A matter of xenophobia

by Matthias · 06.01.2014 · Kiez Life · 12 comments

In the last months and years, the mor­ale towards new res­id­ents and vis­it­ors stead­ily plummeted in pop­u­lar neigh­bour­hoods such as Kreuzberg or Neuk­ölln. It grew to a notice­able ten­sion a long time ago and has already become an unbear­able con­di­tion that tempered much of what made this city and these neigh­bour­hoods inter­est­ing and invit­ing in the first place. I always knew and appre­ci­ated Ber­lin as the liberal-minded city, born and chosen home that it once was – and still is. How­ever, times have changed and a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of its res­id­ents are legit­im­ately con­cerned about gentri­fic­a­tion, chan­ging neigh­bour­hoods and rising rents. But some of them hold resent­ments against the people they think were respons­ible of this change: those who moved to Ber­lin, who came from other parts of the coun­try, the con­tin­ent and the world, and also those, who visit Ber­lin to dis­cover the city, its cul­ture, its sights and its parties.

You thought, this issue was an old hat in Kreuzberg and Neuk­ölln? Well, you’re abso­lutely right. It’s noth­ing new to these parts of the city. But you just com­mit­ted that it is an even more alarm­ing problem. Because these people are utterly wrong, it’s not the vis­it­ors and new res­id­ents to blame. It is a simple and alarm­ing obser­va­tion, that so many people not only agree with these accus­a­tions but also spread them in the com­munity, that so many people fail to under­stand the mech­an­ics of this devel­op­ment, that ter­ri­fies me the most.

It might not hap­pen to you on a fre­quent basis that you become a wit­ness or vic­tim of such har­ass­ment. But it has become an every­day mat­ter to the streets that we share with each other. Just yes­ter­day, when I walked through my Kiez, I had a pecu­liar encounter of such an unpleas­ant kind. To give you a bet­ter pic­ture, I do not look like a typ­ical Kreuzber­ger: I neither look like a sur­vivor of the neighbourhood’s 70s and 80s hey­day, nor a res­id­ent of Turk­ish decent, nor a full bearded Chino hip­ster, nor a Brit­ish easyJet tour­ist down to party all week­end long. I like to wear shirts and welt-sewn shoes, I feel com­fort­able in a suit or a nice coat and just as much I some­times visu­ally stand out from the nice and decent people I chat with at the bakery or at the Turk­ish mar­ket, I appre­ci­ate the free­dom we all have to dress and live we deem it right for us. But to some of my neigh­bours, this free­dom is to much too agree on, it’s a stigma they use to determ­ine who is a right­ful res­id­ent and who is not. As I stood there by the street­light and took out my smart­phone, an obvi­ously drunk guy approached me to slam it down and loudly insul­ted me as an incom­ing dum­bass, as someone nobody would like here, as a gentri­fic­ator. Even though I didn’t know this guy, he didn’t know any­thing about me apart from what I looked like, and that I spoke to him in Ber­lin dia­lect, he was still sure that I was respons­ible for the gentri­fic­a­tion of the Kiez we both live in.

Encoun­ters such as this hap­pen to me fairly often, both in Kreuzberg and Neuk­ölln and, back when I lived in Friedrich­shain, there as well. I have been called a yup­pie and a snob, a gentri­fic­ator and a intruder; even though none of these annoy­ing people knew any­thing about me. But don’t get me wrong – I don’t com­plain about the ter­rible, ter­rible offences I had, but I will com­plain about this per­ver­ted world­view all the more, a world­view a grow­ing num­ber of people seem to have. Gentrification is a ser­i­ous prob­lem and a big chal­lenge for every grow­ing city. It threatens their res­id­ents and their life­styles, it forces changes that only few bene­fit from. It cre­ates an atmo­sphere of uncer­tainty and anxi­ety. Nobody will con­test this and nobody will likely belittle the often harsh con­di­tions gentri­fic­a­tion leaves the people with. I will not ques­tion these fears and sor­rows, but what I ques­tion is the alarm­ing reac­tion that has been triggered: noth­ing short of a hunt on vis­it­ors and new res­id­ents, along with all its ghastly details.

