Prinzessinnengarten: Urban Space, Gentrification, and the Mythology of Alternativism in the New Berlin


Henry Topper

In 2014, I had the tremendous opportunity to spend a summer researching at Prinzessinnengarten, a large urban garden in Berlin. There, amongst the activity and people of the garden, I experienced for myself the excitement and energy surrounding the German capital today– an excitement which seems to be a near-constant conversation topic in popular urban discourse. It is also there that I encountered firsthand an emerging dynamic in Berlin that is inspired by, but ultimately seems to run against, the dominant place-mythology of that city as one that is unremittingly “alternative,” “cool,” “authentic,” and cheap. Looking at the story of Prinzessinnengarten reveals a peculiar and increasingly international element in Berlin’s urban change, as well as that change’s deep embeddedness in Berlin’s history of open space. We are given, ultimately, what is at once both a very familiar and startlingly novel picture of gentrification in a rapidly changing city.

Nach dem Mauerfall

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin found itself in the midst of extraordinary change. The long-standing orientation of the city’s core and periphery was upset, with formerly marginal areas—once abutting inauspiciously against the wall—being thrust overnight into the center of the reunified city.

Footage of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989, the night the wall came down.

Berlin’s radical and swift physical reorientation left the city with a preponderance of open space at the urban core. In addition to the various swaths of land left in ruins and neglected since the Second World War, there was now a chain of undeveloped space in the center of the city that formerly lay around the Berlin Wall or within the “no-man’s land” between it.

Aerial view of the no-man’s land inside the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Potsdamer Platz, one of the central nodes of pre-WWII Berlin, around the time of the Mauerfall (citation)

The abandoned site that today houses Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum

The open space surrounding the Brandenburg Gate in the 1980s. The large green lot at the top of the image is the site of today’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The city was in some ways a blank canvas of possibility. And, indeed, this “New Berlin,” with space ripe for development at its center, was the subject of great speculation from city government and business leaders. With the relocation of the the Federal Republic of Germany’s seat of government from Bonn to Berlin, the city was slated, ostensibly, to become a global capital to compete with the likes of New York and London. Companies would flock there. The population would increase dramatically, with some estimates putting it at 5 million new inhabitants in the next 10 years.

Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (central train station), one of the major post-reunification infrastructure projects (citation)

To this end, the city invested in various large-scale infrastructural projects to meet the presumed flood of investment — train stations, corporate centers, airports.

The most famous of these redevelopment projects was at Potsdamer Platz. Before WWII, Potsdamer Platz was arguably the busiest intersection in Berlin—something of a German equivalent to Times Square. It was the first place in the world to use the modern streetlight for automobiles. It was a sort of beacon of industrial modernity that defined the growing metropolis. Badly destroyed in the war, it sat desolate until after reunification, when a large design competition was held for its reconstruction design.

Sony Corporation sponsored what is perhaps the most iconic construction of the new Potsdamer Platz, the large, tent-like Sony Center, which it agreed to make its new European headquarters. Daimler-Benz, of Mercedes fame, was another large investor in the project.

By the late 1990s, however, it was obvious that the astronomical projections for Berlin’s success would not be met, the ambition markedly contrasting with the city’s economic reality. As Matthias Bernt and Andrej Holm remark in their Berlin Reader, “In the second half of the 1990s, Berlin experienced a rather problematic phase of ‘inbetweenness.’ As the decade passed, it became more and more clear that…the high-flying visions of the ruling elites…[were not] about to become reality.”

In the second half of the 1990s, Berlin experienced a rather problematic phase of ‘inbetweenness.’ As the decade passed, it became more and more clear that…the high-flying visions of the ruling elites…[were not] about to become reality.”

Privatization and the collapse of state owned corporations in the formerly communist East, and the disappearance of highly subsidized industries in the capitalist West resulted in the loss of thousands of industrial jobs in the city. Between 1991 and 2001 alone, the city lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs, and the service sector jobs were not flooding in to fill the void.

