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Xenophobia in Berlin

published on 2014-01-06 by Sara
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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.

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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.

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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!

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