03/02/2011 05:55 PM

Gentrification's Victims

Berlin Fears Rise of New Slums


Cheap rents and urban glamour have attracted trend-seekers from around the world to central Berlin neighborhoods such as Kreuzberg and Neukölln. But it is the current residents who are paying the price of gentrification. They are being pushed out to high-rise developments on the edge of the city, where poverty and violence are part of daily life. 

At school that morning, Kira, 14, had made fun of another girl's clothing. She paid the price for her comment that afternoon, when several other kids surrounded her in front of the supermarket, pushing her and calling her a "bitch."

"Why are you putting one of us down?" they demanded. "You think you're better than us?"

None of the passersby there on the shopping street paid any attention to the teenagers. No one helped Kira as the other girls knocked her down, asking, "Does it hurt?" Boys from their group stood by and filmed the violence on their mobile phones.

Kira's bruises and abrasions landed her in the hospital. For days afterward, she hid in her room, not wanting to tell even her mother what had happened. When she finally dared to file a report with the police, nothing came of it. Instead, she received death threats via the Internet. "Next time it won't just be a few blows," one of her fellow students wrote in an online forum, adding that "very different people" would come to get her next time. Kira didn't venture out of her room for weeks.

Nostalgia for Neukölln

All this happened shortly after Kira's family moved a few months ago from Neukölln, a city center district of Berlin, to a cheaper apartment in an area known as the Kosmos-Viertel ("Kosmos neighborhood"). Built before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the area was still part of communist East Germany, it is a development of bleak residential high-rises at the far southeastern edge of the city. From Kira's 10th floor window, she can see all the way to the Schönefeld Airport runway, outside the city. To the other side of the building are bare fields. Then comes a highway, then, somewhere far in the distance, downtown Berlin -- home to Kira's old life.

Kira sits on her bed, shivering a little in a neon-colored tank top. "I wish I could go back to Neukölln," she says. "Things were better there."

That sentiment may seem surprising to those who know Neukölln's reputation. All over Germany, the central Berlin area is associated with violence, poverty, people on welfare and the failed integration of immigrants. This is the city district that provided Thilo Sarrazin, author of the controversial bestseller "Germany Does Itself In," with fodder for his notorious theories about "headscarf girls" from Muslim immigrant families. The district's tough-talking mayor, Heinz Buschkowsky, has become a talk show star because of his outspoken views on the area's problems.

Neukölln is also home to the Rütli School, which made headlines across Germany when its desperate teachers appealed to the government to close the school, saying it was full of neglected children from immigrant families with little inclination toward education. This is also where Kirstin Heisig, a well known juvenile court judge who hanged herself last year, passed her strict sentences. Heisig's book about juvenile violence became a bestseller.

In the minds of millions of Germans, Neukölln remains the country's worst trouble spot, a lawless place run by juvenile gangs.

'The Slums of the 21st Century'

Yet there are now people like Kira who look back wistfully at the time when they lived in the notorious district. Misery is moving house in Berlin: Many of the city's problems are shifting out toward the city limits, into new slums which are starting to resemble Paris's dreaded banlieues. Meanwhile, areas such as northern Neukölln, neighboring Kreuzberg and other parts of the city traditionally populated by workers and immigrants are becoming increasingly popular with middle class residents and hipsters. Tourists are also attracted to the areas by glowing articles in the international media.

It's nearly impossible these days to find an apartment near the Rütli School. Real estate agents see these properties virtually snatched from their hands, even though rents have shot up -- even doubling in some cases -- within a short space of time. Students and artists from around the world are eager to get into the area and apartment viewings often draw 50 people at a time.

Those who, like Kira's parents, can no longer afford the rents in the city center, withdraw to the concrete ring that encircles the German capital. Of Berlin's 3.45 million residents, 420,000 live in these high-rise housing projects on the city's outskirts, in neighborhoods that have so far attracted little media attention.

"The slums of the 21st century are threatening to form on Berlin's outskirts," warns sociologist Hartmut Häussermann, who authored a study called "Monitoring Social City Development 2010" for the Berlin Senate, the city government. His study describes these peripheral neighborhoods as "areas with a low development index" and a high "concentration of social problems."

It's a dangerous development. Urban studies experts warn of the segregation that occurs when a society breaks down into various parts that rarely come into contact with one another. "This displacement needs to be stopped," Häussermann says, explaining that it bars individuals from many opportunities. The phenomenon affects tens of thousands of children, Häussermann says. Not only are they geographically isolated from the downtown area, but their chances of social mobility are also reduced as a result, he explains.

The Capital of Low Wages

Berlin's children's emergency services, which help children at risk in problem families, are already unable to cope. They report increasing numbers of children taken into care because they can no longer stand the situation at home. The costs of government social services provided to families in need are rising, and statistics put child poverty in problem areas at more than 70 percent.

Teenage gangs fight over territory on the streets and squares, sometimes attacking unlucky passersby without warning. Three weeks ago, in an incident that shocked Germany, four young men attacked a painter who was passing through the Lichtenberg subway station on his way home, beating him into a coma for no apparent reason.