This failure was further exacerbated by a mounting fiscal crisis in the 2000s: a banking scandal impelled Berlin to pay 30 billion Euros in bailouts; the large redevelopment projects of the post-reunification years drowned the city in debt. The Federal Government turned down requests for further aid, forcing the city to implement austerity measures. The Berlin Senate privatized city services, deeply cut welfare and public sector budgets, and, in 2003, eliminated all housing subsidies in the city.

Berlin did not become New York or London, and its abundant space was not redeveloped to become the great corporate centers of Europe. Rather, it began to be used for other purposes altogether.

Poor but Sexy

Out of Berlin’s crisis in the 2000s, an international image of Berlin as “poor but sexy” (“arm, aber sexy”) emerged. Coined in a speech by Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit in 2004, this saying became a semi-official slogan for the city, reproduced in the following years in a barrage of articles about Berlin in English language media. Berlin is described as a sort of cheap, “cool,” gritty haven.

These articles, which Holm remarks are, “endlessly repeated,” and “becoming difficult to keep up-to-date with” are the sign of a massively successful rebranding of the city. This rebranding, spearheaded by the “poor but sexy” idea, produced a veritable place mythology about the city that is coming to define its contemporary position.

At the center of this discourse of “creativity” and “coolness” are Berlin’s open spaces. Michael Kimmelman explains this aptly in a recent New York Times article, saying, “The emptiness attracted a new generation. It provided space to dream up clubs in bunkers, galleries in old department stores. Berlin was unfinished, like this generation, which pioneered ad hoc, improvisatory, piecemeal development.”

“The emptiness attracted a new generation. It provided space to dream up clubs in bunkers, galleries in old department stores. Berlin was unfinished, like this generation, which pioneered ad hoc, improvisatory, piecemeal development.”

In the proposed (and mostly unrealized) spaces of post-reunification development, Berlin had the unique opportunity to build alternative, community-oriented spaces from the bottom up. Or, as Jens Lachmund describes them in his Greening Berlin: “anarchic counter spaces of regulated urban life.”


One of the most famous and representative of these “anarchic counter spaces” is Prinzessinnengarten, a reclaimed lot turned community garden in Kreuzberg (one Berlin’s increasingly popular Bezirke, or boroughs, traditionally home to Turkish immigrants).

Founded in 2009, the garden describes itself as,

a new urban place of learning. It is where locals can come together to experiment and discover more about organic food production, biodiversity and climate protection. The space will help them adapt to climate change and learn about healthy eating, sustainable living and a future-oriented urban lifestyle. With this project Nomadisch Grün intends to increase biological, social and cultural diversity in the neighbourhood and pioneer a new way of living together in the city

The garden is located at Moritzplatz, a deceptively nondescript traffic circle in the center of the Kreuzberg neighborhood with a loaded history that, in many ways, mirrors that of the larger city.

As the city of Berlin rapidly industrialized during Germany’s Gründerzeit (or “founders-time,” in reference to the creation of the German nation-state 1871), there became a need for more development to accommodate the working class population of Berlin. Many of the buildings in Kreuzberg are tenements built in this area.

Moritzplatz in its Wilhelmian glory, late 1800s

The Moritzplatz itself was the terminus of Oranienstraße, Kreuzberg’s largest commercial thoroughfare, and as such figured prominently in life in the neighborhood.

By 1920, when the Greater Berlin Act was signed, consolidating the districts that comprise modern Berlin and increasing the city’s population by several million. Moritzplatz became a popular urban node in the city. With the construction of the Berlin U-Bahn (“underground train”), the circle became a transit hub. Multiple tram lines intersected there.

Wertheim’s Department Store on Mortizplatz, c. 1914

It is around this time that Wertheim’s department store opened on the lot that would one day become home to the Prinzessinnengarten.

It would, of course, take a war and decades of division before that would happen. Moritzplatz, like much of Berlin, was badly destroyed during the war.

The ruined and decaying Wertheim’s in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Source: Der Tagesspiegel.

The area remained in ruins in the aftermath of the war, and the bombed out shell of Wertheim’s was eventually razed.

