Gentrification 1.0: Urban Transformations in Late-Nineteenth-Century Berlin

Blog by Philipp Reick

20 Sep 2017, 3:11 p.m.
Philipp Reick



Over the past decades, gentrification has become a major issue in urban research and public discourse alike. What is striking, however, is that contemporary discussions virtually lack historical depth. Both the phenomenon of gentrification and the social movements that emerged in response are usually perceived as a product of the post-1960s. As a social and urban historian, this interpretation made me curious. After all, constant mobility was a key experience for lower-class urbanites in many cities of the past. Historians have studied urban mobility mostly in terms of density and functional specialization. But in so doing, they often implied that segregation evolved in an empty space. We therefore know little about the displacement of marginalized social group from particular neighborhoods in the nascent metropolises of the late nineteenth century. Against this backdrop, I set out to explore if gentrification mattered already in a city like imperial Berlin.


Analyzing what might at first sight appear to be the most uninspiring source conceivable, I collected data from the historical address books which the city of Berlin started to publish in the mid-nineteenth century. These address books not only list all names of household heads in all incorporated streets of the city but also the residents’ occupation and civic status. Epitomizing the Prussian authorities’ utter disregard for rights to privacy, this widely underappreciated source allowed me study socio-economic changes on the level of individual streets. A comparison of my findings indicates that lower-class tenants in late-nineteenth-century Berlin faced an uneven geography of displacement that entailed very different challenges for proletarian and sub-proletarian residents. In particular, data suggests that workers and artisans were increasingly pushed out of the inner city towards the neighborhoods encircling the old center. Yet the increase of working-class residents put enormous pressure on sub-proletarian tenants in these semi-peripheral neighborhoods. Rather than workers and artisans, here it were messenger boys, barbers, masseurs, and domestic servants who suffered from displacement.


The article not only provides fresh insights into past processes of urbanization, it also offers new avenues for contemporary research on urban change. The distinct historical experiences analyzed here show that displacement was driven by both culture and capital. While non-working class residents were drawn to the old city center by cultural amenities and proximity to employment and places of commerce, to move to the nascent working-class quarter in the semi-periphery was a matter of constraint rather than choice. Urban displacement in historical Berlin was therefore the combined result of changing housing demands by a growing middle class and, at the same time, an unprecedented run on real estate. Historical gentrification in late-nineteenth-century Berlin was, in other words, fueled by “consumption” and “production” alike.


First page of the address book of Berlin in the year 1872.

Figure 1: First page of the address book of Berlin in the year 1872. The directories feature not only residents’ names but also profession and civic status. Thanks to the initiative by the Center for Berlin Studies at the Berlin Central and Regional Library, all address books from 1799 to 1943 are available in digital form; see


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