For sev­eral reas­ons, I think I can observe from a good per­spect­ive. I was born and raised in Ber­lin and lived here for almost all of my life. I do not earn much and I am lucky enough to live in one of the few last cheap apart­ments of Kreuzberg. I watched Friedrichshain’s rapid change to a more upscale, but also less vivid neigh­bour­hood from my own front house win­dow. Hav­ing moved to Kreuzberg, gentri­fic­a­tion threatens me as much as my neigh­bours, but still, I can­not under­stand the resent­ments and actions some of them resort to. “Tour­isten fisten” and “Yup­pies out” are only two of the per­vas­ive graf­fiti you can see on the walls. The T-shirt slo­gan “Du bist kein Ber­liner” is already part of our every­day life. Lout­ish beha­viour towards Friday’s inter­na­tional party crowd at Schles­isches Tor is just another expres­sion of the grow­ing anger one can reg­u­larly observe here. First accounts of WGs that offer their spare rooms only to nat­ive Ger­mans or Ber­liners are sur­fa­cing. A tense cli­mate of reser­va­tions, clichés and har­ass­ments has developed. Kreuzberg and Neuk­ölln have become places of xenophobia.

But it’s wrong. This hos­til­ity toward strangers is based on the assump­tion that they were respons­ible for rais­ing rents and the sub­sequent cul­tural losses. That artists and stu­dents were savaging the Kiezes, rap­idly upgrad­ing and gentri­fy­ing them, until bet­ter off people would come and take their apart­ments over. This accus­a­tion is so obvi­ously wrong that it’s aston­ish­ing how deeply rooted it is in so many minds. All of these people just like to live the way they want to and how they can afford it, whether they’re inter­ested in cheap hous­ing, the Kiez or a good liv­ing stand­ard. But it’s also not the land­lords to blame. Even if it’s coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive when you stand on the other side, it’s per­fectly fine for them take the bet­ter deal. As long as one agrees on the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem, this is just the most nat­ural and right­ful thing to do. How­ever, as much as I talked with people about gentri­fic­a­tion, appallingly few loc­ated the prob­lem bey­ond the land­lords, rather on the city’s respons­ib­il­ity. Though it’s such a simple mat­ter, many people some­how fail to under­stand that it’s neither the res­id­ents nor the land­lords but a lack of reg­u­la­tion to be held respons­ible of what one might call uncon­trol­lable gentri­fic­a­tion. Hous­ing is a mar­ket like every­one else and unless we don’t cri­ti­cise this con­di­tion, we will not be able to right­fully cri­ti­cise those who play by its rules. I would not call for an entire com­mun­isa­tion, but for more reg­u­la­tion and most cer­tainly, against the shame­ful har­ass­ment of for­eign­ers who came here to dis­cover the many beau­ti­ful things Ber­lin has to offer.

Some people do still not agree with me, some have heard it all. They will still accuse new res­id­ents and vis­it­ors of hav­ing brought a change into their com­munity that they don’t feel com­fort­able with. They will insist on a per­sonal and uni­ver­sal respons­ib­il­ity to hon­our and sub­mit to local cus­toms. They will see them­selves as the ori­ginal res­id­ents, those who, by their long time of liv­ing there, are entitled to set the rules of the com­munity, to shape its cul­tural and neigh­bourly bound­ar­ies. They will not allow any­body to take part in the shap­ing and nur­ture of the com­munity that every­one is part of. (Iron­ic­ally, some of them will proudly praise the free­dom this very com­munity gave them once they were the new­comers, either by hav­ing moved or being born here.) But what they ulti­mately fail to recog­nize is the very small-minded pro­vin­cial­ism which led them to believe that there was an inher­ent dif­fer­ence between old-established and incom­ing res­id­ents. Their xeno­pho­bia denies them the right to take part in the com­munity just as xeno­pho­bia on a national scale dis­crim­in­ates unwanted for­eign­ers. It’s the same world­view, the same way of think­ing and, most import­ant, the same way of judging. There’s no dif­fer­ence to the right-wing parties’ concept of “Über­frem­dung” and it’s a shame that none of them even noticed, even though most of them would likely not see them­selves as rightists.

