Gentrification's Victims Berlin Fears Rise of New Slums


Part 2: Downwardly Mobile

Here on the outskirts of Berlin, trash bags hang from tree branches, nearly every balcony sports a satellite dish and the sidewalks are strewn with broken beer bottles. The street names -- Sirius, Venus, Uranus -- are the only thing left of the vision of progress harbored by the Kosmos-Viertel's original planners. In the late 1980's, the communist East German government wanted to build modern apartments here for employees of its state airline, Interflug. Today, many of the residents simply call their neighborhood "our ghetto."

Outside the supermarket, illegal cigarette dealers make little effort to conceal their business. One man lifts a manhole cover and pulls a carton of cigarettes -- presumably smuggled in from Eastern Europe -- out of his hiding spot. A tradesman grins as he passes by on his way to his car. "I only do work here if they pay in advance," he says.

The owner of a local bar stands in his empty establishment. When asked how the area has changed in recent years, he says nothing and just makes a sharp downward gesture with his hand.

The Berlin Senate's report talks, rather abstractly of a "concentration of social problems." One man whose job is to read electricity meters experiences what that means every day. He has known this area for years, and doesn't need to think long when asked to describe the people who live here in the run-down apartments. He rummages in a jacket pocket, lights a cigarette, and says, using the English term: "white trash."

He's seen them all, the meter reader explains, taking a drag on his cigarette. He's seen their faces, their apartments with damp, molding walls and their hopelessness. Housing developments like Kosmos, he says, are home to downwardly mobile people who used to belong to the middle class, low earners and social welfare recipients who have been forced to leave the city center because the authorities are no longer prepared to cover their rising rents.

Kids with Beer Bottles

They're people like Charlotte S., who's currently taking part in a job-retraining program for the long-term unemployed. In Neukölln, her rent recently went up to €800 ($1,100) for a two-bedroom apartment. "Here, I have a three-bedroom apartment for €490, including utilities," explains the 40-year-old mother of two. But when she moved here a year ago, she didn't realize fear would be the price to pay for the lower rent.

Charlotte S. sits in her tidy living room and talks about how she's worried about her 18-year-old daughter and her nine-year-old son. She wants to get them out of this environment again as soon as possible, but hasn't managed to do so. "There are 12-year-olds with beer bottles out on the street," she says. When a pensioner tried to talk to the kids about it, they shouted back at him, "You should be six feet under!" Charlotte S. says things are even worse for her friend whose daughter is dark-skinned. The girl has to put up with insults such as "nigger bride," and she hardly dares to go outside.

Neighborhoods like this one provide a counterargument to Thilo Sarrazin's polemics, contradicting his claim that poverty, violence and lack of prospects are particularly characteristic to areas with a high percentage of Turkish or Arab residents. Immigrants make up less than 5 percent of Kosmos' residents. In contrast, there is high support here for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). It has its national headquarters in the Treptow-Köpenick district of Berlin, where the Kosmos-Viertel is located, and it holds regular social gatherings at a local bar called "Zum Henker." In the last Berlin state parliament elections, in 2006, the NPD garnered nearly 20 percent of votes in the area around Venusstrasse, its highest result in all of Berlin. Racial slurs and attacks are part of daily life in Kosmos.

Children and teens here grow up in a world of stone and concrete. Violence sets a constant tone in many of their lives, whether it be fights after school, arson, sexual assault, bodily injuries or drug abuse.

Sexually Experienced by the Age of 12

One pale-faced 13-year-old girl, wearing clothes far too thin for the day's wintry temperatures, is hanging out with a couple of friends in front of a bar called "B52." It's a good day for Peggy, who's showing off her new cell phone. The device includes GPS maps for 70 countries, yet Peggy herself hasn't been to downtown Berlin even once in the last year. After school, she often meets friends in a windy square between the supermarket and the apartment blocks, named the "Ball," where older alcoholics often gather in the afternoon. "It's an outdoor living room," Peggy says.

When it gets too cold here or too boring, the kids meet elsewhere, at places social workers describe with the neutral term "open apartments." This means apartments where pedophile men live, who invite kids in for sweets, alcohol, videos or computer games.

Here in Kosmos, for example, the door of "Papa Smurf's" apartment was often open to teenagers. When parents got their hands on photographs showing "Papa Smurf" with 16-year-old boys in their underwear, the man left the neighborhood in a hurry.

At nine years old, it's still more the exception than the rule, but by the time they're 12, most girls here have had sex, Alina says. "It's part of being cool in the group," she explains.

Beaten Up by Her Boyfriend

Alina is 16 and home from school today with a fever. She's sitting on her bed together with a female friend. The TV is on and Alina types messages into her phone as she watches. She says she knows girls who got pregnant at 14 and had two children by different fathers by the time they were 20.

Alina's last boyfriend beat her up when he was drunk. She still has the photos of her injuries on her cell phone. They show bathwater that is red with blood, traces of blows to her face and open cuts on her head. Now she just wants to get away from the neighborhood. She talks of "maybe becoming an event manager" -- although she's never even been to an event at Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate in the heart of the city.

Most off all, Alina wants to get away from the square called the "Ball," where the alcoholics meet. She wants to get away from other meeting spots such as a burnt-out, ruined building at the shopping mall. Locals call it the "Momper ruin," after Walter Momper, a former Berlin mayor and now president of the Berlin state parliament. Momper once promised investment into this area, but to this day, nothing has been seen of that funding. The building is "an eyesore," a retired woman complains as she passes. "Momper should be ashamed of himself," she adds.

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skyduke 03/03/2011
Pathetic. The essence of this article: damn those filthy rich, how dare they want to move to Berlin! I really thought the Spiegel could do better. If those people do not want to have to move to those developments, then they need to work to get better jobs, not rely on the government to keep the prices artificially low. That idea is just preposterous. And if Berlin really is the capital of low-paying jobs: how is it so many people can pay those new, "outrageous" rents? Way to go for contradicting yourself.
BTraven 03/03/2011
Interesting article, however, I miss the part where the author explains how Turkish people manage to stay in the city. I think telling us what keeps Muslims together, they seem not to be affected by gentrification at all, would have been much more important since it had presumably delivered a way to solve the problem than just a report where the condition of people who live in the new banlieues is described. Has it something do with the owners of houses? Are the owners Turks? Do they earn more than Germans so they could afford higher rents? The article proves that Sarrazin wrote his infamous book in order to divert attention from the real problems – the ongoing process of gentrification caused by affluent Germans. And poor Germans are suffering from it. In the end, a minority, as often in Germany, will be blamed for it.
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