With elections to the Berlin city-state parliament coming up in September, a debate has sprung up among politicians over the need for more surveillance and more security personnel -- and a sustainable approach to preserving the city's social cohesion. Berlin's current coalition government of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the left-wing Left Party "has looked on for years, but done nothing," complains Renate Künast, the leading candidate for the Green Party, who is looking to unseat the incumbent mayor, the SPD's Klaus Wowereit. The current mayor acts concerned about social issues, Künast claims, but in reality is allowing rents to rise and leaving poorer people to fend for themselves. "Berlin is the capital of low-paid jobs," the Green Party politician says, claiming that the city's government "isn't taking action to change tenancy law or to fight for a mandatory minimum wage."

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.

Could Berlin's Suburbs Become Like Paris's Banlieues?

The story of Berlin's politics and its slums is one of many lofty visions but little success. Wowereit's SPD and the Left Party promised in their 2006 coalition agreement to "preserve the social mix," declaring that rent prices should remain "consistent with their social mandate." The city Senate also pledged to "counteract tendencies toward exclusion and segregation." The state-level SPD even talked of a "new era" in urban planning in a 2010 paper.

In reality, new problem areas continue to form. Some parts of the city have seen their populations swapped out completely in the time since the Berlin Wall fell. One in two city residents first moved to the German capital after 1990.

Housing policy is a central aspect of social policy. City planners in the mid-19th century developed a recipe for good cohesion within the city, constructing residential buildings that preserved Berlin's social mix by housing rich people in the front buildings and poor people in the side wings and rear buildings off central courtyards. For city planners of that period, workers' slums in cities such as Manchester served as a clear example of what they wanted to avoid. Instead, they envisioned the strong supporting the weak.

Sold Off by Sarrazin

Where does Mayor Wowereit stand with his policies? Together with Thilo Sarrazin, who was Berlin's finance minister at the time, the mayor sold off around 110,000 apartments that had been government property between 2002 and 2007. He also eliminated a support program for 28,000 state-subsidized apartments. This leaves Wowereit lacking an important tool toward preventing city segregation. According to a recent survey by research institute Forsa, one in four Berliners affected by rent increases plans to move soon. This January, meanwhile, Wowereit declared rising rents were a good sign. Residents simply need to get used to the fact that the city -- which has long been famous for its cheap rents -- is no longer as inexpensive as it once was, the mayor said, although he added that income levels should also increase.

Politicians who are in closer contact with ordinary people than Wowereit experience the results of this mindset at first hand. Ellen Haussdörfer is a member of Berlin's state parliament for the center-left Social Democrats. Her electoral district includes the Kosmos-Viertel, and she lives just a few hundred meters from the concrete high-rises.

Haussdörfer recently traveled to Paris for a few days to see the city's banlieues, outlying urban districts where young people sometimes riot and police carry out brutal raids. Haussdörfer was shocked by what she saw. "It made me realize what might happen in Berlin if we don't work to stop the trend," she says.

The politician fought for an urban renewal "neighborhood management" program, with the participation of social workers. But Berlin's financial authorities blocked the plan, because the planning zone that Kosmos is located in also includes a development of private homes, which, statistically speaking, lowers the area's incidence of social problems. Aid from the federal level is also unlikely, after the German government drastically cut its "Social City" urban redevelopment program. "If we don't address the problems," Haussdörfer warns, "the resulting costs will soon be so high that we won't be able to get the situation back under control."

Prada in 'Chestnut Gardens'

Wolfgang Kaschuba is an urban anthropologist at Berlin's Humboldt University. He examines the way elite groups establish their boundaries in Berlin, in comparison with other major cities such as Moscow and New York. He researches the way small "ghettos" of the wealthy suddenly appear in the middle of the city, in the form of upscale developments with pleasant names such as "Prenzlauer Gardens," "Chestnut Gardens" or "Choriner Courtyards" (located, according to the project website, "at the centre of a working and living space for an intellectual elite").

"City center residents want a high degree of conformity," Kaschuba says, explaining that they don't want to be confronted with other social milieus. "But when it's just Prada rubbing shoulders with Armani, then a city doesn't have a mixture anymore -- it has a problem."

Diversity and difference have always been important principles in European urban planning. But what happens when a city is left to its own devices -- when the market rules and politics takes a back seat?

Escape from a World of Hate

In the Kosmos-Viertel, a few dedicated individuals have cobbled together their own utopia on a patch of undeveloped land next to the high-rises. The children's farm, which is called "Waslala," is home to wooden shacks, horses, a sheep pen and vegetable patches. Tine Bader from FiPP, the association that runs the project, says the site takes its name from the utopian novel of the same name by the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli. "In the book," Bader explains, "Waslala is a hidden place for people who no longer want to live in a world of hate and violence."

Even on a cold February day, quite a number of children from the apartment high-rises across the way have come to look after the animals and plants. If all goes as planned, Bader says, the kids will learn responsibility, friendship and tolerance here. "And then, maybe one day, they'll make it out of Kosmos."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


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