Kreuzberg and Neuk­ölln have become places of xeno­pho­bia. This is not how I got to know and how I appre­ci­ated them. They were once open-minded and hos­pit­able neigh­bour­hoods. That has changed. I am ashamed.

Post scriptum: As sev­eral mails and com­ments reach me from people who planned to travel to Ber­lin, I’d like to take the chance and address your con­cerns. Most people will wel­come you here or simply just don’t care about your pres­ence. Ber­lin is still one of the world’s safest cit­ies of this size and it is very unlikely that any harm would be done to you. If any­thing hap­pens, some­body would insult you in a lowered voice. Don’t let this dis­cour­age you to visit Kreuzberg, Neuk­ölln and Ber­lin in gen­eral. We – the Find­ing­Ber­lin crew and basic­ally every­one we know, every­one who is part of why we and so many other people love this city – would always invite you to come here and to share this place with you. As I wrote in the com­ments sec­tion, the issue addressed here is a devel­op­ment pos­sibly only notice­able to the people who have lived here for a while. How­ever, a stitch in time saves the nine and all I can hope for is to shed some light on this issue and maybe even spark off a dis­cus­sion among our read­ers who live here so they can forge an opin­ion on their own, with the help of the com­ments below or their own friends and peers. If you have any fur­ther ques­tions, don’t hes­it­ate to reach out to me via the com­ment sec­tion or the mail shown below!

  1. I am really sad about this. As a “pure tour­ist” I have always thought I‘d be wel­come: I sup­port local busi­nesses and respect­ably get to learn about other coun­tries, his­tory and cul­tures. Now, hav­ing already booked two weeks in Ber­lin for next sum­mer (and the first week we are stay­ing with a friend at Kreuzberg), I feel somethings is ruined for me. So, they don‘t want us there? Do I have to worry that when I am out with my kids we get angry looks or get shout at? I know that this atmo­sphere is get­ting more and more usual in the city I love the most and visit fre­quently, but I feel like I should start trav­el­ling some­where else, find a new favour­ite city..

  2. Most vis­it­ors will not have any bad exper­i­ences and get to know Kreuzberg and Neuk­ölln in a most pleas­ant way. No harm is done. But there’s a ten­sion slowly rising that is just sig­ni­fic­ant enough that those who live here will feel it. A typ­ical incid­ence would be an insult muttered in lowered voice, any fur­ther aggres­sion is unlikely. How­ever, a stitch in time saves nine! I am wor­ried about how these things could have developed, so I wanted to express my con­cerns and, in my best hopes, spark off a dis­cus­sion among our read­ers who might have sim­ilar or other opin­ions on this topic.

  3. Good art­icle!! As I was born and raised in North Rhine-Westphalia, I’m pretty much used to such anim­os­ity. How­ever I assume the whole thing starts yet, con­sid­er­ing the actual ideo­logy of kiez-life and the aspir­a­tions and require­ments that come with it.
    In fact the com­mon ideal­iz­a­tion of Ber­lin as a con­glom­er­ate of many ‘urban vil­lages’, pre­sup­poses the desire for a cer­tain kind of pro­vin­cial­ism. We long for a neigh­borly com­munity with its warm-hearted atmo­sphere while at the same time demand­ing a broad range of mod­ern facil­it­ies and het­ero­gen­eity. These are oppos­ing needs that just seem hard to recon­cile. Espe­cially due to the fact that cur­rent zeit­geist (and a decent mar­ket­ing strategy) seems to be all about ‘local’ brand­ing, ‘hand­made’ pro­duc­tion, ‘homemade’ food etc. plainly com­mer­cial­iz­ing our long­ing for authen­ti­city and fel­low­ship.
    Any­way, as you put it, blam­ing those short­com­ings on tour­ists or even on land­lords so-called “Miethaie” (who act accord­ing to the laws of cap­it­al­ism, but obvi­ously didn’t invent them), is simply undeserving and won’t solve the problem.

