Neukölln: Beyond the hype

Despite the buzz that fuelled the resettlement of the young and hip in Berlin's Neukölln district, the area is still light years away from the gentrification of the city's trendy eastern areas.

Neukölln: Beyond the hype
Photo: Exberliner Magazine

Low living costs haven’t just drawn cool types: they’ve attracted lots of poor people as well, adding to the existing social misery. Exberliner Magazine explores what Neukölln really is: colourful melting pot or Hartz IV ghetto?

The view is stunning. You look over the rooftops of the city: there’s nothing but blue sky above you.

“I never wanted to live in Neukölln,” Wiebke says.

But then she found this maisonette apartment. One-hundred-and-sixty-three square metres, two floors, €4.50 per square metre.

“The rents are just so cheap here,” says the 27-year-old Hamburgerin. On her roof terrace, the latest issue of Vogue lies on the bench next to the coffee table.

“Neukölln is not as crummy as you’d think,” she adds, crossing her long legs and displaying a pair of strappy, high-heeled sandals.

“Actually, when you step out on a sunny day like this, you feel like you’re on a summer vacation in Istanbul.”

Wiebke has lived on Richardstraße since last year. She founded her own start-up while she was still a student. Some might call her a yuppie. She is, but in the positive sense of the word: she has worked hard to get to where she is now. She was one of those pioneers who were drawn to Neukölln by its low rents and rough charm – and love it there.

With people like her around, hip new cafés like Ä on Weserstraße or Rudi Marie on Weichselplatz have moved in. This is the heart of the “Neu-Cooln” that made the German headlines.

Seven floors down and one U-Bahn stop away, Punky sits in Hermannplatz with his friends. He’s got a bottle of Sternburg in the one hand and a joint in the other.

At 30, Punky is unemployed: an ex-junkie now clean, he claims, thanks to methadone. He has Hepatitis C. He talks about his days on Hermannplatz, about fights with Turkish drug gangs, about knocked-out teeth and broken jaws.

But these days, life is good for Punky. Last night he found a stack of beer bottles on a burnt-out Landwehrkanal restaurant boat. Since then, he and his friends have been having a party. It’s 11 in the morning and his pupils are as small as pinholes.

Two realities, one district. According to Neukölln’s boss, the Bürgermeister and 60-year-old born-and-bred Neuköllner Heinz Buschkowsky, Wiebke’s rosy planet is far-removed from reality. Back to earth: “The situation is drastic … Neukölln has become a receptacle for disadvantaged members of society.”

The statistics are indeed alarming. According to a study published last November, social problems are twice as prevalent in Neukölln as in Berlin as a whole. The unemployment rate is shockingly high: every fourth Neuköllner does not have work (24.8 percent compared to the 14.5 average for Berlin). Up to 40 percent of the local immigrant population is jobless. Neukölln has become the capital of Hartz IV recipients.

The study’s conclusions are harsh: “Positive trends don’t reach Neukölln.” As a matter of fact, cheap rents haven’t only drawn cool students and daring yuppies, but also poor people from across the city. And for anyone comforted by the thought that the “Neu-Cooln” trend would have a positive impact on the situation, the facts will be disillusioning. If there is some progress in one part of the Bezirk, the problems simply relocate. Northern Neukölln, for example, is turning into a social ghetto. The bleak streets around Schillerpromenade are lined with countless internet cafés, cheap tailors and one euro stores, and frequented by gangs of kids that have nowhere to go during the day.

The situation of youths like these is especially worrisome: 70 percent of Neukölln’s children come from families that live on Hartz IV or other welfare benefits and are more susceptible to sliding into drug abuse or petty crime. They’re also particularly vulnerable to a certain kind of paedophile who prey on their forlorn condition and material need: little gifts – a PlayStation perhaps? – are used to win the children’s trust. That’s why Berliner Jungs, a non-profit organization that helps sexually-abused boys, has its central counseling office in the Schillerkiez.

“No matter which kid you ask on the street here, something has happened to him,” Berliner Jungs’ Wolfgang Werner says.

Back at Wiebke’s loft, the young entrepreneur takes a deep drag from her cigarette.

“Of course, there’s a second reality in Neukölln. But you see it only if you try to look for it. I guess that’s not good.”

Many choose to ignore that reality in the happy-go-lucky side of these parallel worlds. Ramona Diedrich, 39, is standing eating a currywurst. In her arms, she is holding one-and-a-half-year-old Samira, whose father is of Arab origin. The family lives a couple of blocks away from Hermannplatz, on Mainzer Straße. Glancing over at Punky and his friends, she shrugs her shoulders.

“You just try to avoid these people,” she says. “Apart from that, I love living in Neukölln. I love the people who live here. This variety, I need that!”

And this is the answer you get from almost everyone you randomly ask on the street. The new Neuköllners love the multikulti, the feeling of ‘real life’ they find on its streets, and the old established Neuköllners are happy about the hip young things because they are making the Bezirk livelier.

All in all, the perception on the ground seems absolutely at odds with the statistics.

“The different people who live here blend together into one colourful mixture,” Melanie says, drawing an on-tap beer. She works as a waitress at a restaurant that opened two years ago on Pannierstraße, just around the corner from the infamous Rütli-Schule.

Melanie lifts the tray and hurries out to the tables where a crowd of artists and students sits. The sweet smell of shisha smoke hangs in the air. On the other side of the street, a group of adolescent Turkish guys passes by. One of them points to the bar and shouts out its name: “Freies Neukölln.”

The group laughs. Then they walk on, disappearing down Sonnenallee.

Click here for more from Berlin’s leading monthly magazine in English.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.