Back in the early 90’s, when I was living in Berlin, there was endless argument about the best place to live in the city. My friends and I all lived in different districts, each with its own flavour and charm, and so, when meeting, we tended to alternate between bourgeois Charlottenburg, sedate Schoenberg, sketchy Kreuzberg and trendy Prenzlauerberg. The neighbourhood we rarely visited was Neukölln - lacking in cool cafes and lively bars, it didn't hold much allure for us.
How times have changed. Ok, it's been a couple of decades but still...this once poor, working-class, immigrant area has undergone a complete metamorphosis and, by all accounts, has become a hipster paradise. Why? Well in part due to the city's housing crisis (which has seen rental prices soar across the board) - clearly rents were much cheaper in this area. But something else too - this is an area in close proximity to the city centre. No surprise then that in the last 10 years there’s been an influx of students, internationals, artists and young millennials, all desperate to live on a budget, and experience some hype. Today, then I’m in Neukölln, wandering the streets, curious to see how much this gritty neighbourhood has changed and if it’s really as ‘cool’ as its rumoured to be.
Alighting at HermannPlatz. I'm happy to see that some vestige of the old 'hood remains, in the shape of an imbiss (a generic name in Germany for a fast food stand). This one, if my memory serves me correctly, has been here forever (probably, like most, a small family operation). As a veggie, it never held much appeal for me but if you're a lover of Bratwurst sausage, cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup, this is the place for you.
This has got to be street food at its most German...cheap, fattening and very meaty! Hipsters beware!
Nevertheless, signs that the neighbourhood is going up in the world are everywhere...once dilapidated building have been renovated and their whites and greys have been replaced with cheery colours. I walk past a Turkish store that actually sells vegan wraps - out of curiosity (and because it's lunchtime and I'm ravenous) I go in and purchase one - it's delicious. 'Vegan' wasn't a word you saw much on menus years back - now, as I look around, I see smoothie joints, lentil and alfalfa sprout burgers and cocktail menus at every turn. I stumble upon "Gordons" on Schillerstrasse. Part restaurant, part vinyl store, it's owned by two entrepreneurial Israelis who are serving little plates of Levantine heaven (Shakshuka, bourekas, hummus) to locals and tourists alike.
And however upmarket and trendy the area has become, there are still clues to its past - namely a strong Turkish influence. Want your hair cut, Orient style? You're in the right place. Need a cheap fruit and veg market? It's on your doorstep. Within a couple of minutes of stepping off the main drag, I feel like I could be in Turkey - there are stores filled with Mediterranean delicacies, women in headscarves and a large mosque at which close to a hundred men are praying in the streets.
Suddenly, I realise it's Friday lunchtime and clearly the prayer hall can't accommodate them all. I'm just a quick u-bahn ride from the KuDamn but I feel as if I've stumbled into a parallel universe.
I wander off down Selchower strasse (and come across yet another vinyl store), then over a cup of coffee in a local cafe, fall into casual conversation with an Italian guy. He tells me he moved here from Naples, in search of work...bBy day a barrista and by night a barman, he loves this area but, predictably, can't afford to live here and faces a long commute each day.
I ask him what's so great about the area? The vintage stores, he says...the international vibe (he hears Spanish, Italian and English on every street corner). The promenade in the area, where he walks on his breaks, and Tempelhof in the summer (once an airport, for 10 years now it's been a huge, green space, perfect for skateboarding, flying kites and taking a bracing walk on a chilly Winter's afternoon). There are also still a few 'kneipes' around - traditional working-class German bars. He motions to one on a street corner nearby - it has a sign outside of a man with a walking cane and top hat. Apparently, the beer inside is the cheapest in town...
After I've left him, I find the promenade, close to Selchower strasse, and walk around the streets for a while - the buildings are beautiful (all restored of course) and the pavements are clean and tidy. This is the upside of gentrification no doubt.
Slowly, I walk back to the main drag. Before I leave I figure I could do with some vitamins - and what better place to pick up fruit than at one of the local Turkish markets. Super fresh and pretty cheap even by Berlin standards, it's obviously the place to come for groceries. I can only wonder though how long it will stay in business because the older I've become, the more neighbourhoods around the world I've seen gentrified and Neukölln doesn't strike me as being different. Vegan cafes and vintage stores are great - but what about the old-timers, the people that lived in this neighbourhood through thick and thin? If they haven't been forced to move already, because of spiralling rents, how much longer will they be able to hold out?
At what price does gentrification come?What an irony that a district once home to poor foreign immigrants is now home to what seems to me quite wealthy foreign immigrants. And will this, in turn, spark great resentment? (If it hasn't already?) What does this mean for the future of Neukölln - in a couple more years will it be completely unaffordable or will the hype die down, as people move out and into other new, 'emerging' neighbourhoods? Sounds corny but I guess only time will tell.
Next time, I'll be on the mean streets of Kreuzberg, since I can't wait to see if Kottbusser Tor (or Kottie") as we used to call it, has changed much - for the better or the worse. Watch this space.