  4. That’s basic­ally awe­some, I’m hav­ing the hard­est blast at the moment. Abso­lutely ter­rific, North Rhine-Westphalia is that close to Mordor?

  5. Jes­sica really poin­ted out the gist of the mat­ter.
    As a new­comer Ber­liner you might find your­self in a weird pickle these days: You see old small­town fel­las that blame you for losin your roots emphas­iz­ing that you were no Ber­liner but an ori­ginal homet­own boy, (btw: my state in the homet­own has always been the one of a new­comer too! hill­billys do not for­get where you come from, ber­lin hill­billys neither) and the ori­ginal Ber­liner blames you for ruin­ing everything he loves in his kiez — in fact everything he secretly hates in his kiez. And why let things get com­plic­ated — tadaaaaa you re Ber­lins pub­lic enemy no 1.
    The term xeno­pho­bia is totally appro­pri­ate in this con­text, not to men­tion the anti­semitic cliche “Miethai”.

    roberto blanco
  6. ” it’s neither the res­id­ents nor the land­lords but a lack of regulation”

    Yes and not only, the local gov­ern­ment didn’t just dereg­u­late the mar­ket, with no regard for the city’s his­tory, it also sold off a lot of its own prop­erty, includ­ing social hous­ing, and now they come up with *genius* plans like build­ing 4800 new homes all around the Tem­pel­hofer Feld, because of “Wohnung­s­not”, just a few years after open­ing up the former air­port as a park and mak­ing it one of the city’s most loved pub­lic spaces.

    And every­where you look where they’ve already allowed new build­ings within spaces in the city area, it’s almost always “lux­ury” homes — where “lux­ury” usu­ally means bath­rooms that look fancy by com­par­ison to the kind of unren­ov­ated 60’s and 70’s bath­rooms you still find in many Alt­baus, or to the cheaply “ren­ov­ated” kind from the 80’s and 90’s — and a lot of them are for sale, not for rent. So they’ve openly allowed massive spec­u­la­tion, none of which goes to solve the “Wohnung­s­not” prob­lem, but that’s the keyword you’ll hear when they plan to sell off some more pub­lic space to prop­erty investors.

    A lot of people still prefer to blame the “new­comers” any­way, because it’s easier, I guess. Up to a cer­tain degree, I can under­stand some of the anim­os­ity, espe­cially against say younger groups of tour­ists behav­ing in ways that can be annoy­ing, loud, like the week­end club­bers and pub crawls groups and that sort of thing. Still, people exag­ger­ate even things like that, it’s not like Ber­lin has turned into Ibiza! I guess Ber­lin has just had less time to get used to a much more massive influx of vis­it­ors than it used to have. And when everything gets lumped in together — tour­ist and new stable res­id­ents, includ­ing Ger­mans from other parts of the coun­try — it can get really ridicu­lous. It’s also use­less, it’s not polit­ical engage­ment or action or protest, it’s just resent­ment that leads to noth­ing. Such a waste of ener­gies that could have been dir­ec­ted to the actual targets…

  7. I think the main prob­lem is that this nat­ural change in the cit­ies struc­ture and its res­id­ents just happened a lot faster that it did in any other city of the size/role.
    After all, humans are creatures of habit, so it’s also nat­ural that they’ll hate it at first and blame every­one for it.

