The sky is full of cranes again.
When I arrived here seven years ago, I looked around at the low-slung skyline and wondered where all the cranes had gone. Back then construction cranes were an icon of post-reunification Berlin. Shops sold postcards of the sky cross-hatched with cranes, of the Siegesäule ringed by them. I was told that this was a lingering image from the 90s building boom; Berlin had long since run out of money and stopped building anything.
Berlin was broke. In those days the tales of dirt-cheap living (You will pay €100 a month to live in a four-room apartment with high ceilings and parquet floors overlooking Kollwitzplatz) that coursed among aspiring expats still had at least some kernel of truth. The people I knew in Berlin used to move all the time. They would give up beautiful, spacious apartments for no reason other than that some other district had become cooler than the one where they were currently living, and they could rest assured that the cooler new neighborhood would have no shortage of apartments just as cheap and beautiful as the one they were giving up. People don’t do that anymore. They stay put and say hand-wringing things like “Sure, this apartment is less than ideal, but we’re just lucky to have anything affordable in this area, and I’m actually worried cause one of the neighbors said the landlord might be raising the rent again soon.”* Or they move to Leipzig. The cheap rents of Berlin have become such an utter myth that when newly arrived expats mention them the song “There Are No Cats in America” from An American Tail pops into my head (my son is really into that movie so I’m, uh, exposed to that song more than I might like to be).
This week the two city magazines, Tip and Zitty, both have cover articles on rising rents. The Tip article is full of the now-familiar anxious stories: the single mother in Kreuzberg losing the apartment she’s been living in for 26 years when an investor swoops in and claims Eigenbedarf, the family with an affordable place in Mitte fretting about what will become of them when their Staffelmietvertrag runs out next year. The Zitty article scrapes up a few last corners of deepest Wedding and Neukölln where students might still find the odd affordable Neubau.
And now the cranes are back. At midday I see ever more of them from the roof of the building where I work in Mitte, pivoting their yellow arms. In the evening, when they are at rest and I cycle past at close range, they remind me of the Bakersfield oil pumps I saw out the window as a child on long car rides through California.
If the cranes of the nineties were forging a new city, cobbling two pieces back together into one, the new cranes seem far less grand and sweeping in their purpose. Sure, some of the cranes near my office are building the new Stadtschloss, but the others are building luxury Eigentumswohnungen with a pool on the roof (seriously, a pool on the roof? I wonder when I see the billboard on the construction site. In this climate? It will be warm enough to swim in that pool about never days a year). The cranes mostly just mean more gentrification, and I doubt anyone will feel inspired to make postcards of them this time.
*Examples of people who have said exactly this include me.