Global cities have welcomed Google with open arms but in the bohemian Berlin district of Kreuzberg, the tech giant has found itself on the frontlines of gentrification trench warfare.
Its new Berlin hub in the making — 3 000m2 of offices, a café and a coworking space in a once-derelict industrial building — could be the latest outpost of startup culture in Europe.
But a campaign dubbed “Fuck Off Google” has begun organising demonstrations at the site of the “campus”, due to open later this year.
The blunt slogan has been daubed atop the layers of posters and graffiti that cover public wall space in artsy, multicultural and left-leaning Kreuzberg and adorns the bridges along its tree-shaded canal.
“It’s extremely violent and arrogant of this mega-corporation, whose business model is based on mass surveillance … to set up shop here,” fumed a hacker and protest leader known as Larry Pageblank.
Berlin is no stranger to tech culture. The city’s “Silicon Allee” (Silicon Avenue) companies now make it one of Europe’s top destinations for investment in startups, pipping London and Paris to the post last year with €3.1-billion in capital raised.
Google already operates a coworking space in the affluent hipster neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg.
One of Berlin’s biggest successes, online fashion retailer Zalando, last year reported revenues of €4.5-billion. Such spots of light are vital in a city-state that lags behind wealthier regions in Germany’s west and south. Berlin is still recovering from the post-war decades spent as a back-water sliced in half and stranded inside communist East Germany, which cost it most of its industrial base.
A study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research last year found German gross domestic product would be 0.2% higher if Berlin simply vanished overnight — one possible reason why mayor Michael Mueller is in favour of the Google development.
A study by consultants Knight Fox found property prices had increased faster in Berlin than anywhere else in the world between 2016 and 2017, shooting up 20.5% overall and up to 71% in Kreuzberg.
Trendy cocktail bars and freshly renovated 19th-century apartment buildings rub up against communist-era social housing blocks. Its contrasts have spawned anti-gentrification movements schooled in rearguard actions against the transformation of their neighbourhoods.
But Google bosses refuse to be the scapegoats for what they see as an unstoppable citywide phenomenon.
“Stopping gentrification is not our task … but we can offer something that is good for the people, with workshops and events which are open to anyone and for free,” Google Germany spokesperson Ralf Bremer said.
Pageblank had a different take: “Nothing is free with Google; you’ll end up paying for your coffee with personal data.” — AFP