Where there is shadow, there is light
by Max Bach
Neukölln’s reputation precedes itself. Berlin’s “problem district” (there’s only one?) is a popular topic since it represents the causes, both real and imagined, of the difficulties most 21st century European cities see themselves facing: non-European immigration, unemployment, crime, violence, unsupervised youth, etc. Even Rixdorf, as this area was known up until 1912, had a bad reputation as a district of prostitution, lowlifes, and sinful entertainment – which is why it was renamed “Neukölln,” to escape its negative connotation. Hence the nervous curiosity of stepping out of the Ringbahn to a vibrant mix of people and sights, the storied “outsiders” of Berlin society.
The impressive, renovated and landmark-protected brick train station sits on Karl-Marx-Straße. Pedestrian and auto traffic are both heavy, with people changing trains and buses, going to and from one big and worn-looking chain store to the next or hanging around on corners looking suspicious but approachable. The tunnel under the S-Bahn tracks, also under landmark protection, is surprisingly stunning in a steel-futuristic way. Last year, the Berlin senate sponsored a light and art installation (it’s still up) under the 1927-built bridge, making it a bit less prone to criminal behavior and sharpening the neighborhood’s image.
Karl-Marx-Straße is where people go to shop and stroll. All the way up to Hermannplatz are malls, department stores, chain stores, 99-cent stores, hair salons (“Pimp My Hair”), and markets and restaurants with Turkish, Polish, Balkan, African, and Asian cuisines. Even the big chain stores without branches here seem upset about the fact, and try to compensate with huge signs on the otherwise empty outer walls of the apartment buildings across the street from the Ringbahn station, some in German and Turkish.
Neukölln was spared much of the various destruction of the twentieth century. On one side of Karl-Marx-Straße is the Bohemian village founded in 1733 by religious reformist refugees fleeing Catholic-dominated Bohemia. Its German pre-WWII feeling was strong enough for Volker Schlöndorff to use it as a stand-in for Danzig and film his adaptation of The Tin Drum in 1979 on Uthmannstraße. Despite the proximity to the din of Karl-Marx-Straße, this former village still feels like just that, with two-storied houses and lush gardens in the inner courtyards.
On the other side of Karl-Marx-Straße is Körnerpark, another kind of anachronistic Berlin idyll. This space was the personal property of the eccentric Franz Körner, who originally used it as a profitable gravel pit in the nineteenth century before he gave it over to the city in 1910 with the stipulation that it retain his name, which turned out to not always be to his favor: From WWII to the end of the ‘70s the park resembled, according to reports, a slummy neglected dump. Now restored and protected by the city, it has revived a classic bourgeois layout with promenades, water fountains, statues, and a large lawn that’s off limits. People do populate the park despite its slight ostentation and aesthetic contrast to the surrounding neighborhood and typical image of a wild and overgrown Berlin park. Families and picnickers lounge on the few grassy slopes that are accessible, teenage lovers cuddle on benches, and it seems like a popular spot for wedding portraits. A café and art gallery in the old orangery and international live music concerts during the summer add a contemporary cultural flair to the space.
The media’s one-sided, unfavorable portrayal of Neukölln contrasts with the lively, nuanced experience of visiting the area, whose social disadvantages are evident without being dominant. Let’s just hope the city doesn’t decide to rename the area again as an answer to its problems. As the saying goes, where there is shadow, there is also light.