An unloved, underprivileged district south of the River Spree has become a magnet for Berlin scenesters. DW's reporter offers a homeboy view of an area usually dismissed as a ghetto.
Recently, while eating a taco at a joint near where I live in Berlin's Neukoelln neighborhood, I overheard a telling conversation. Two young English-speaking women, probably around 20 and obviously recent arrivals to our fair city, were talking about the difficulty of finding a suitably located apartment.
"It sucks being in Prenzlauer Berg," sighed one. "I have to travel 30 minutes to get to a decent bar."
I nearly blew mole sauce through my nostrils laughing. Eleven years ago, when I permanently moved to Berlin, my entire circle of friends lived in the Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte districts in the former East and would draw air circles beside their temples upon learning I'd chosen to invest in property south of the River Spree.
Neukoelln is still very international
Back then, Neukoelln existed in the popular imagination only as a kind of forbidden zone for lower-class alcoholics, people who chronically forgot to take their Lithium and double-digit Turkish families roasting whole lambs in three-room tenement flats.
But times change, and cities with them. These days, most parts of Prenzlauer Berg offer all the charm and excitement of a PTA meeting, whereas it's virtually impossible to spit across the street in the northern section Neukoelln without hitting an independent fashion designer's studio or a bar staffed by people who look like occasional members of The Arcade Fire.
As recently as 2006, Neukoelln attracted the opprobrium of the nation, after teachers at a neighborhood high school wrote to the mayor complaining that it was too dangerous to hold any kind of instruction in. Fast forward to now and hipsters sport t-shirts reading "I'm a Ruetli student."
Gentrification happens elsewhere
The first step toward gentrification? I'll never know exactly what the term means, other than a place someone liked being taken over by people whom that person doesn't like. What I do know is that in the past 10 years the value of my apartment has roughly doubled, and I can get reasonably authentic Mexican food without having to inflict undue wear and tear on the soles of my Adidas.
This 1920's housing estate in Neukoelln is a UNESCO World Heritage site
Walk down Weserstrasse, which has become the street of choice for many 20-somethings to get hammered, and most of the bars still feel like they're being run by students on the very edge of legality.
Moreover, I doubt Neukoelln could go the Prenzlauer Berg-Mitte route, even if it wanted to. First of all, it's much bigger, and over 20 percent of its 300,000-plus inhabitants are foreigners - the vast majority working-class Turkish people, and not ex-pat computer programmers from New York or London.
Ironically, one reason student-types first begin moving in was because the U8 subway line was an easy connection up to the then-trendy districts in the East. They've since discovered that it's more fun to stay in their own neighborhood to party.
And for the time being, at least, I'm having fun watching them do it.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Kate Bowen