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Taking the wrecking ball to crime

Carsten Grün
May 31, 2017

Economically weak municipalities in Germany's Ruhr region hope to raise property values in problematic neighborhoods by tearing down junk buildings. The local state government is putting up 30 million euros for project.

No-Go-Area - Abriss als Lösung?
Image: DW/C. Grün

It is market day in Marxloh. People walk through the streets with bags full of fruit and vegetables. There is little to suggest that this Duisburg neighborhood is one of the most underprivileged in all of Germany. Marxloh has a lot of beautiful old buildings, plenty of parks and many small shops. A neighborhood like this would be considered hip in Hamburg or Berlin. But that is not the case in Duisburg, located in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Here it is thought of as a lost neighborhood and is emblematic of a number of similar neighborhoods in the Ruhr region - like Hochfeld and Bruckhausen in Duisburg, Altenessen and Katernberg in Essen, Dortmund North or Ückendorf in Gelsenkirchen.

Such lost neighborhoods exist throughout the region; some residents refer to them as "no-go areas." Local politicians, like departing state interior minister Ralf Jäger of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), don't call them that though, and they also refuse to acknowledge that lawlessness thrives there. But the fact of the matter is, whatever you call them, there is no denying that these underprivileged neighborhoods exist. They are populated with a difficult mix of ethnicities, who are often impoverished and poorly educated. Such neighborhoods are frequently crime-ridden and unsafe as well. The problem has been talked about for a long time, yet little has been done to fix it.

Knocking down criminal structures

Now municipal governments hope to fix the problem through demolition. In many such neighborhoods, criminal structures have been established in the vicinity of so-called junk properties. Southeastern European immigrants are often connected to such structures.

The city of Duisburg is now pushing forward with demolition plans. Some 53 houses in the city have been declared uninhabitable since last year. Many had been packed full with residents from Eastern Europe, often Roma. Roughly 18,000 have come to Duisburg over the last several years; most are EU residents from Bulgaria and Romania, so they have come legally. Landlords have made no improvements to the buildings these people have been living in and the list of defects compiled by inspectors is long: mold, faulty wiring, no running water, leaking roofs.

No-Go-Area - Abriss als Lösung?
This cafe in the Marxloh neighborhood of Duisburg is fenced inImage: DW/C. Grün

Crime spreads quickly in such neighborhoods, and law enforcement authorities are alarmed. No one minced words at a recent meeting of police chiefs from the region, and what they had to say was not encouraging. Duisburg Chief of Police Elke Bartels was forthright, saying that police work alone would not be enough. "When we get the call that means everything else has failed - kindergarten, family, school," he said. 

Slumlords and scapegoats

Professor Thomas Feltes, a criminologist at the University of Bochum, says that the demolition plans are more symbolic than anything else. "Tearing down a building won't do anything if one fails to transform the basic foundation of the neighborhood," he said. "One has to analyze the infrastructure, identify problems, and finally police, social, health and school administrators have to come up with a common solution."

Feltes says pointing the finger at immigrants from Eastern Europe is also the wrong approach. "They are just scapegoats, identified as the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "But crime comes from the neighborhood itself - poor infrastructure and squalid living conditions are the source. Private investors who let properties deteriorate are a big part of the problem. Private property rights are well-protected here, so municipalities don't have much say in the matter."

Recently, Duisburg's municipal spokesperson, Susanne Stölting, told local press that the influx of people from Southeastern Europe was part of an insidious system. She explained that people from the region were signed up for fake minimum-wage jobs - which still pay more than jobs in their home countries - and then fake employers cashed in on additional social benefits while collecting extortionate rents for accommodations that defy description.

No-Go-Area - Abriss als Lösung?
Aging buildings in areas like Marxloh have become the focus of local government leadersImage: DW/C. Grün

Turkish immigrants struggle

Many Turkish immigrants living here have problems with their new neighbors. Duisburg police chief Bartels says that Turkish residents that have lived in Marxloh and Hochfeld for years have approached her pleading that she do something to get the Southeastern European immigrants to move on. But it remains to be seen whether demolition will solve the problem. Just because buildings disappear it doesn't mean crime and criminals will.  

"From an urban development standpoint it makes sense to take some properties off the market," said Sebastian Kurtenbach, a specialist on urbanism and immigration at the University of Bielefeld who has conducted extensive research in Marxloh and Dortmund North. "But that will not solve the crime problem. Demolition is not a cure for geographically concentrated poverty."

He sees such measures as politically motivated action and suggests a different path. "There are projects in Dortmund North that give new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria the chance to renovate apartments," Kurtenbach said. "This gives immigrants job experience while at the same time making properties rentable. Such projects also integrate immigrants. They are promising, but of course they are also costlier." He also pointed out that most people living in such neighborhoods have little or no chance of entering the housing market. "Discrimination against foreigners is even higher in the housing market than it is in the rest of society," Kurtenbach said.

North Rhine-Westphalia's Ministry of Urban Development has pledged 33 million euros ($37 million) for the demolition and renovation of junk properties this year. Cities in the region that will profit from the subsidies are: Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Hagen, Hamm, Herne and Wuppertal, which is the only city on the list that is not part of the Ruhr region. It remains unclear whether the model will have a future. According to the ministry, federal approval is needed to move forward.