The multicultural Kreuzberg

“Every town that does not have room and work enough for everyone needs a place to get rid of the redundant. Every town concerned about its noble image needs a dump for the intruders, for dysfunctional and inadaptable folks.”

This is how Karl Schlögel so frankly described old Kreuzberg, the previously neglected West Berlin neighborhood symbolizing a dreadful place where you should not allow your children to go. But Schlögel also praised this “dump” as “the first anchor-place for countless immigrants.”


Such praise could easily apply to East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. In the 1970s, this neighborhood, like Kreuzberg, was officially condemned as a “slum.” Both areas soon became favorite refuges for “new” Berliners: foreign immigrants to be sure, but also young men evading West German army service or dissidents from East German small towns. On both sides of the Berlin Wall, these nonconformist elements created new ways of life, new urban trends, new ideas of individuality and happiness. They squatted in older houses that they found valuable. The squatters prevented the condemnation of historic, architecturally notable older houses, and planners started to rethink urban renewal policies in residential working-class neighborhoods. And in both innercity neighborhoods—Kreuzberg in the West as well as PrenzlauerBerg in the East—the “New Berliners” ultimately established the trends for the city’s future. The cycle then turned towards revalorization and gentrification.

In the 1980s, Kreuzberg was the locale where Berlin learned to survive the disappearance of industrial work, the beginning of worldwide migrations, and the decline of social welfare systems. In earlier decades, multiculturalism seemed to flourish precisely in those parts of town most excluded from local mainstream society. This was the fate of Kreuzberg, which became the legendary island of the foreign, the “Other,” and the poor. Turkish “guestworkers” settled in the area’s Old Berlin Hinterhäuser—rental buildings with inner courtyards dating from the Gründerzeit of the late 19th century— and the modernist high-rise social housing estates around Kottbusser Tor. This neighborhood came to symbolize “the ghetto” of West Berlin and still dominates popular thinking about ethnic spaces and cultural difference in Germany. Kreuzberg has always been a working-class migrant area, even since the 17th century arrival of the Protestant Huguenot refugees from France and East European immigrants laboring in its workshops and factories since the 19th century. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the city faced severe labor shortages,8 so the German government recruited guestworkers from Southern Europe and Turkey to West Berlin. In 1962, about two-thirds of the new guestworkers resided in municipal or privately owned hostels.


With continuing immigration, Berlin became the largest Turkish city outside Turkey. In the Kottbusser Tor area of Kreuzberg, non-German citizens comprise 55.2 percent of the population. Turkish residents of Kreuzberg, even second and third generation Germans of Turkish background, feel comfortable and secure in their neighborhood—some even feel anxious when they leave it for other areas of Berlin. At the same time, they maintain transnational identities, creatively blending the cultures of Berlin and their imaginary homelands. This has made Kreuzberg into a “diasporic space” with its own web of social institutions, norms, values, and even language. Turkish internet cafes, television stations, newspapers, travel agencies, and other “transnational intermediaries” are among the flourishing ethnic businesses in the neighborhood, helping to knit dense social ties across space.Political organizations, social service agencies, mosques, and other institutions round out the community.

Not only older central city housing, but also modernist—i.e., master-planned—townscapes have adapted to new social circumstances quietly and without fanfare before local government intervened. Why are the ill-famed zones on the urban outskirts so surprisingly “elastic”? How did they become the “anchor-places” for immigrants left to their own devices? The reason is, ironically, the general contempt with which they are regarded and their subsequent public neglect. It is precisely the local disorder and loss of cultural valuation that are creating the conditions for revival. Such disregard opened up spaces and, as Karl Marx said in The German Ideology, the“circumstances would come up to dance.” Neomarxist geographers, like David Harvey and Neil Smith, argue that the ever-changing relocation of capitalist production gives rise to corresponding cycles of real estate valuation.



(Eva Spirova)


2 thoughts on “The multicultural Kreuzberg

  1. Pingback: Kreuzberg stickers – tagging geo-tagged images with words | Stickerkitty

  2. Pingback: On the Oberbaumbrücke | Traces of a Border

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