GDR border crossing at Moritzplatz, c. 1980s

When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, one of the border crossings between east and west was located just off the north of Moritzplatz, and it became the final stop on the West Berlin U8 subway line, marginalizing the area even further. Moritzplatz was one of the locales inauspiciously abutting the wall.

The plots of land around the circle sat mostly vacant throughout the years, home sometimes to autosalvage yards or used car dealerships.

View from across the former location of Wertheim’s and the future Prinzessinnengarten, GDR border station visible in top left, 1980s. Source: Der Tagesspiegel.
View of Moritzplatz facing the current home of Prinzessinnengarten, 1980s. Source: Der Tagesspiegel.

As Marco Clausen, one of the co-founders of Prinzessinnengarten explains: “The area, which had previously been in the center of the city, became a peripheral point of West Berlin.” He continues– noting a particularly Robert Moses-esque gesture– that, “a city highway was in planning, and the site where the garden now stands was intended as a feeder lane to a freeway junction…Moritzplatz was described in the press as an example of the Berlin that no one wanted: bombed out, demolished, listlessly rebuilt, ugly. A political move towards “careful urban development” in the 1980s eschewed such aggressive development and left the space largely as it was.

The empty lot at Moritzplatz prior to being taken over by Prinzessinnengarten, 2000s

After the fall of the wall in 1989, Moritzplatz– and the former Wertheim’s location in particular– was one of the many forlorn open spaces near the wall that were ripe with possibility.

However, like much of the other spaces in the city, it did not experience the development that was hoped for in the 1990s. In the 2000s, it still sat abandoned.

Clausen and his partner, Robert Shaw, who sought to establish a place for sustainable urban agriculture in Berlin, saw the potential at Moritzplatz. The space is owned by an agency of the City of Berlin that is tasked with privatizing city-owned land by auctioning it off to the highest bidder. There were no sufficient bids on the land, and in 2009 the two were awarded a lease for the lot at a price of €2,300 per month. The lease could, however, be terminated by the city at the end of each year, if it found it necessary.

Clausen and Shaw worked to clear the lot of decades’-worth of grime and began to piece together a garden.

The information container, where one can get informatino on gardening or purchase seeds and plants. Credit: Henry Topper.

Today, the lot off of Moritzplatz is a far cry from its days of dilapidation. Walking into its gates from the once-shabby traffic circle, one experiences a profoundly green and peaceful place with a nonetheless urban level of interaction within.

View towards the forested interior section of the garden, kitchen in background. Credit: Henry Topper.
The garden’s cafe. Credit: Henry Topper.

A sort of cross between a mini-forest and an agora, the garden brims with energy and a DIY-ish activity.

A rainy day. Credit: Henry Topper.

There is a public library, a bike self-repair area, a woodworking shop from which some people have fashioned tables and chairs for the garden, and a cafe which makes dishes from food grown in the garden and other nearby locales– all housed within reclaimed cargo crates. Bee-keeping is conducted on the premises. There is a stage, open for programming planned by the community, that is used for concerts and other events in the garden. In summer 2014, for instance, a screen was temporarily erected there to view World Cup games.

And of course, the garden: housed in movable milk crates so that the crops can easily be moved to other locations during winter or in case the garden’s lease with the city is lost, the entire gamut of vegetables grows interspersed throughout the lot.

Credit: Henry Topper.

There is an improvised feeling about the space– a certain lack of defined and delineated spatial order on the premises– that suggests an open and democratic nature. It is a decidedly mixed-use space in which various people can be found working in the garden, relaxing, reading, playing, writing, and so on.

Volunteers and interns meeting informally and preparing for an event. Credit: Henry Topper.
World Cup screening, summer 2014. Credit: Henry Topper.

These characteristics are reflected in the administration of the garden. The gardeners– mostly volunteers and interns– democratically make administrative decisions about the garden in bi-weekly meetings, which are always open to public participation. During these meetings, one can come to learn about the gardening tasks that must be completed in the following week, suggest an event that one would like to host, or simply listen in as a spectator.

