Photo Gallery: There Goes the Neighborhood


Neukölln Nasties Foreigners Feel Accused in Berlin Gentrification Row

In the last few years, Berlin's gritty Neukölln district has become a hotbed of the creative class and nightlife, attracting students, artists and bourgeois bohemians. But some worry that the neighborhood is changing too quickly and that locals are being pushed out. Now affluent foreigners from Europe and America are being blamed for rising rents.
Von Moises Mendoza

The big white posters with bold black type began popping up on the streets and alleyways of Berlin's Neukölln district late last year.

"Poorer people who often have been living here for years will have to leave the district," the signs proclaim in flawless English. "They will be replaced by people who are capable and willing to pay more for flats than them."

They end with an emphatic: "Be creative and active against gentrification."

No one seems quite sure who created the signs, which urge newly arrived foreigners to refuse to pay higher rent in order to keep prices low for Neukölln's roughly 300,000 residents. But they now pepper side streets up and down the once poor, but now rapidly gentrifying borough in southeastern Berlin.

And they make some new arrivals, who sense a subtle attack embedded in them, uneasy.

"I feel a bit like we're being made out to be the bad ones -- like all the changes here are our fault," gripes Kirsten Cork, a 31-year-old Canadian who moved to Neukölln from Toronto last year to pursue her artistic ambitions. "It's not our fault the area is changing, and it's not such a bad thing."

Ironies of Gentrification

Neukölln, which has a reputation in Germany as being a rough inner-city district with a large number of immigrants and widespread social problems, has become increasingly fashionable in recent years, partly due to its urban edge and low rents. A series of glowing articles in the international press has also helped to raise the district's profile abroad. The recent closure of nearby Tempelhof Airport has also increased the area's desirability -- not only is it no longer directly under a flight path, but the airfield was converted into a massive park.

Still, in the last few years, skyrocketing rents have driven out many long-time Neukölln residents. Rents have doubled in some cases, and some poorer residents have been forced to move to housing projects on the edges of Berlin that are in danger of becoming slums. 

Now, as a reaction to the perceived influx of tourists and hipsters from abroad, a palpable anti-foreigner sentiment seems to be emerging. The irony is thick because Neukölln has long been known as a destination for poorer immigrants from countries like Turkey or Russia.

'Two Minds'

Today, frustration is being directed at the many wealthy new arrivals from Western countries -- students, families and young professionals -- whose affluence, long-time residents say, is rapidly changing the character of the district.

At the same time, there's a sense of ambivalence and resignation. Is there really any way to stop gentrification? And does it make sense to blame any one group of people for it?

"I really have two minds about it," says 48-year-old Guido Fath, who has lived in Neukölln for 27 years. "Everything is different now, and it can be strange to see all these new faces. But I like the fact that the buildings are fixed and that the streets are cleaner."

A year ago, after losing his factory job, Fath decided to join the gentrification bandwagon and open a record store. His "PlattenabFath" store is located on Selchower Strasse, a stone's throw from Schillerpromenade, a street which forms the center of one of the newly popular neighborhoods. The record store is now frequented by well-heeled music lovers from around the world.

Fighting Gentrification with a Video

At the nearby Freies Neukölln bar on Pannierstrasse, Matthias Merkle  smiles wryly as he admits he has become the symbolic face, for some, of the protests against the foreign incursion.

"There are some people who think that I hate Spaniards or Italians, but it's not true," the bar owner says as he puffs on a cigarette. "I just want to begin a discussion."

Merkle, who is originally from the genteel southwestern German city of Freiburg but who has lived in Neukölln on and off for about 20 years, became well-known after an anti-gentrification video he made went viral last year, sparking controversy.

"You hire your apartments here with all your assembled bonds of your parents. You stomp our borough to death with this whole overeducated self-contented superficiality," Merkle says in the video, entitled "Offending the Clientele," in which he accuses Germans, as well as Americans and people from across Europe, of transforming the area. "You are far too many people not to be guilty."

Broken System

Merkle, 40, says his video was meant, in part, to be tongue in cheek and a form of self criticism. All he really wanted to do, he says, was to get people talking. But the changes to the neighborhood since he opened the bar in 2006 have been stunning, he explains, and at times disturbing. He's amazed that sometimes people move to Neukölln from overseas and can live successfully speaking only English and never learning German.

"It's really been in the last two-and-a-half years that we've seen the biggest differences," he says. "It just happened so quickly."

He says he has been hurt by gentrification himself because he had to move out of his Neukölln apartment this year after his landlord demanded €1,360 ($1,876) in monthly rent instead of the former €510. Meanwhile, monthly rent for the bar space has nearly doubled, to €1,500 per month.

"Everything has to change," he says. "The problem is that the overall system is broken, and it's not fair to others."

Not all incomers feel victimized by locals, however. "I haven't experienced anything particularly positive or particularly negative in terms of people's attitudes to me," says Cory Tamler, a 25-year-old student from Pittsburgh. "I think it's fine that I live here -- I never feel out of place."

'A Part of Life'

Some foreigners have responded to ideas like Merkle's with agitation and consternation. "What he's basically doing is being amazingly prejudiced against local students and other people who have had to move to Neukölln to avoid the increasing high rents of other areas in Berlin," wrote Barry Burns, a musician with the Scottish band Mogwai who co-owns a bar in Neukölln, on British music website Drowned in Sound.  

But others say they don't know what to make of any of this because they can see both sides of the debate. But no matter what Neukölln's oldtimers want, it's clear there is no going back.

"Gentrification is just a part of life. It's something we just have to accept is going to happen," said Neukölln caterer Suzy Fracassa, a Detroit native who runs a private Neukölln restaurant that is popular with expats.

"It's not that people don't have the right to complain," she says. "But they can either play a part in what's happening -- or move away."

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