wild flowers in Plagwitz photo by maeshelle west-davies

Gentrification: the death of Karl Heine?


Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on gentrification in Leipzig’s quarters which we are looking to run. If you have stories you’d like to share, please write us at contact@leipglo.com, subject line gentrification. As a reminder, the views of individual writers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Leipzig Glocal as an entity.

The other Saturday, as the rain lightened, I went to meet fellow Leipzig Glocal contributor Stew Tunnicliff at Tacoholics. From my home on Lauchstädter down Merserburger, I walked past graffiti-shot buildings, my footsteps trundling over the sidewalk’s uneven stones then by the späti and a communal room where people gather but I never know what for.

Rain pattered on the muddied puddles as I ambled by Noch Besser Leben, the ashen scent of smoke wafting out of the brackish and wistful building. Waiting at the light at Karl Heine, a rusted, bright green Trabi drove by while resigned drops flecked the leaves of a nearby oak.

Across the street and inside Tacoholics I found Stew barefoot and soaked in the corner. He informed me of the obvious: He had been caught in the sudden, heavy downpour while riding his bike through Lindenau.

I ordered a beer, some tacos and told Stew it was my first time in the place.

“And judging by the text you sent me,” I said, “it will be the last time after Ian leaves.”

Ian is Ian Cox of the eponymous Leipzig band, Cox and the Riot. He is also the current-but-not-for-long co-owner of the Mexican-style eatery across the street from Noch Besser Leben. The place is rustic without being raw, cozy without being cloying and the food is very, very good and in general a jovial atmosphere pervades. Glancing around, you can make out Mexican wrestling-themed pictures and posters covering the walls. Overall, like most neighborhood pubs, the place lures the locals, along with friends of the owners or those just out on an evening stroll.

And yet Ian and his partner, Lee can’t stay here any longer. The rent is going up making it hard for a small businessman to make a living.

Spinnerei, the hip art gallery complex in Plagwitz that used to be a mill, Spring 2015. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Spinnerei, the hip art gallery complex in Plagwitz that used to be a mill, Spring 2015. Photo by Ana Ribeiro.

Gentrification is creeping in on Karl Heine.

I’ve been out, haplessly roaming Karl Heine. I’ve gone by Ping Ping and the new neon-lit sushi restaurant. I’ve spent many a night at Schaubühne as well as evenings at Kaiserbad. In all honesty, I prefer Karl Heine to Karli but the little street, I’ve discovered, is becoming slowly and sadly like the bigger-brother street.

On Saturday, after the drops lightened and we wiped down a few chairs and tables, Stew, Ian, co-owner Lee, another friend, Ray and myself noticed the Benzes going by. We saw the trophy girlfriends and the tight, white t-shirts of Audi owners who were now parking on the street.

But we also saw the families, the baby carriages and the balloon-carrying boys and girls along with teens and twenty-somethings flying by on their bikes, their spokes sparkling in the sodium-lit dusk, many of their limbs and shoulders covered in tattoos almost resembling the graffiti on buildings opposite.

I predicted to the group that when the graffiti disappears, then you have to worry about what’s going to happen next.

And that ‘next’ is that ugly, almost unavoidable, all-too-post-modern curse word: gentrification. It conjures up all manner of sins associated with so-called ‘progress’. It means that most kinds of families won’t be living here in the next ten years. It means more Audi owners, more trophy girlfriends, more glitz and pettiness. And of course, more hipsters.

Exploring Leipzig. Photo by Julia Arena.
Exploring Leipzig. Photo by Julia Arena.

Gentrification… the word itself elicits a helpless sigh you shake your head at because it is the great shadow that looms over cities, following and swallowing the up-and-coming, literally and figuratively killing it with crassness.

If we look at the history of neighborhoods, it is always the grassroots, the avant garde along with the thinkers and the imaginers who imbue neighborhoods with their quirkiness, their charm (think of Paris, the Left Bank in 1950s, the Village and Soho in 1960s New York). Then suddenly those with bank accounts but no imagination stalk the trends they cannot create or predict and buy and buy, gobble the character all up like some subterranean monster that waits in the damp darkness ready to pounce. They dampen the souls of once-artistic districts and taint the integrity with high rent blandness.

Leipzig charm. Photo by Julia Arena.
This gate made of bike wheel rims was the entrance to the wagon community that used to be next to the canal on Karl Heine. Photo by Julia Arena.

We should be mourning for those lost in this plague. A recent victim: Brooklyn, swamped and stunted by the children of the yuppies who have conspired to steal its soul.

It is not too outlandish to suggest that the rich commonly ruin everything because they are, well, rich. Somehow they are both fortunate to know how to make money and senseless in their actions with it. And rarely does money move in the same circles as imagination or compassion or humane appreciation of what brings a soul to something. They want everything spotless and clean as they cling to their god: revenue.

They don’t understand how the uneven, the delightfully damaged and the wounded are the reason people are drawn to certain works of art. They don’t understand that it is the wounded who are free because they have fallen to the bottom rungs and want to rise again, but with rectitude. The wounded in the Jungian philosophy also know how to own the shadow, to embrace the dark and ragged, the roughened and bleakest elements of daily being.

The vision of those waving the flag of progress and its gentrification mandate is anti-humane. Like big oil and other industry, they are ruining it for the rest of us.

The bottom line typically takes precedence and ignores people. There is no appreciation of the past, no nurturing of roots.

Activist, opinion writer and editor at Harper’s magazine Rebecca Solnit compares gentrification to climate change where “reducing complex environments, uprooting species and cultures, punishing the poor and rewarding the rich” is the norm.

