neukölln: The ever-changing borough of Berlin

In recent years, Neukölln has become one of Berlin's most dynamic and colourful areas. Its variety and contrast make this area one of the most fascinating district of the German capital.


Words by Ramon Schack, photo by Ronya Galka

Across the globe, year after year millions of people migrate from the countryside to urban areas, crossing borders in the process. And it is precisely these people that our future depends on. The British-Canadian author Doug Saunders deals with this phenomenon in his fascinating book ‘Arrival City.

In his preface Saunders notes: «The movement has touched  a so far unprecedented number of people - two or three billion, perhaps a third of the world’s population - and will be touching almost everyone’s life in one way or another. 

In the bakery ‘Suess’ (the German word for ‘sweet’) in Berlin Neukölln, near Hermann Square, migration is certainly part of the majority of people here, although not in the way that is outlined by Saunders global dimension. 

Still, the café seems constantly crowded. The coveted seats, especially those near the front door, are as much sought after as the scarce remaining resources of the planet. Here, it is not uncommon to witness wars breaking out when wrinkle-faced older women struggle with young backpackers or large families from the orient over tables and chairs, with the existing language barrier reducing altercations to the use of sign language. 

With the bakery being located right next to a bus stop, with people getting on and off the passing busses, there is a constant coming and going of people and the occasional accident when people bump into those sitting in the café with coffee cups trembling like an earthquake of magnitude 5 on the Richter scale is unavoidable.

City air makes you free «is a well-known German folk wisdom, based on a medieval legal principle. Outside the bakery ‘Suess’ however, the air smells of exhaust fumes, beer and wood polish, perfume and concrete. 

Still, there is never a shortage of guests wanting to sit there, despite the fact that it rather unceremoniously overlooks a busy road. The guests, as well as the pedestrians hurrying by, embody the explosive demographic mix of the Neukölln district, which according to the district mayor exists throughout the country in similar measures but in reality Neukölln is the only place in the whole of Germany where this very unique mix exists. 

Neukölln is today what Brooklyn was in the US in the seventies or Brick Lane in the UK in the eighties. 

The unique blend of languages spoken here is as Babylonian as the people who meet in the street and occasionally stop to have a little chat and exchange a few ideas. Some encounters however are of an involuntary nature, such as the little run-in of the two ladies, who recently started a fight  in the bakery’s doorway.

One lady, rather obese in stature and in her mid-forties, was in the process of making her way through the crowd towards the exit. In her hand, she was balancing a tray packed full of cakes and scones  which she was trying to juggle and manoeuvre over the heads of her fellow shoppers. She was making good progress when suddenly she bumbped into another lady: a rather Prussian looking blonde, almost military one could say, who was waiting for the bus and was obstructing the exit. 

"Move out of the way'', - snapped the lady with the tray.''Don’t just stand there like a scarecrow!'' The addressee, looking rather harshly at the other turned slowly and  looked at the other dismissively and retorted: You are calling ME a scarecrow, you of all people ? If anyone here is a scarecrow then it’s you. I can almost see the straw come out of your boots. My family has been listed in Berlin for more than three generations.''

People here are Bohemian, Huguenots, and Silesian Pomeranian, Turks and Arabs , Swabia and from the travelling community to name just a few

Yes, Neukölln is undoubtedly an «Arrival City, therefore a city where people start their journey, as described in Saunders. For centuries this district has seen one wave of immigrants arrive after the other. People here are Bohemian, Huguenots, and Silesian Pomeranian, Turks and Arabs , Swabia and from the travelling community to name just a few. There is a constant coming and going. Removal vans are a common sight on the streets here, thundering along the main streets and transporting the belongings of young people from all parts of the world- artists, students and enthusiasts have discovered Neukölln for themselves and so have the brokers and greedy estate agents. At the same time there is an incessant flow of people from the new EU member countries of Southeastern Europe and the Balkans.  Long-established Neuköllner are displaced and squeezed out, mostly on the initiative of the job centre  which for many people here is still the main source of income as well as ‘Big Brother’.


Neukölln is evidently currently in a state of limbo due to the many social problems it faces coupled with the above mentioned new conditions. What makes it interesting is that for some, the district acts as a terminus whilst for others it merely is a stopover and for others still it is the dream destination in their life, as described by a young Czech woman, when she began to rave about the urban lifestyle of her  adopted country rather naively.

Maybe the Neukölln of today embodies the ideal of the « compressed diversity « a term coined by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s. With this term Lefebvre described how the perfect city would be made up of many different types of inhabitants: whether rich or poor, conservative or alternative in their nature: ''There is a constant debate and exchange of ideas and social issues are resolved within a very small geographical area.''

As an elderly gentleman put it the other day outside the ''Hitler would turn in his grave if he knew what was happening here?'' Simultaneously, at the next table two young people are discussing the contemporary Afghan literary scene  whilst further to the back, an italian tourist is flirting with the turkish barmaid.

The urban habitat is thus a democtratic principle of participation and exchange of self'' , said the  German author Katja Kullman in an interview with the Neue Zuericher Zeitung. And it’s true: even if this participation manifests itself through undemocratic or racist remarks. Despite its ethnic diversity, its difficult social environment, the clash of subculture and philistines, petty bourgeois and cosmopolitans, religious zealots and decadent hedonists, the borough of  Neukölln is characterized by great tolerance, or rather by the motto: ''Live and let live!''

Those who don’t like it here move away but are rapidly replaced demographically by other newcomers, mostly young and educated people who frequent the trendy cafés to scour the internet for apartment offers which they jump on quickly. After all, this is where it’s at and where you want to be, at least until the circus moves on and finds a new home…

Meanwhile, the streets of Neukölln stay busy, fascinating and improvised places populated by people with big plans.