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Sonnenallee: Germany's hippest crime scene

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
March 2, 2019

Tabloid headlines and a popular cable TV series have made this boulevard notorious throughout the country. But some residents say the street's biggest problem is gentrification, not crime.

Police raid a crime clan headquarters in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

For many Germans, the name Sonnenallee signifies two things: crime and clans.

This bustling four-lane thoroughfare in the Neukölln district, with its high proportion of immigrants and foreigners, is known colloquially as "Arab street," and Arabic signs and flags of Middle Eastern nations are displayed everywhere outside its corner markets, shisha lounges, betting shops and falafel restaurants.

This area shot to negative prominence in 2006, when teachers at a local school, the Rütli-Schule, published a plea for help in newspapers, claiming their ethnically and culturally diverse students were beyond control.

The district's dubious reputation has been reinforced by a spate of recent reports in the German media about criminal Arab clans— reports that have inspired made-for-cable crime series such as 4 Blocks, a hugely popular mix of The Godfather and The Sopranos (the main protagonist is even called Tony) set against the vivid backdrop of the purportedly mean streets of Neukölln.

That's Sonnenallee in fiction and in the media. Residents say reality is quite different.

Read more: Italian Mafia, bikers, Berlin clans: Europe's crime gangs

A film still from the series "4 Blocks"
The series "4 Blocks" depicts the Sonnenallee area as dominated by a criminal Arab clanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Handout/2017 Turner Broadcasting System Europe Limited & Wiedemann & Berg Television GmbH & Co.

Real and imagined threats

"Please erase those series from your mind," says Hanadi Mourad, an immigrant from Lebanon who has lived in Neukölln for decades and who now volunteers her time informing Muslim women about educational and career opportunities in Berlin.

Contrary to the view that Syrian clans dominate Sonnenallee, its Arab community is quite diverse, and includes many Lebanese and Palestinians who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, roughly a quarter of the people with foreign citizenship have a Turkish background, compared with 13 percent from Arab countries.

And many long-term residents are worried less about crime emanating from these groups than another "foreign threat" — investors from outside Berlin snapping up real estate and driving up the cost of living.

Hanadi Mourad
Hanadi Mourad says she feels more threatened by outside investors than by foreign crime gangsImage: DW/J. Chase

'Between vegan and halal'

Mourad describes her former work as a tour guide, introducing wealthy southern German tourists from Munich and Stuttgart to exotically lower-class and multicultural Neukölln.

"Now they all live here," she jokes. 

Berlin seizes crime clan assets

The global financial crisis of 2008 triggered a run on cheap Berlin real estate by investors from Germany, Europe and the rest of the world. Neukölln was a particularly attractive target. One result is that rental prices per square meter have doubled in the past 10 years, and Neukölln's tenants now spend on average 37 percent of their disposable income on places to live — with those least fortunate being forced to cough up more than half of their take-home pay for rent.

But the influx of money also has upsides. After being completely restructured, the Rütli-Schule now goes by the name Rütli Campus and offers university-track degrees. And Neukölln has overtaken Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg as the top destination for urban hipsters and startup entrepreneurs in the German capital.

That fact has not escaped the notice of Arab and Turkish businesspeople, some of whom are now trying to appeal to the new, more affluent clientele. Today's Sonnenallee exists, as Rütli Campus director Cordula Heckmann puts it, "between vegan and halal."

Al Jazeera pastry shop in Berlin
Arabic signs are everywhere on the 5-kilometer-long SonnenalleeImage: Stuart Braun

'Wrongly understood tolerance?'

Gentrification notwithstanding, it's undeniable that the atmosphere on Sonnenallee is considerably brusquer and potentially more intimidating to outsiders than in Berlin's more genteel districts. Groups of young men congregate on street corners talking loudly among themselves, and traffic is constant and aggressive, punctuated by police and ambulance sirens and cars honking their horns as they swerve around double-parked vehicles.

Nor can the street be described as a model of integration. Arab and non-Arab residents and frequenters of Sonnenallee confirm that interaction between the two groups is minimal. To an extent, parallel societies really do exist here. For Karsten Woldeit, the interior affairs spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Berlin, one cause of crime is the "insufficient willingness to integrate among people from certain cultural circles."

"For years we failed to address the problem in the name of a wrongly understood tolerance, and that is now coming back to haunt us bitterly," says Woldeit.

Sonnenallee in Berlin
Police say they need to do a lot more work to determine the role clans might play on Neukölln streetsImage: DW/J. Chase

Not much known about clans

So is this part of Neukölln really a kind of "no-go area" ruled by the sort of criminal Arab clans depicted in 4 Blocks? Police statistics suggest not. Authorities have calculated an adjusted crime rate of some 22,000 incidents per 100,000 residents. That may be on the high end for Berlin, but it's lower than other areas like Alexanderplatz in eastern Berlin or the government district, both without similarly large Arab populations.

Authorities say not enough is known about alleged criminal clan structures to generalize about them.

"I definitely don't follow the arguments of the AfD," says Peter Diebel, the director of Police Precinct 54, which includes Sonnenallee. "I don't know who is mainly involved with this sort of crime. And I can't see why an inability to integrate should play a role because I'm not familiar enough with this circle of people as a whole."

Researchers concur that at present, the idea of clan criminality is more a hypothesis than a fact. Criminologist Robert Pelzer of Berlin's Technical University says the topic is "very distorted" by the media.

"People's perceptions are over-defined by reporting on crime without any empirical basis," Pelzer told DW. "The authorities are only starting to get a picture of the situation."

Read more: What comes next for Berlin's building squatters? 

Lea Strunk at a conference on Sonnenallee in Berlin
Young entrepreneurs like Lea Strunk (right) aren't put off by relatively high crime ratesImage: DW/J. Chase

'Room to develop'

One person who has had personal experience with crime is fashion designer Lea Strunk, who founded a cooperative studio on Sonnenallee almost seven years ago. She says in the early days, Arab youths in their teens or even younger tried to rob her twice.

But the fashion designer remained undeterred, characterizing the incidents more as childish follies than serious attempts. She says her business has since been accepted in the neighborhood and she praises Neukölln, calling it an "experimental laboratory" for young entrepreneurs.

"There's still room here to develop," Strunk says. "There's not as much pressure here, financially and in other senses, as in other parts of the city."

People like Strunk don't fit in comfortably with tabloid reports about violence on Sonnenallee and crime series like 4 Blocks. But they are very much part of the evolution of a part of Berlin often superficially presented as a flashpoint of minority-driven crime.

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