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‘Pretty’, ‘full of vibe’ and with some ‘Antischick’: the discursive construction of Prenzlauer Berg between gentrification, commodification, and new lifestyles

Uta Papen

(Lancaster University)

Prenzlauer Berg, once hidden in the shadows of the Berlin wall, is nowadays one of the most popular and well known neighbourhoods of Berlin. Located in the central parts of the ‘New Berlin’, since reunification, the area has experienced a steep process of gentrification turning it into what estate agents might call a ‘much sought after location’ offering city living in renovated 19th century buildings and new town houses. In this paper, I examine how writings in and about the neighbourhood portray it in different and at times conflicting ways.

My analysis takes as its point of departure conceptions of urban space as discursively constructed, highlighting the central role of writing and other modes in the (ongoing) process of place-making. My data includes commercial signs, graffiti and protest banners as well as extracts from travel guides, newspaper articles and the advertising brochures of estate agents. I have collected these examples over the course of several years, beginning in autumn 2010 and most recently during a short visit to Prenzlauer Berg in summer 2015.

I analyse these texts to reveal the political and economic tensions surrounding the neighbourhood’s recent history and current development that they index. These tensions are part and parcel of wider debates, in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin and elsewhere, about urban societies and urban spaces in the 21st century, who is and who isn’t invited to be part of them. Slogans such as ‘Yuppies raus’ or ‘Berlins Montmartre’ exemplify the different ideas about the neighbourhood that we can find communicated on its streets, in the media and in tourism literature. On one side are texts that pursue commercial interests, using language (e.g English or Italian) to sell the neighbourhood to investors, tourists and new residents. On the other side are those voices, increasingly fewer though, who contest the effects gentrification has on the neighbourhood, including high rents, a growing presence of tourists and the dominance of life-style oriented businesses.

While this is a case study of one neighbourhood and the way it is discursively created, I see my work as contributing to a wider body of research that explores the role of language in the social production of (urban) spaces. Following others, I seek to understand and make understandable how language is linked to space and, more importantly, to the ‘spatialisation’ of social difference (Jaworski and Thurlow 2010), acting as visible indicator of inequalities and the conflicts these produce.