Red Light Gentrification
St Pauli was the first place we saw in Hamburg. On the surface, it looks like a scruffy red-light district of rowdy bars and girls in the windows. Delve a little deeper, and you’ll find a historical and cultural diversity unlike elsewhere in the city. Every door, every window hides a story. One minute, you’ll be stepping onto a stolperstein, a stumbling stone to commemorate the victims of concentration camps. One of them is dedicated to Woo Lie Kien, a Chinese camp victim. Around the corner you’ll find the first tattoo parlour in Germany, and some of the longest-running pubs.
The life and times of St Pauli and of Hamburg’s harbour are closely related. The district was a sailor hangout, the place to find beer and a hot bed during leave in the city. It was a music hotspot; swing was first heard in St Pauli, the Beatles lived and worked in the area for two years, in the Sixties it was door to door with rock clubs. Then came container ships and the harbour workforce decreased dramatically. St Pauli fell in the hands of gangs and junkies, before rising to fame again thanks to the techno scene in the Eighties.
Now, St Pauli is between two worlds. Living there is still affordable, due to the rough and ready edge of the area. Every doorway seems to hide a homeless person, groups of punks have built makeshift shelters with plastic sheets and shopping trolleys. Low rents have brought an influx of penniless creatives; the first, in the eighties, were techno musicians.
Yet, the same people who sought to revive the area were the ones that gave St Pauli the push towards the slippery slope of gentrification. Those very same techno clubs with sticky floors became cultural hotspots, and property developers started seeing the place as for its prime real estate potential. St Pauli may still be years away from the organic delis and fancy food trucks of Hackney and Harlem; still, slowly but surely, the big dollars are coming. Luxury condos are being built around every other corner, a skyscraper was recently completed on the Reeperbahn, St Pauli’s main street. Rents are soaring, doubling or even trebling within one year. Long-time St Pauli residents are being kicked out of their homes.
The tragic destiny of the Esso petrol station on the Reeperbahn is an example. It was a lot more than just a petrol station. It was a meeting point, one of the centres of the district’s nightlife, portrayed by artists and featured in documentaries. Behind it, there’s a crumbling council estate. Residents claim that the buildings had purposely been left to decay so that it could be demolished and replaced by top dollar property. A real estate developer became the owner of the land in 2009, and in February 2014 the station was closed and the buildings evacuated. Demolition is underway and soon yet another luxury condo will rise. More than a quarter of residents had to be placed in temporary accommodation after being evacuated; they are unlikely to be able to afford another house in St Pauli.
What will be of St Pauli in twenty years? Corporations already own most clubs. Mercedes and BMWs drive down to the underground car parks of gated communities. Long time residents have had to pack up and go, leaving their homes of twenty or more years, after the stroke of an estate agent’s pen meant they couldn’t afford rent anymore. Supply and demand, or so they say.
A cement mixer whirrs as we walk away from St Pauli, down towards the harbour. My eyes catches a graffiti. Kapitalismus ist scheisse, it reads. Capitalism is shit.