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On Gentrifying Neighbourhoods in Berlin and Cape Town

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Gentrification. A seemingly uneasy word in the attempt to regenerate and build cities. It is a process commonly associated with the ‘transformation of a dilapidated neighbourhood into a trendy, middle-class and upgraded district which results in inevitably driving out poorer residents who are unable to afford or keep up with the standard of living’.

I have always felt that the topic is a rather mooted one, when urbanists are talking about urban renewal, with only a handful investigating this already salient phenomenon in parts of Woodstock, the Bo-Kaap and The Fringe.

Gentrification is seen but seldom heard on the streets of Cape Town with people witnessing change in their neighbourhood but are unsure what to make of it. So when I heard about the Berlin and Cape Town Gentrification Project Exhibition at The Bank, I could not resist going to see what the fuss was about.

The project started in October 2012 where eleven undergraduate students from the Köln International School of Design (KISD) embarked on an exploratory investigation into gentrification into the rapidly transforming Neukölln, a once-derelict suburb in the city of Berlin.

It is Tuesday afternoon and I am the first to arrive at The Bank. The item that catches my eye is a vivid display of multiple bigger-than-usual postcard-like cards dangling from the ceiling. Upon closer inspection, each card neatly inscribes the views of Neukölln residents. Every single viewpoint reflecting the unique circumstance and lived experiences of its residents and it is almost as though one gets the feel of having been in Neukölln even if that may not necessarily be the case.

Towards my right side, there is a poster containing colour-coded speech bubbles reflecting the opinions of the population living in the north and southern parts of the Neukölln area. A video documentary was also on display whereby in-depth conversations with Neukölln residents were documented and it also included a brief visual tour of the area in question. Initially, I thought it to be a tad disconcerting to be the only visitor but thankfully the room was greeted by a flood of visitors as soon as I sat down to watch the video. In addition, an interactive prototype tablet showing a comparative map of how Neukölln has spatially transformed between 2008 and 2012.

The research group collected their data by cognitively mapping the neighbourhood and drawing on the subjective, everyday experiences of residents on what it is like living in Neukölln. The research outcome in the exhibition demonstrates the complex views of Neukölln residents’ response to gentrification. I gathered from the overall responses that the residents were neither overwhelmingly ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ change in the area although the most notable quibble they had, was the rising rent prices and affordability issues.

My conversation with some of the students extended to observances on similar gentrified neighbourhoods in major cities such as Harlem in New York City, Columbia Heights in Washington D.C, parts of Shoreditch and Hackney in London, and the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. We spent on what seemed an endless time chatting, and coming to a consensus that gentrification is a frequent occurrence manifesting predominantly in the bigger cities worldwide.

The exhibition further explores various forms of urban design initiatives created by neighbourhood residents as a means to counter the implication of displacement. These initiatives are driven by the Cooperative Idea based in Germany. It basically comprises a collective and self-managed conglomerate of individuals who mobilize funding for housing cooperatives for those in need of housing. Since these apartments are already pre-funded, the occupants need not pay a cent and the collective determine the ‘house rules’ of occupancy, leasing, etc.

New forms of housing are however emerging such as the LoHaS establishment that shies away from the traditional model of cooperative housing to accommodate a more appealing type of accommodation for the younger generation – typically ‘green’ carbon emission free apartments and industrially converted urban lofts and studios not far from organic health shops and yoga studios.

The KISD Research Group argue that while housing cooperatives and similar initiatives based thereon may not be a soluble solution strategy in resisting gentrification, it remains nevertheless a cushion with plenty potential for those affected by displacement as a result of the high rental costs.

I left the exhibition with having to pause for a brief moment picking my urban brainbox looking around The Fringe district with so many questions. What could have happened to the former occupants in the area? Have there been recent proactive strategies in place as mean of resisting or redressing gentrification measures? How do urban citizens who utilize The Fringe perceive the current status of the area? I don’t know but I think it would be a worthy introspective empirical gaze into understanding gentrification in particular.

The students are currently in the process of extending their study on recently gentrified areas of Cape Town particularly the suburb of Woodstock and The Fringe Central Business District. “We are looking to have the results out by the end of the week” says KISD student, Coralie Schneeweis. The project has been possible due collaborative efforts between KISD, the Design Research Lab in Berlin, Formula D Interactive and the Cape Town Peninsula of Technology (CPUT).

Gentrification to my mind, may be the first exhibition of its kind in addressing gentrification as a neglected aspect of urban renewal in Cape Town itself. The exhibition is not only about showcasing insight into the challenges and complexities highlighted, but also demonstrate the means by which residents are able to deal with and react to change in their neighbourhood.

With Cape Town and Berlin being both cities who in similar respects share painful social histories of spatial exclusion, this comparative perspective is likely a necessary means to mobilize citizens of Cape Town to start thinking, learn, engage and foster debate about urban renewal. All too often it seems the discourse of urban renewal is ideally portrayed through ‘rose-tinted glasses’ – in other words, it is less synonymous with the process of gentrification in this city.

This exhibition can be seen as one way of bridging the gap between urban renewal and gentrification and that change may not always be congruent with communities initially planned for. Instead of challenging the seemingly inevitable process of gentrification in the wake of urban renewal initiatives, affected urban communities need to mobilize and adopt alternative models much like the Cooperative Idea in Germany.

One way or another, it is crucial that we react proactively to urban change.

The exhibition will continue to run daily from 10am to 6pm and will be at The Bank, 73 Harrington Street until Saturday 23 February.

 

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Michellene Williams

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