Wolfgang Kil Architekturkritiker und Publizist

Former supermarket, now Russian parish, Berlin-Lichtenberg. Foto: W. Kil


From Kreuzberg to Marzahn

New Migrant Communities in Berlin

Berlin is undergoing a transformation from a "special zone" of Cold War times to a multicultural metropolis of the upcoming century. Despite continuing ethnic inequalities, Old West Berlin had mainly positive experiences with its immigrant communities, especially the Turks, Kurds, Poles and Yugoslavs in Kreuzberg and Wedding. Berlin should now be working intensively with its newest immigrants, particularly those from Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and North Africa, to develop a new culture that might offer a positive signal to Europe about the integration of migrants. This is the challenge confronting Berlin in the coming decade.

Reflecting on that problem, I would argue that, in earlier decades, social integration worked best 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. Yet, over time, Kreuzberg has turned into a world-known hotspot of subculture and multicultural success. Nowadays, the Eastern outskirts of Marzahn and Hellersdorf are the object of contempt. They are the favorite port of entry for the newest wave of immigrants. Despite a bad reputation as “Plattenbau-Ghetto,” one hopes that these neighbourhoods will have a career similar to Kreuzberg’s.

Town planners must consider what an important role these newcomers play in the development of a city. To be sure, there are social measures to help the newest immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Kasakhstan to organize their communities along the same lines as the German neighbourhoods. However, social services pay far less attention to the Vietnamese, Africans, and other immigrants who are left to help themselves. Yet, they do it quite well. Their communities are growing economically. From this point of view, Berlin has to acknowledge some deeper changes at her edges than in her central core.

For a glimpse of this new Berlin multicultural society, take the S-Bahn eastbound: to Ahrensfelde (or the U-Bahn to Hoehnow, if you prefer visiting Hellersdorf). Do not leave the train until you reach the final stations. When you arrive, there will be a lot of high-rise apartment houses, six to eleven stories in the air, forming a contemporary variant on an ancient city wall that separates the last outskirts of Berlin – more than 20 miles from Alexanderplatz or Brandenburg Gate – from the endless fields and meadows of Brandenburg.

As you leave the Marzahn line at its final station and cross the broad avenue via the pedestrian bridge, you enter the Havemann-Passagen, a small shopping arcade. It was built in the early nineties and therefore, helpfully prepared for smaller shops and individual enterprises to move right in. Very suddenly, these tiny business facilities were occupied by Vietnamese and Russian shopkeepers, who were faster on the draw and more prepared to take the risks of a start-up enterprise than their German neighbours. Thus, from the start, these new immigrant communities concentrated in the Eastern outskirts of East Berlin (Lichtenberg, Hohenschoenhausen, Marzahn). The newcomers differ in several ways. The “Russians” are composed of two groups – either Jews, whom the last GDR government invited to immigrate, or families of the Spaetaussiedler, i.e., very late descendants of German settlers in ancient Russia that German law allowed to “come home.” With special immigration rights (as “Germans” by blood under jus sanguinis), both groups of Russians received flats in the large housing estates of the Eastern outskirts. Only a short time later, the next wave of less privileged newcomers settled in the same area on their own. They preferred living among their national fellows better than in the anonymous (and more expensive) central parts of town. No one knows how many “Russians” live in Berlin (or even in Germany) for a strange, but typically “German” reason: From the very moment that they receive a German passport, they are no longer counted as a special category in official statistics. They have German names on their doors and their papers. However, in school or at work, the differences between native-born Germans and aussiedler are obvious and commonplace. The “Russian” kids use their native language. They maintain relationships and cultivate familiar connections back home, often during summer vacation. And very suddenly, they have created their own Russian youth culture, drawing upon music from Moscow or Petersburg bands. Like the Turkish youngsters before them, the Russian born youngsters aren’t Germans, and it is not yet clear if they ever will become Germans. Nevertheless, the Russian immigrants, both parents and children, Jews and Gentiles, enjoy the security of the German social welfare state. In this sense, they share the fortunes of most Germans in the struggle for education or jobs, or the boredom and frustration of joblessness.

The Vietnamese way of life looks quite different. Initially, several tens of thousands were brought to the GDR as cheap labor. Normally, the workers lived in large groups in communal residences. Following the “Wende,” they all lost their jobs. However, many were prevented from returning home. For some terrible weeks or months, they lived in fear without residence permits. Although several thousands were allowed to stay, they never became clients of the welfare state and had to survive on their own. Many became entrepreneurs and a well-organized, ethnic economic infrastructure emerged. The Vietnamese established import, wholesale, transport, repair service, and other businesses (including black market and other unavoidable criminal activities). These were originally based anywhere between Lichtenberg and Marzahn in the vacant office buildings and storehouses left empty by post-1990 deindustrialization. This rapidly growing shadow economy very soon became legal. Vietnamese names have appeared on well-situated fashion stores in shopping malls or even in downtown districts. Of course, there are Russian and Vietnamese shops in other parts of town, too. But in the inner city, Russians target the tourist market, offering mostly folklore goods, and in East Berlin quarters like Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain, Vietnamese grocers succeeded the old Berlin “Tante Emma” shops. They function like “normal” shops without any Asian character.

