Urban jewel Neukölln – the chili pepper in Berlin’s melting pot

The scruffy borough in Germany's capital – long the destination for poorer immigrants from Turkey and the Balkans – is gentrifying, but not nearly as fast as neighboring districts. And that's just fine, writes one of our editors, a former resident.
I blend right in.

Neukölln goes by many names – Berlin’s Bronx, the hipster ghetto, end station. I called it home for four years and wonder whether it could ever become a permanent one.

Why I liked this gritty, grubby, gentrifying inner-city melting pot so much and still do is a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe it’s the diversity. Maybe it’s all the energy. Or maybe, quite simply, it’s the sharp contrast to Düsseldorf, a comparatively sterile city, where I lived for more than 30 years before coming to Berlin.

Would I recommend living in Neukölln? The short answer is yes, but it depends on where and, frankly, who you are. And what about investing in real estate? Absolutely and the faster the better if you have the cash and the connections.

Neukölln is evolving from Berlin’s rough-and-tumble working-class borough and longtime immigrant enclave to a hugely hyped hub of students and artists, expats and bourgeois bohemians. The transformation in some parts, like the Schiller Kiez (Berlin-speak for neighborhood), is occurring fast. But it's still relatively slow in other parts, for instance, along the main shopping streets of Hermannstrasse, Karl-Marx-Allee and Sonnenallee, where for a moment you might think you’re in the Middle East.

Social problems run deep

Neukölln, and specifically the Rixdorf quarter, has been home to immigrants for centuries. Already in the 18th century, King Friedrich invited Bohemian Protestants to settle there. Centuries later, it remains a hub of immigration in the German capital. My neighbors included Turks and Syrians, Bulgarians and Croatians, Somalis and Nigerians. Blended in between were growing numbers of young Europeans, especially from France, Spain and England.

Apart from being one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in Germany, Neukölln, with its 325,000 inhabitants, is also one of the country’s most economically deprived. Unemployment is around 12 percent, compared with the national average of 5.3 percent. Social problems run deep. Not surprisingly, crime is a particular problem, and not just the pickpocketing, home burglaries and store robberies.

Don't be fooled by the graffiti - rents have skyrocketed.

Arab family gangs feel right at home in Neukölln. Many of them first arrived in the Kurdish-Lebanese immigration wave of the 1970s and 1980s. The six-part drama series “4 Blocks” offers a peek inside their guarded lives. The series depicts a fictionalized version of the real world of Arab clans in a four-block area around Sonnenallee, using stories of current and former gang members to add authenticity. It gets you about as close to this gangster scene as you ever want to be.

Trash is another Neukölln peculiarity. Sidewalks are cluttered with stoves, fridges, sofas, beds, chairs, clothes, pizza boxes – more in this area than anywhere else in Berlin. Over 800 tons every year, in fact. In some places, the rubbish piles up for weeks. Picture all that junk against a background of graffiti-smeared facades, doors and windows.

Add to that image the junkies roaming certain streets, the homeless tucked in their sleeping bags, the beggars of all ages and nationalities in front of stores and subway entrances, and the loud groups of young immigrant men at Hermannplatz looking for some action. Welcome to Neukölln.

But none of this is keeping new residents from pouring in; new bars, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques from opening up; and new housing developments and office towers from changing the skyline. Edgy Neukölln is mega “in,” especially the northern part, where I lived.

The closure of the historic Tempelhof Airport, one of the two landing sites during the Berlin Airlift, has further increased the area’s popularity. Between 1948 and 1949, American and British pilots flew more than 278,000 flights to bring food and other supplies to beleaguered West Berliners after Soviet troops closed all land connections into the city. Today, joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers take advantage of the tarmac runways. Others enjoy the 386 hectors (902 acres) of open space for barbecuing, flying kites or just chilling. In a way, Tempelhof is to Berliners what Central Park is to New Yorkers – a retreat from the urban jungle – just without the trees.

Still getting an Airlift: Tempelhof Flughafen.

Not surprisingly, rents that used to be dirt cheap are skyrocketing, driving many longtime Neukölln residents, including the immigrants, to housing projects on Berlin’s edges. If just a few years ago investors viewed the borough as too scruffy, too working-class, too immigrant, many are now buying up everything they can.

Emanuele Boni, a real estate fund manager and entrepreneur, is one of them. In an earlier interview, he told me that he’s done well investing in shabby Berlin boroughs within the light-rail ring, like Neukölln, before gentrification hit. “From a real-estate perspective, these areas are central, well connected and have nice buildings,” he said. “People want to live here and are happy to pay the price.”

Yes, many immigrants with cheap rents are being pushed out in the process, Mr. Boni admits.  The same thing happened in London’s Notting Hill district in the 1980s, which was full of immigrants from the West Indies, he said. The gentrification underway in Neukölln, he argues, isn’t destroying the area’s multicultural fabric but replacing it with another – not with “boring Düsseldorf insurance managers,” but with "young, creative, fun people” who come from around the world “because they’re attracted to the city.”

Many Berliners fear, however, that the city’s status as a young European’s destination of choice is destroying what has made it so attractive. A longtime Neukölln resident recently told me how much the place has changed over the past few years, from underground bars playing techno and serving locals €1 beers 24 hours a day to fancy clubs offering cool jazz and €15 cocktails.

A couple of years ago, Neukölln tenants collected signatures in support of a new law introducing Milieuschutz, or “social environment protection,” to ensure that their neighborhoods remain lively and socially mixed. Under the law, real estate is shielded against owners’ attempts to renovate and raise rents to the extent that existing renters could be forced out. Yet the rents keep rising.

I lucked out with my apartment: It was affordable and in a great location. And I was fortunate to have experienced something else: Neukölln made me feel four years younger. That’s priceless.

John Blau is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, who recently returned to Düsseldorf. To contact the author: [email protected]