    Ima­gine you’re liv­ing in a social-housing situ­ation in a rather unkempt part of Kreuzberg in the 70s. Turk­ish fam­il­ies move in and you’ll blame them for ruin­ing your neigbor­hood, because there are all burg­lars and deal­ers and sex­ist patriarchs.You’ll slowly start to feel com­fort­able again once you’ve dis­covered Döner. Then the wall is down. Urgh the Ossis, surely they’ll take away your job. The early 2000s. You’re start­ing to notice a weirdly high amount of non-addicted look­ing young people in your dis­trict. 2005: the Alt­bau next to your place is sud­denly white instead of that homely and famil­iar char­coal grey. Surely rent prices will rise by the hour. 2009: The neig­bour across your flat moves to Pal­lasstraße and a WG moves in. You hate that the 24h noise of your neigh­bours Turk­ish radio pro­gram is exchanged for loud Elec­tro.
    And so on.

  8. “As long as one agrees on the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem, this is just the most nat­ural and right­ful thing to do.”

    You prob­ably for­got that a lot of Ber­liners, espe­cially in Kreuzberg & Neuk­ölln, don’t.

    I think you got the whole Xenophobia-thing wrong. New res­id­ents are not dis­liked just because they come from some­where else. The prob­lem is that they are will­ing to pay prices (espe­cially for rent­ing) which might be OK for them because they come from Lon­don, Paris, Tel Aviv or Bar­celona, but are just too much for Ber­lin.
    And frankly I don’t give a fuck about whose respons­ib­il­ity this really is. I didn’t vote for the politi­cians who aren’t reg­u­lat­ing the mar­kets.
    So what more can I do than to ask new­comers not to pay these out­rageous prices? But they still do, while some Ber­liners don’t find hous­ing for months!

    To me it’s not about being entitled to any­thing or stuff like that. If I’m going to some Third World coun­try and buy/rent everything for prices that are just plain ridicu­lous to loc­als, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if I won’t make many friends…

  9. It’s really inter­est­ing to read this art­icle hav­ing just fled NYC for Ber­lin myself this month. Today, I was shocked and so saddened to hear people from all over the world lament­ing over how much Ber­lin has changed and lost over the last 5 years. This out­rage over gentri­fic­a­tion, SOARING rents (sorry Ber­lin, you have no idea what expens­ive or unaf­ford­able means) and dis­ap­pear­ance of cul­ture is hap­pen­ing all over the world, in every city, some more than oth­ers. But hon­estly, is it the government’s fault or is it our respons­ib­il­ity? Ber­lin still has a huge arts scene and a huge counter cul­ture scene. And the most cre­at­ive, open-minded people are com­ing here. I don’t know what the answer is… but some­how I feel like it’s up to the kids to stay exactly how Mat­tias describes — open and lib­eral and work­ing together. If that means pres­sur­ing and scru­tin­iz­ing gov­ern­ment, fine. If that means sup­port­ing each other’s art and mak­ing as much of it as we can, fine. But we can­not hate each other. Every­one is a “gentri­fier” some­where. And everything changes. It’s so much smarter to teach each other how to best uphold “New York” or “Ber­lin” val­ues, etc and to help each other… the world needs our gen­er­a­tion. United we can stand… divided we are just more pegs in someone else’s system.

  10. Hav­ing been asked sev­eral times why I come to Ger­many to des­troy it and hav­ing been called scum, and hav­ing heard com­par­is­ons made to the prob­lems faced by Ger­man people hav­ing to put up with so many people from other coun­tries in the 1920s/early 1930s, I’d say its the same old, same old. Sadly. The people that had to lis­ted to this then of course are no longer there.

What others had to say about it

  1. […] it is crit­ic­ally manip­u­lat­ing the face of the city. All gentri­fic­a­tion issues and xeno­pho­bia aside, it’s inter­est­ing, mes­mer­iz­ing and shock­ing to see how fast even one street or […]

  2. […] to be con­sidered cheap, and people were aggrav­ated by the dens­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. Xeno­pho­bia and gentri­fic­a­tion are issues that came hand in hand with the main­stream suc­cess of […]

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