Bursting the expat bubble in Berlin

Watergate club in Kreuzberg

Have you ever been part of an expat community? I’m talking about those highly mobile groups who leave the comfort of their homeland for the latest fashionable place. They are very different from refugees or immigrants who are forced to leave for political reasons, even though expats love to play with notions of exile. A very luxurious exile indeed. Berlin seems to be the latest cry for expats and has been so for a while. For the untrained eye, the clubs and bars in the districts of Kreuzberg or Neukölln are full of tourists. But the people around you who speak English, Spanish, Swedish or French live in Berlin. At least for a limited period of time or repeatedly – again and again.

Yet residents often blame the tourists – or what they perceive as tourists – for everything in those neighbourhoods: noise, dirty streets, high rents, gentrification – practically all evils of humankind. Last year, some colleagues and I undertook the task of researching this phenomenon in the “Wrangelkiez” in Kreuzberg. The idea was to look at the phenomenon of tourism and come up with ideas of how it can be managed in such a way, as to leave potential benefits to the community. Imagine our surprise when we found out that we could not even define The tourist. Between the locally rooted Proto-Berliner and the one-off package tourist there seems to be a continuum of all possible blends. Almost impossible to produce statistically valid data if you cannot define your categories. But our client wanted numbers (by the way clients almost always do), so we created a non-category: “visitor in residence”. Not visitors and not residents, but something in between. We could have called them “expats”, but we liked the oxymoron. And this is what our (small and incomplete) statistical table looks like:

From left to right: Daily tourist, Overnight tourist, visitor in residence, Permanent resident

So what is the problem with those expats? None really, only that they often seem to live in their own bubble. They go to expat clubs, expat parties, have expat friends and meet expat partners. Berlin is the context and the commodity – not the community.  “It is like an expat bubble”, says Annamaria Olsson from Sweden. “ There is a laziness about it. People don’t always speak German, which makes contacts with Germans rare and sometimes even scary for people.  They don’t really know what is happening in the city outside their expat circle and they don’t care much, many don’t have the tools or insights to know how to care.” Annamaria, a journalist who’s been in Berlin for 4 years now, and her partner, decided that something needed to be done about it. And they came up with an idea: the “expat integration project”. If “integration” is so fashionable then expats should show how it goes: give something back to the community that gives them so much.

“You enjoy the cheap rents, the multiculti neighbourhoods and the dynamic art scene. You love the Sundays at galleries/cafés/Panorama Bar/Mauerpark, the cheap snacks and the fancy new pop up-restaurants. You buy drugs from your local drug dealer, laugh at funny dogs and crazy characters, drink beer by the canal and meet interesting new people from all over the world.”

But there is a flip side to this:

“There is however one problem with this freedom; it doesn’t really apply to all Berliners. In neighborhoods like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, that you find sooo relaxed, cool and cheap, children get a lot worse education than in the ”boring gentrified neighbourhoods” where you would never want to live and where they could never afford an apartment. Many can’t afford school trips, piano lessons or art school. And no, neither do they have the contacts who could inspire them considering ‘Iphone app developer’ a future career or who could introduce them to Foucault’s theses.”

Club der Visionäre

So, Annamaria’s idea is very simple. If the community gives you something, then leave your bubble and give it something back. “Creatives are used to exchanging services”, says Annamaria. “ I’ll design your new site if you’ll be a dj for my party. But usually they just do it for each other and stay in their milieu. It’s time to change this. We can not just ‘consume’ the city”.

“Today on the 7th of May 2012 we are launching the ‘The expat integration project’. The idea is simple: every expat who’s enjoying all the good sides of Berlin pays back to the community by doing some hours of voluntary work…”

Instead of blaming the expats then, this projects gives them the opportunity to do more than just give back: it allows them to become part of the community and the city they enjoy.

Links: Berlin Expat Integration Project

Potenzialstudie Tourismus Wrangelkiez (in German)

About Ares

Ares Kalandides holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the National Technical University of Athens. He is the founder and CEO of Inpolis, an international consultancy based in Berlin, Germany and has implement several projects around the world. Ares teaches Urban Economics at the Technical University in Berlin and Metropolitan Studies at NYU Berlin.
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2 Responses to Bursting the expat bubble in Berlin

  1. Martin Boisen says:

    Interesting stuff Ares. I’d like to start a co-joined research to look at a number of cities that experience similar problems, though for completely different reasons. I have a list of cities ready. Just really need the time – and the funding. Maybe we can work something out with a European research project?

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