In the streets next to Görlitzer Park – an oblong patch popular with skaters, dog walkers and the odd drug dealer in the east of Kreuzberg in Berlin – you soon spot signs of contention about the newcomer to the neighbourhood. One is scrawled across a wall: “XXXX off Google.” Plans for the search engine giant’s new campus have inspired the community to respond creatively to what they see as an existential threat. The local anarchist bookshop, Kalabal!k, holds “Anti-Google Café” sessions twice a month, and since last year one of the burgeoning activist groups has been distributing a newspaper entitled Shitstorm: Against Google, Displacement and Tech Dominance. The Google campus’s future location is a large former electrical substation or Umspannwerk, which is currently hired out as an event space. Although the opening date was initially announced as September 2017, it has since been pushed back to autumn this year. It will be the company’s seventh campus worldwide.
Google’s sites in London, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Seoul, São Paulo and Warsaw (in a converted former vodka distillery) are hubs for entrepreneurs, providing workspace for start-up founders as well as networking and educational events. A new Berlin campus could be seen as fairly innocuous – there are plenty of media and tech companies using the Umspannwerk, and Google already has an office in the neighbouring district of Mitte. But Google’s plans have been met with lively activism. The company has stumbled upon existing tensions over the displacement of local businesses, artists and long-term residents by rising rents and gentrification, while its high-profile brand is seen as a symbol of the economic and possibly cultural change still to come. “I think Google was surprised that they came up against opposition,” says Stefan Klein, a local activist with the GloReiche neighbourhood group at one of their twice-weekly open sessions. After work in the evening, he and his colleagues offer advice to residents with concerns about housing in their area. As he speaks, a man walks in with a letter from his landlord that he would like them to help explain – concerns about being evicted, or squeezed out, are common. They are a stone’s throw from the campus site on nearby Ohlauer Straße. “Everywhere else they’ve opened a campus they’ve been met with applause,” says Klein. “Perhaps gentrification has already happened, like in London, or the city is crying out for it, like in Warsaw, Poland, but here in Kreuzberg people are not so immediately convinced.”
A Google spokesman in Berlin says that the company has spoken to residents about their concerns and is incorporating their feedback into its plans. “We live in Berlin ourselves, we understand the concerns of neighbours about gentrification and know how Kreuzberg has been developing in recent years.” Berlin’s maturing tech scene makes the city an obvious choice for Google. It already has a partnership with the co-working space Factory, which is opening a new site nearby, Factory Görlitzer Park, at which it expects to host 10,000 members. Startup founders are attracted to the city’s vibrancy, creativity and international mix. But the boom in new companies and immigration has correlated with rent increases of almost 70% between 2004 and 2016, according to a report last year, with the trendy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough among those seeing the steepest rises. In a city where 85% of residents are renters, the issue is at the forefront of local – and national – politics. A demonstration this April against “rent madness” in the capital attracted thousands of protestors (13,000 according to police, but 25,000 according to Klein). “Activists and organised tenants’ groups had been working on the issues of gentrification, displacement and privatisation of public space for a while, so when Google decided to move into the area, we were already organised,” says Konstantin Sergiou, a member of Bizim Kiez, another neighbourhood campaign group. “The Google campus was one of those things that came to the forefront – it hinted towards the development of urban change that has proven to be so problematic elsewhere, such as in San Francisco.”
He says that local politicians have been keen to promote the “digitalisation” of Berlin, but that his and other groups worry about the possibly speculative nature of the start-up business model. The short lifespan of some start-ups benefits landlords because they know in three years or so they can put the rent up, Sergiou says. His and Klein’s campaign groups, Bizim Kiez and GloReiche, have joined with another, Lause Bleibt, to present a brochure on the issues at an event on 9 May. Along with rising rents, activists are concerned about the exploitation of local creative scenes. “They have strategically chosen Kreuzberg to benefit from its loose network of creative people, and the spirit here of being a bit outside the rules, a little crazy, open-minded,” Sergiou says. He cites the recent offer from Sidewalk Labs – a company owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company – to redevelop Toronto’s waterfront as a reason to be concerned about the company’s interests in potentially extracting data from cities.
These converging critiques of the behaviour of big tech companies along with gentrification have attracted international attention. A digital rights campaigner from France who now lives in Berlin has joined the campaign and set up the English-language website XXXX Off Google, aiming to communicate these wider criticisms. He speaks to the press using the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym of Larry Pageblank – a nod to Alphabet’s CEO – and points out Google’s history of tax evasion and mass surveillance as examples of actions that make it incompatible with the progressive values of the local area. “They probably thought they could set up here and that people would be liberated, because everybody loves Google, right? But it is turning into a moment when things won’t be easy for them as they usually are,” says Pageblank. He adds he would prefer to see the city become a “capital for different pioneering technology – tech that is decentralised and enables people’s freedom instead of restricting it.”
Ramona Pop, a local politician for Germany’s green party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, and Berlin’s senator for economy, energy and enterprises, perhaps did not have this in mind when she expressed support for Google’s campus. In an email statement to Guardian Cities, she said the campus was “a welcome initiative that suits the city’s thriving start-up scene”. In response to the opposition, she said the campus and its events “should also be adapted to the needs of the neighbourhood”, adding that “Google will have to be measured by the promise that its corporate interests will not be in the foreground.” Acting somewhat as a mediator and a problem solver in these debates is another local Bündnis 90/Die Grünen politician, Florian Schmidt. He is well trained for the role, with a background in housing and city activism and a master’s in sociology. “I don’t want the response to this to be ‘fighting the startup community’,” he says. “However, I don’t want the market to rule and for the growth to mean the neighbourhood changes drastically.” Schmidt points out that the Google campus will only have 6-10 employees: “It’s not that big, but as a global brand it might bring higher commercial actors.” He is keen to find a solution and alludes to his main project in his day job at the department for urban development, parks and facilities. It is currently using Berlin’s “right of first purchase” laws to buy up properties coming to the end of their social lease to keep them affordable. “I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the coolest, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says. Meanwhile, his Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg constituents are planning their next steps – first the presentation of their booklet to small businesses, then a campaign website, with further actions lined up. “Google will have a hot summer,” Klein says.
Credit: Helen Lock for The Guardian, 9 May 2018.