Progress like gentrification is not organic – in fact it is against nature. It also lacks aesthetics and of course, it is coarse because it lacks soul.

But not all soul is pristine.

Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.

– Leonard Koren

So for me, right now, Karl Heine is not only losing its soul but its wabi-sabiand no, it’s not the name of the sushi restaurant. Wabi-sabi, superficially and easily summarized, is the Japanese-described aesthetic of transience and imperfection.

But the term itself is more indefinite and not easily translated due to its history. Centuries and centuries ago wabi once meant ‘living in nature’, ‘being alone’ while sabi is ‘beauty’ or the ‘wise serenity that comes with growing old.’

Over time, after the influence of Buddhism from China, the shift in meaning occurred when the Japanese nobility soon adopted the concept in their journey to satori or enlightenment. Wabi-sabi then became associated with understanding emptiness and accepting imperfection, feeling at peace with flawed beauty.

photo maeshelle west-davies
Wabi-sabi as seen through the lens of photographer maeshelle west-davies.

When you think of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in the film adaptation of Fight Club remarking that ‘even the Mona Lisa is falling apart’, this is wabi-sabi and it goes directly against the ingrained ideals of Western aesthetics. The Greeks and Romans, who influenced the Renaissance and the Baroque and set the precedent for our Western art heritage, inspired the values ineluctably resting with the ideal shapes and forms, the godlike as well as the mathematical and immortal.

However, you won’t find a Myron, a Michelangelo, not even a Rodin in wabi-sabi. While the West longs for perfection and this trend continues down to us in our depictions of the body in advertising, the Japanese have a conception and comprehension which is far more organic if not humane. We have striven to personify the artistic ideals while the East shrug their shoulders at them.

And yet wabi-sabi is a little elusive, not quite defined. (Just watch British broadcaster and author Marcel Theroux attempt to find out about wabi-sabi on the streets of Tokyo.)

Yet part and beautifully parceled with wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery, kintsugi. The term itself illustrates the practice: kin means gold and commonly powdered gold, silver or platinum is mixed with lacquer to fix and repair broken dishes, cups and bowls – tsugi (or jointery).

Image courtesy of Flikr user Gerda
Kintsugi, photo courtesy of Flikr user Gerda.

The tradition is quite old in Japan, dating back to around the 15th century when a Japanese shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke one of his favourite Chinese bowls. Believing the makers of his bowl were the only ones who could rightfully repair it, he sent the bowl back to Mainland China. After receiving the disappointing repair job, a patchwork of staples holding the lovely object shabbily together, Yoshimasa commissioned craftsmen to find a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to the shoddy Chinese work.

Thus, kintsugi was born.

The philosophy behind the craftsmanship glowingly suggests that the broken that is rebuilt becomes more beautiful than the perfect. “Repair requires transformation,” notes The Nerdwriter1, Evan Puschak in his video on Kintsugi.

In contrast, I would argue gentrification requires ruin. To gentrify is to nullify. Seeing the scaffolding on buildings on Karl Heine, I don’t think of kintsugi, I don’t think of repair but of revoking, tearing up, denying roots and culture for the sake of revenue, for the abysmal gain of the bottom line. Imagine erasing a scar on your own body, a scar that told a tale and helped you learn a lesson. The lesson, the wisdom gleaned from it, has died because its emblem has been replaced with the need to hide behind the polished and perfected.

Karl Heine Str., named after the eponymous lawyer and industrial pioneer, has seen many changes. Though I am a relative newcomer to Leipzig, many friends tell me the area was once abandoned after the wall came down. Somewhere, over two decades ago, the odd light shone like a sullen beacon in some squatted building. Rent was literally dirt cheap. It is only in the last decade that tram 14 started up again.

The kind of future I would like to see for the street is one that never abandons its roots and never hides its history. A kind of future where those who manage to start businesses and bring people back to the street can still live here while earning a living and won’t be hampered by out-of-control rent implemented by investors from the West (or what I think of as the present ‘scourge’).

What I like about the Karl Heine is its personality but also the way it personifies Leipzig and the former GDR. You can feel history in its people, and the people of Eastern Germany have experienced something unique. They were humbled but have become more fascinating and less ‘progressive’ than their West German counterparts. They were blessed and wounded in the wake of the Second World War because they were cut off from their neighbors. The West continued on, helped along by American investment while the East had to rebuild and wait.

In general, the entire city of Leipzig exudes that spirit of rebirth and rebuilding. So does Karl Heine.

But then both are also threatened by the g-word. Like the Mongols of old, gentrification haunts the horizon. We can look at Gohlis, we can sense the lamed landscape, the sense of nowhere in the perfected facades and fronts. It is a cityscape of loss, the scars and the broken covered up, without traces to tell us more.

Leipzig is beautiful and Karl Heine and the surrounding area have this wabi-sabi . If only there was a way of protecting it the way people try protecting the rainforest by buying acreage. If only money could be spent to let things be. If only small businesses, the ones that make Karl Heine so comfortably shabby, could just stay. If only they could be supported by the humbled but humane economy.

Finishing my beer at Tacoholics last Saturday watching Ian and Lee tidy up, I know I can only hope.

Tacoholics “mascot.”

Born and raised in the humbled but multi-cultural working class city of St. Catharines, Canada (near Niagara Falls), Christijan Broerse grew up in an environment of languages. In 2012, he traveled throughout Europe and seeing no other place more beautiful than Leipzig, he moved here two years later. Christijan is comfortable in prose and in poetry. He is also known to craft the occasional tune.

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