or smoke joints on a bench in a residential park, or generally act a fool. I express interest in local customs and the local way of doing things, and try to follow suit. The good fortune I have, at the moment, of being a mobile freelancer with the opportunity to travel more than most is never lost on me: I feel so, so lucky to “live” in Amsterdam for two weeks or Bangkok for nine months or Annandale for a week or London for five weeks.
I try to publicly manifest that sense in my interactions with these communities; sometimes I can tell people are leery of me (“What the fuck is he doing here? How did they find this place?”) and I’m okay with that. I understand it because I felt the same way, at times, in gentrified Brooklyn. The only thing I can do–that we can do, as travelers–is be as low-impact and respectful as possible. I know it sounds a little corny.
That might mean that if you’re living in, say, Berlin for the foreseeable future and realize that learning some German would go a long way, you learn some German; you certainly don’t shove a fucking Google Translator in people’s faces and “become super aggressive.”
That might mean trying to control your cocaine habit or your insatiable taste for whiskey and not running through the streets of, say, residential Bangkok screaming and blubbering at 2 o’clock in the morning.
It means being a mindful traveler, a code of conduct that like urban gentrification and change is nothing new, but one which some travelers still don’t quite understand or care about. Post-tourism, some form of it, is here to stay–the onus is on every post-tourist to make it work.
Lead photo courtesy of Flickr user James Dennes
Second photo courtesy of Flickr user Rodrigo Galindez
Third photo courtesy of Flickr user Amanda Hatfield
Last photo courtesy of Flickr user Jennifer Woodard Maderazo