Talking to Berlin's Hipster Defense Squad
Berlin is often hailed as a mecca for ex-pats and creative types fed up with New York and its stratospheric cost of living. Now, as hordes of graphic designers and writers have begun gentrifying the city, locals have started a concerted attack on...
Photo by Alex Young
Berlin is often hailed as a mecca for ex-pats and creative types fed up with New York and its stratospheric cost of living. Now, as hordes of graphic designers and writers have begun gentrifying the city, locals have started a concerted attack on members of the German capital's young "creative class,” who are being blamed by natives for the rising property prices. Bar owners have started anti-hipster viral campaigns, and some locals have begun openly calling for physical violence to be visited upon the invading hordes.
A group called Hipster Antifa Neukölln have formed to counter this rhetoric, using slogans such as “Tourists, hipsters, everybody is welcome—party like it’s 1945.” Speaking from Berlin, Hipster Antifa’s spokesperson Jannek, explained why his group is doing what they’re doing and why gentrification is a global phenomenon that needs to be seen in a new context.
VICE: When did Hipster Antifa Neukölln start?
Jannek: I guess it began about two years ago when anti-hipster and anti-tourist graffiti started appearing around the city. What was being written just seemed too serious to be a joke, so we decided to make a Facebook page and start a counter-offensive. We had a good idea of who was behind this, and we wanted to criticize them and make people aware of what's going on.
What sort of graffiti?
Stuff like, "Tourists go home!" and "Kill all the hipsters!"... that sort of thing. There was so much of it. A lot of people thought it was just a joke, but then in the summer of 2011, there were a lot of anti-hipster attacks and there were more and more incidents of people getting thrown out of bars for dressing like a hipster. Some bar owners even started putting signs up in their windows saying "No Hipsters, No Tourists", stuff like that. Things started to boil over, to get really nasty. That's when we decided to do something about it. We just thought, 'Berlin should not be this way.' And we wanted to know why people were doing this. My friends all had a background in left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements, and we kind of knew that the people writing this anti-hipster graffiti were also from a leftist background. Their idea about gentrification is that it's the fault of tourists, which is a very simple-minded explanation. So we decided to found a group to defend ourselves.
Is there one group behind these attacks?
No. There are groups and individuals—young people, regular people, even some graffiti artists. Like I said, there are also militant groups from left-wing backgrounds doing things like threatening tourists and attacking bars, supposedly in order to stop gentrification.
Why do they blame hipsters, specifically?
I guess, on a surface level, it's because you can see hipsters and tourists coming to the area and the environment changing. Shops are trying to sell stuff to tourists, and the bars are becoming more expensive. So blaming tourists and hipsters is quite an easy conclusion to come to. But even this mixing up of tourists and hipsters is bullshit. They're not the same, and this is indicative of an absence of objective class analysis in the anti-hipster, anti-tourist viewpoint. For example, it might be true that a lot of young people are coming here from all over the world, but they're not just coming from wealthy countries like the US. At the moment a lot of young people are coming here from Spain because there is such high youth unemployment there. These people don't have too much money; they're coming here because it's cheap. To a certain type of Berliner, who thinks that outsiders are always rich, these people are always the ones to blame.
What is that sort of Berliner like?
Mainly people who settled here in the 1980s and 90s, back when everything was still ruined and cheap and shabby; a lot of them formed the avant-garde. You could make a living back then quite easily. Those people are now much older and many of them have families and businesses and can't accept the fact that things change. They are the intellectuals and left-wing activists that rioted in Kreuzberg in 1987 and 1989 and 1990. But the way their view of gentrification works is not a leftist way. They are bellicose and angry, but they don't seem to recognize the fact that many of them are in positions of power and that they still don't have a very sophisticated view of capitalism.
How has the wider political situation in Berlin and the rest of the country affected the mindset of the city's natives? Refugees are occupying places in the city in protest and some are on hunger strike. How have people reacted to this?
It's hard to explain. The mayor and the government only want educated immigrants. Refugees here have almost no rights. In the 1990s there were a lot of neo-Nazi race riots in east Germany. In response to that, in June 1993, the government changed the laws surrounding the right to asylum. At the time, there were a lot of asylum seekers from the former Eastern bloc; they made it so that if you arrived from another European country adjacent to Germany that was deemed to be secure, you could have your claim to asylum denied. All the countries adjacent to Germany are deemed secure.
Mainstream politics seems very stale in Germany right now. The Christian Democrat Party appears to have an infinite mandate and Die Linke, the country's left-wing party, are shunned by many radicals for their historical association with the Stasi.
Die Linke doesn't have a very good standing in some circles, but they have their voters, particularly in East Berlin. But people who live in central districts like Kreuzberg are becoming more conservative. In the recent elections, Kreuzberg voted for the Green Party. It's like, "We won't vote for Die Linke because they're too leftist. We won't vote for the Social Democrats because they are too boring, and we won't vote for the Christian Democrats because they're too conservative, so we'll vote for the Green Party because they're a little bit left and a little bit conservative as well." These are people with environmental concerns and a good job and a nice house in a nice neighborhood. They're lying to themselves.
How have Angela Merkel's austerity measures affected Berliners?
Not too much, because people in Berlin are used to a cheap life. But it has made some people so poor they have had to give up their flat and seek welfare housing. I work as a social worker in Marzhan-Hellersdorf, a neighborhood filled with people living on welfare. But still Berlin is relatively cheap, which I think is really cool. If you go to Paris and you want cheap accommodation, you have to live in the banlieue and the division between rich and poor is much more pronounced. In Berlin, if you have creative interests and talents you want to explore, you can do it, whereas if you're from Madrid and can't get a job, then it's just not possible. This is another reason why Berliners don't like migrants—they are competition. And that's sad, because a lot of people in Kreuzberg were once migrants, too.
The whole thing seems to contradict one of the founding principles of the EU, with regards to free movement and open borders.
In a way, this is a very German thing. It's also the reason why we started doing what we're doing.
Follow Huw on Twitter: @HuwNesbitt