The garden’s public library. Credit: Henry Topper.
A typical afternoon/early evening in the summer; various social activities can be observed around the garden’s lot. Credit: Henry Topper.

However, extended observation of the activity in and function of the garden revealed some peculiar aspects of these community-oriented appearances.

Despite a small number of consistent characters and volunteers at the garden, the population there as a whole seemed much more transient. Sitting amongst the garden cafe’s tables, one can hear various languages being spoken– English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian– by people with cameras who are seen once but not again. The same goes for the garden meetings. Even the official group of volunteers at the garden (myself included) typically comprises an ever-rotating cast of young internationals who are in the city for a brief stay.

In the middle of a free cooking workshop activity, “Schnitteldisko” (“cutting disco”) a musical chairs variation in which participants competed to chop all of their vegetables before the techno music stopped. Credit: Henry Topper.

The observation of the people who are now visiting and using the garden challenges the notion of the place as being one where “locals can come together,” reflecting rather a growing international interest in the city that Prinzessinnengarten and other spaces of alternative development– the “clubs in bunkers and galleries in old department stores”– are at the center of, and also threatened by.

Prinzessinnengarten and places like it are nodes of activity that offer an alternative to traditional urban development– indeed, the plot of land at Moritzplatz could have been a luxury condo or a bank. In this regard, though, it is also impossible to remove them from the larger rebranding of the city that began with the notion of “poor but sexy.” These alternative urban spaces, in other words, do not exist in a political vacuum; they are the unintentional loci of the growing mythology of Berlin as a place that is a haven from the ostensibly overbearing and stressful capitalist model of cities like London and New York—a place of cheap rents, artists and “creative” types, of the European epicenter of cool, of a place of bacchanalian levels of debauchery, a place of shabby-chic grittiness, and so on. In spaces like Prinzessinengarten, we encounter the Berlin of contemporary lore– decidedly anti-capitalist, progressive, pushing against the neo-liberal model of urban development.

But the myth increasingly clashes with the reality. These spaces were born out of the failure of Berlin to become a destination for international investment but, ironically, are now turning out to be the things that make Berlin attractive for such investment as their “cultural capital” is used to market the city in a new way.

In the years since its fiscal crisis and the “poor but sexy” slogan, wealthier, international people have begun to flock to Berlin. The city is now the third most visited destination in Europe (behind London and Paris) and attracts a growing group of expatriates, as well as tourists of both short-term and longer-term stays. After years of negative migration of non-German immigrants to the city, Berlin now receives (after 2011) an influx of approximately 25,000 foreign residents per year. The overwhelming majority of these new residents come from North America and other EU countries, settling in Kreuzberg and its neighbor, Neukölln. These striking demographic shifts have caused prices in historically low-income areas to shift. Andrej Holm lays out the coincident changes in these locales quite clearly: “Rents increased 23–30 percent between 1999 and 2008. The average rent payment in these areas comprises 30 percent of disposable income…The proportion of households with higher incomes has increased simultaneously. Alone in the years between 2005 and 2008, the fraction of households with an income more than double the area average rose from 5 percent to 20 percent.” For Prinzessinnengarten, the effects were felt in a near-loss of its lease in Spring 2014. The deal ultimately fell through for the city, but the possibility looms larger and larger at the end of every lease-period.

In some ways, this is essentially the stock story of gentrification– a poor and ostensibly “undesirable” area gets “pioneered” or “discovered” by those who see potential in it, improvements are made and amenities are brought in, thereby attracting wealthier residents and, ultimately, big investment money at the expense of the original community. However, Berlin’s situation is unique insofar as it reflects a decisively international movement to the city whose experiences are, as Holm further elaborates, “increasingly delinked from local experiences.”

This “delinking” between the experiences of local residents and the motives of the international “creative class” for flocking to Berlin hinges on the myth of the city as one that is cheap and “creative” as this becomes less and less of a reality.

This myth has to be demysticized and the actual processes of urban change in Berlin recognized if the city is to protect its long standing communities and the “anarchic counter-spaces of regulated urban life” that made it so unique.