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The boss of the ghetto steps down

Is (more) change coming to Neukölln? District mayor Heinz Buschkowsky announced on Tuesday that he's ending his 13-year reign as of April. We profiled the controversial politician and author in our June 2013 "Movers and Shapers" issue.

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Despite all that edgy urban cool, Neukölln remains Berlin’s most impoverished district. Its mayor, Heinz Buschkowsky, is a popular and populist politician who’s made it his life mission to tell Germany about life in the ghetto. On January 27, 2015, he announced his early retirement – here’s a look at the man Neukölln is losing on April 1.

“The Big Buschkowsky” – as he was affectionately dubbed in a t-shirt slogan that became part of his reelection campaign – is big, jowly, and cuddly, but he’s a different cuddly than Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, a fellow Social Democrat with whom Buschkowsky’s relationship has not always been friction-free. While Wowereit likes to emphasise Berlin’s shiny surface, Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln since December 2001, is all about pointing out the dirt.

The 66-year-old’s speeches bang on about street crime, Muslim parallel societies, drugs and youth unemployment, an alarmist portrait of depravity that he summed up in his national bestseller, Neukölln ist überall (Neukölln is everywhere), published last year. It’s not the gentrifying, Weserstraße-dominated Neukölln that you’d recognise from, say, a New York Times blog. “It’s a place where people stare stubbornly straight ahead at the red light,” he wrote, “so that they don’t get shouted at by the streetfighters.” [Not a translation, it’s the actual word he uses.] “Where young women are asked whether they want to be impregnated. Where youths charge little children a fee to use a climbing frame.”

It’s a depressing fact that his influence rests on this book and his 2004 statement that “multiculturalism has failed,” a soundbite later parroted by Angela Merkel and David Cameron as the rest of Europe made its anti-immigrant lurch. He has become one of Germany’s twin authorities on integration policy and immigration. The other, also a white male Social Democrat in his sixties, is Thilo Sarrazin, former Berlin finance minister and author of the 2010 anti-immigrant screed Germany Abolishes Itself.

Buschkowsky’s book took a more humane approach than Sarrazin’s, and indeed criticised Sarrazin for both his racism and his failure to invest in policies that might have assuaged all these social ills when he was in charge of Berlin’s finances. But Buschkowsky also said, “The content of Sarrazin is right,” and it’s this uncritical acceptance of an anti-immigrant agenda that has led to condemnation from Turkish community organisations and Turkish members of his own party.

Another depressing fact is that it’s this element of Buschkowsky’s message that gets reported by the German media, and there’s no doubt that he has helped feed a culture that blames immigrants and Hartz-IV recipients. But his practical day-to-day attempts to govern Neukölln don’t get reported as much. One such attempt, the so-called Stadtteilmütter (district mothers) project that sends women of immigrant descent to advise families that the social workers don’t go to, has been copied in several other German cities. Buschkowsky also favours investing more money in education and employment infrastructure, compulsory kindergarten for children. Unfortunately though, his influence on Germany’s social policy isn’t as strong as his influence on its immigration debate.

Originally published in issue #117, June 2013.