But in the city’s outskirts in Marzahn and Hellersdorf, both Russians and Vietnamese not only serve German customers or tourists, but also their ethnic fellows. Therefore, in the Russian shops you’ll find not only “Matrjoshkas” or Vodka bottles, but dried fish, Shiguli-beer or latest video tapes from Moscow studios or music from Siberian underground bands. As in immigrant enclaves around the world, transnational intermediaries offer ways to stay in touch with the homeland: cheap phone calls to Chisinau, Almaty or Chabarowsk; eastbound travel offers; the programme of the Russian speaking Čechow theatre. Countless handwritten advertisements on pieces of paper in shop windows and on walls offer private lessons in everything from German to violin playing.

The evolving multicultural reality can be found right in the middle of Havemann Passages. There is a 24-hour restaurant and bar called “Truce” where you can meet people of all classes and generations. On weekend nights, young Marzahnians meet there for drink and dance. Reflecting the great number of Russian youth among the clientele, heavy spirits can be ordered not only in small glasses (as the Germans do), but in whole bottles (as Russians like it). But in a gesture towards Germany, people accompany a liter of Vodka or Brandy with a can of Coca-Cola. I never had such an authentic feeling of a Brooklyn bar in Germany than here at the northern edge of Marzahn. But when I confessed this to a Marzahn audience, they got angry with me, because they mistook Brooklyn for Bronx. There is nothing they fear more than being labelled as the “Bronx of Berlin”!

To explain the astonishing emergence of an urban “zone of tolerance” so far from the city center, one should notice the fundamental change in the public image of the “socialist” housing estates. Since 1990, expert and public opinion unanimously and repeatedly spoke of the Plattenbau the same disparaging manner: These developments represent totally inhuman modernism. They are concretized collectivism, the ghettos of tomorrow! Just wait a few years, and everybody able to do so will flee. And a number of inhabitants did so, of course: They left for little single-family houses, spreading like cancer all over the Brandenburg suburban countryside around the city of Berlin. Thanks to this exodus, an increasing number of flats fell free, and the valuation of these buildings declined.

In this manner, the history of old-fashioned housing in inner cities repeats itself in the periphery: “Every town that has not room and work enough for all, 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 Schloegel so rationally once described old Kreuzberg, the previously neglected “Eastern-like” neighbourhood of former West Berlin. But Schloegel also praised the “dump” as “the first anchor-place for countless immigrants.”
Such praise could equally apply to East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. In the seventies, this neighbourhood and Kreuzberg were officially condemned as a “slums”, but became favorite refuges for “new” Berliners: foreign immigrants, to be sure, but also young men evading West German army service and dissidents from East German small towns. On both sides of the Berlin Wall, these “inadaptable” elements created new ways of life, new urban trends, new ideas of individuality and happiness. They squatted in older houses that they found valuable. And in both inner-city neighbourhoods – Kreuzberg in the West as well as Prenzlauer Berg in the East – the “New Berliners” ultimately won. They established the trends for the city’s future. Urban society got a kick in the pants. The squatters prevented the condemnation of old houses, and planners started to rethink urban renewal policies in older residential neighbourhoods.

The process by which modernist, i.e. master-planned, townscapes adapt to new, often chaotic social circumstances, is useful to observe. It is happening quietly, without fanfare, before local government intervenes. Why are these ill-famed outskirts are 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 consequent public neglect. It is precisely the local disorder and loss of cultural valuation that create the conditions for revival. They open up spaces where "circumstances would come up to dance”.

Urban neighbourhoods passing through crises and decline are the very places where a city faces its next set of challenges. In the 1980s, Kreuzberg was the locale where Berlin learned how to live on despite the disappearance of industrial work, the beginning of worldwide migrations, and the decline of social welfare systems. Today, in Marzahn and Hellersdorf, one can assess the fundamental changes in Berlin after the Fall of the Wall. Everything here indicates that the city has gained a new geographical accent. As John Czaplicka (1998) once said, Berlin has become a frontier town, the doorstep of the East. Furthermore, Berlin will not be able to avoid most of the transformation problems that the other Eastern metropolises have to manage. Although the local government does not like to be compared in this way, it is nonetheless necessary to state that Berlin’s problems are closer to those of Warsaw, Vienna or Budapest than to those of Milan, Brussels or London. Just open your ears on the tram or S-Bahn and listen to the people travelling with you.


Contribution for an article, published in cooperation with Hilary Silver: "From Kreuzberg to Marzahn: New Migrant Communities in Berlin", in: German Politics and Society, Georgetown University, USA, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter 2006