Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who has painted over far-right graffiti for 31 years, is part of a long history of anti-fascism.
Berlin, Germany – It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in early September on Tempelhof Field, a former airport that was closed in 2008 and converted into a vast public park. Joggers and cyclists circled the track, once a runway, and families spread out across the plane of picnic and grilling space.
At a far end of the park, gunshots rang out. A man was hit with eight shots before his attackers fled. It quickly emerged that the victim, 36-year-old Nidal R, was a member of Berlin’s deeply entrenched organised crime scene – large, powerful, often Arab families that control drug rings, people trafficking and money laundering operations, sometimes out of Neukolln, the borough that flanks the western and southern edges of the park.
A few days later, under the careful watch of hundreds of police, some 2,000 people, including top crime bosses, streamed into a graveyard in western Berlin to pay their respects to the deceased.
That week, locals were offered a brief glimpse into an underworld that rarely emerges in the light of day.
The scenes sent shock waves across the city, but they reverberated most strongly in the neighbourhood where the shooting took place.
Parallel worlds of cultures and classes
Amelie Fischer lives a few streets away. She moved to Neukolln in 2013 for the affordable rents and spacious apartments. When she learned what had happened, she says she was surprised, but not shocked. She pointed out another outburst of violence a month later at a nearby convenience shop where two men were shot.
These, she says, are indicators of something she already knew: That parallel worlds run through the streets of her neighbourhood, side by side but rarely together.
We met on a raw mid-morning in November in a warm restaurant; grey mist curdled in the air every time the door swung open, revealing a quiet plaza and neatly trimmed balconies. Fischer, 30, and her two-year-old son coloured shapes on paper as they waited for friends to arrive.
“There really are parallel worlds here, of cultures and classes,” she said. “I can’t say it’s not dangerous but within the white middle class, it’s not. In the world right next to it, it can be.”
Neukolln stretches across a long, jagged slice of land at the southeastern edge of the capital; the northern half lies within the inner city and is stitched together by a few “kiezes” or neighbourhoods. On the whole, the borough reflects the front lines of the very battleground issues dividing German political opinion, from integration and refugees to crime and gentrification.
There are no easy narratives to describe Neukolln.
To some, it is a working-class district where retirees with meagre pensions can comfortably remain within the city; to others, it is a loud, crime-ridden ghetto sinking under piles of rubbish and discarded furniture; to others still, it is a playground of endless possibilities, where the cost of living is relatively modest and tourists and hipsters can while away the days in third wave coffee shops and the nights in fashionable bars.
According to city statistics reported at the end of 2017, nearly 20 percent of Germans living in Neukolln come from immigrant families and a further 25 percent hail from another country. More than 160 countries are represented here.
There are various layers of social challenges in Neukolln. The unemployment rate is just above 12 percent (the national average is under five percent). Local drug addicts and dealers congregate in the underground subway stations, discarding needles, and rubbish of all sorts piles up in the stations and on the streets.
For Fischer, who grew up in a pretty, medieval city in southern Germany, her early days in Berlin were a heady buzz of bars, clubs and cheap eats. She also met Ali, a Libyan who escaped his country’s civil war in 2011 and arrived in Berlin; they are now expecting their second child. The neighbourhood features myriad kindergartens, family centres and playgrounds that have made it a magnet for young families like theirs.
There really are parallel worlds here, of cultures and classes. I can't say it's not dangerous but within the white middle class, it's not. In the world right next to it, it can be.
But Fischer returns often to the subject of how communities here live alongside each other but separate – the isolated pensioners, the hipsters, the students, the Polish, Turkish, Arab and Bulgarian families, the gangs.
“The only time worlds meet is when the party crowd is looking for drugs, that’s it,” she said, brushing a wispy fringe out of her bright, brown eyes.
Fischer has glossy red hair and laughter that erupts in bursts. When she met Ali, she says he spent much of his time with fellow Arabic speakers in a park where drugs and money changed hands freely. He has since left that world behind, but Fischer says through him, she was tangentially linked to one of the parallel worlds she now laments.
A few days later, in a warmly lit cafe outfitted with Scandinavian wooden panels and hanging plants, Fischer admitted she was considering moving to another city entirely. Navigating Neukolln’s class, language and racial divisions has made her reconsider what she wants for her family.
“How well can integration really work in a neighbourhood like this, can it socially really work?” she pondered out loud. “If you did an experiment and put this cafe directly next to a classic Arabic tea house and ask why people went into one place but not the other, when both offer the same thing, what would they say?”
The new middle class
The Scandinavian design cafe is a symbol of another of Neukolln’s many complex narratives – gentrification. Long undervalued, apartments in the northern half of the borough have rapidly gained in value over the past decade.
The closing of the Tempelhof airport drew in newcomers, particularly on and around the wide, leafy Schiller Boulevard next to the park. There, according to Berlin’s daily Morgenpost, the price per square metre of apartment space was 4.80 euros in 2006 ($5.51). Now, the average is 12.90 ($14.80).
Syndikat, a neighbourhood bar and gathering place for left-wing activists for more than 30 years, is being forced to close because its rental contract hasn’t been renewed. That has sparked fierce protests in the neighbourhood and among the Antifa community. At the same time, cafes and craft beer pubs have cropped up, catering to new residents who Ozgur, a community manager who runs a neighbourhood association called reSource, dubs the “new middle class”.
Ozgur was born in Istanbul but grew up in what he describes as a battered ghetto on the outskirts of Arnhem in the Netherlands. He moved to Berlin nine years ago and embraced the freedom and space, the many services and the affordable quality of life Neukolln offers. In a way, he sees himself as part of the new middle class taking root here, but he is also concerned about segregation entrenched along lines of class, culture and race.
“There are cafes here serving a cup of tea, from a teabag, for 3.50 euros ($4.01), in a neighbourhood where the average salary is really low,” he remarked, weaving between fluent German and English tinged with a Dutch accent. In 2017, 26.8 percent of households across the entire borough of Neukolln were deemed to be at high risk of poverty: they earned less than 60 percent of the median income, or in other words, under 923 euros ($1,058) a month.
“You really have to live in your own bubble, to be ignorant of what’s going on around you, to do that. Because you automatically exclude a majority of locals. But when you’re hanging around the middle class the entire time, you don’t know how the others live,” Ozgur added.
He identifies with the Turkish community here and their frustrations over identity and what it means to be Turkish and German.
In 2015, Ozgur developed a late-night comedy quiz show called Turkish for Hipsters that played in bars and cafes across the city. It delved “into the idiosyncrasies of Turkishness” with humour and nostalgia, interweaving new and old culture with food and jokes.
For several months, it was a rousing success but then, Ozgur says he started to receive angry phone calls and emails from Turks who rejected his take on Turkish culture. Ozgur recalls how one irate man berated him in person. He was forced to end the show in 2017 (and requested that his last name not be used in this article because of the backlash he received).
The role of the middle class here is decisive, how they act.
Ozgur believes gentrification has become an all-too-easy target for those generally frustrated with changing times. He thinks it is short-sighted to say the entire neighbourhood is being displaced and argues that some of the fresh services and businesses have brought new life to the area.
What is far more important, he says, is the responsibility of the well-heeled new arrivals to act in solidarity with the immigrants and other communities around them.
“A lot of the new people say they’re against racism – but you can’t say that and at the same time perpetuate the status quo and the structures that enable racism. It’s not enough to say you’re against something, you have to do something to fight inequality and to get to know the cultures around you.
“The role of the middle class here is decisive, how they act.”
Neukolln: A model for Germany?
Decisive for the immigrant community, but perhaps just as important for older residents who fear their space is dwindling. Michaela Hamann moved to Neukolln more than 20 years ago, attracted by the affordable rents, generous patches of green space and diverse families.
“Now, there are all these young people with tight jeans and fancy backpacks and beards,” she said, folding her hands in mild exasperation.
At 66, Hamann is something of a fixture in this area. Her close-cropped hair is dyed bold green, and, on a wind-whipped Friday afternoon, she arrived at lunch wrapped in several shades of lime and hunter green, donning dangling earrings: In her right ear, the Cookie Monster, in the left, a slice of cake.
In 1989, Hamann crowded around a TV with friends in Hamburg to watch the Berlin Wall falling; she was swept up in the emotion and knew she wanted to live in the newly merged capital. Now, when she traverses the city for work – as a career coach for teenagers – and various social projects, she is viscerally aware of the cleavage where East met West and still marvels at it.
Hamann describes herself as open and curious, and is deeply rooted in her community, engaging with new Syrian families and her Turkish and Arab neighbours. She lives alone, so her community is her social infrastructure. Over a plate of steaming spaghetti, she explains that it’s the fate of the many elderly residents who subsist on limited pensions that worries her.
She says her landlord is renovating in a frenzy and angling to push out a friend in order to flip and rent the flat at a higher price. “She’s my age. Where is she going to go? Where would she find an affordable place to live in the city anymore?” asked Hamann. “We’re really worried because it’s all about money now.”
Later in the week, I met Hamann again as she joined a subsidised meal initiative sponsored by Morus 14, a non-profit organisation promoting integration through education and training for youth. She works the phones in the office and greets locals and visiting police. This particular corner of Neukolln is much maligned for its struggling schools, its drugs, its violence and its decaying infrastructure. But for Hamann, it is home.
She vehemently rejects the “no-go zone” label sometimes attached to Neukolln in German media, calling it nonsense. In fact, if Neukolln is a pressure cooker for the challenges facing Germany, it can also be seen as “a model for how things will be,” she said.
“It’s not just horror and crime here – all in all, it’s fine,” she said. “I feel safe here, I feel accepted.”
Across Europe, the far right is on the rise and it has some of the continent’s most diverse communities in its crosshairs.
To the far right, these neighbourhoods are ‘no-go zones’ that challenge their notion of what it means to be European.
To those who live in them, they are Europe. Watch them tell their stories in This is Europe.