Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district mayor Monika Herrmann on gentrification, cannabis and the Oranienplatz asylum seeker protest camp.
In June, the Green politician Monika Herrmann replaced party colleague Franz Schulz, who resigned due to health problems, as mayor of Berlin’s most diverse, most ‘alternative’ district, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Only four months in office, the 47-year-old fifth-generation Berliner has already made a name for herself for her outspokenness – be it accusing the city government of doing too little to control rents, or pointing out the misbehaviour of rowdy tourists roaming the streets of her district. Or advocating the legalisation of cannabis. But topping her priorities on these early winter days is the unsustainable situation of the refugee tent-city that has sprung up on Oranienplatz.
What’s the latest on O-platz?
We would like to bring the cultivation and sale of cannabis under state control. First as a state monopoly. It can enter the free market later, if it works.
The people there have said for a long time that they by no means wanted to leave the square, regardless of whether it’s winter or summer. That’s changed over the past few weeks. Now they say they would like to move into a building. I think that’s good – the sanitation situation is bad, the food situation is bad, the winter will probably be very cold. This year we don’t have the possibility of offering backup accommodation, because we don’t have any space left. I have asked the Berlin government (Senat) to provide us with a building.
Editor’s note: O-platz residents have been promised new accommodation in a former hostel in Friedrichshain, but as of yet have no official word on when they will be allowed to move in.
The Senat has been tending towards eviction…
The Senat wants us to stop tolerating the people’s right to protest on that square. Now that they seem to have agreed to leave the square on their own accord in order to move into a building, there will be no need to evict them… But I also think those people should be allowed to protest against Germany’s asylum policy on O-Platz – or elsewhere. Because German asylum policy has not changed one bit over the past year. This was underscored by the refugees who came from Munich to protest with a hunger strike at the Brandenburg Gate. Here at Oranienplatz, about 95 percent came to Europe via Lampedusa. They don’t have any rights in Germany, they only have rights in Italy… but Italy continues to send them away.
Until asylum policy changes, what’s the best solution for these people?
The most urgent thing is that we find some accommodation for them. It will take a long time to change the legal situation or the asylum policy in Germany and Europe. We see in the current discussion that Europe has a hard time addressing the issue of refugees. The interior ministers all seem to say, “Keep everything the way it is.” Or they would prefer to step up the exclusionary measures. This discussion will take a while. So let’s first get those people a roof. And then we will have time to discuss.
Who’s actually responsible for the camp, the Senat or your district?
The Senat tells us, that we, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, permitted this protest camp and should therefore be responsible for it. But if the people weren’t on O-platz, they’d be somewhere else. In Hamburg there are also people, 400 people who came via Lampedusa, looking for religious asylum. Considering the conditions they are living under, the experiences they’ve had, and the condition of their journeys, I think it’s totally inappropriate to engage in this political wrangling. What’s most important is to get the people into safety.
And then there is the school housing refugees in Ohlauer Straße…
It’s a proper building with water, electricity, heating. But the people there are in a somewhat different situation; virtually none of them came via Lampedusa and they have very different statuses. There are people from other European countries, such as Spain, Britain, Greece. I recently spoke to a man from England, who’d lived in London for 14 years, who wanted to take part in the protest.
In Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg you hear a lot of English on the street – and I’m not referring to refugees on O-platz, but mostly young expats. Does this influx pose a danger to the social situation?
Well, it depends on your point of view, or on what sort of situation you are in. More and more we see that gentrification is forcing people who are our friends and neighbours to leave our district. And that’s not a good situation.
So who’s guilty?
Guilt is Catholic. It’s nothing to do with guilt. The city government sold thousands of city-owned flats. They stopped creating new social housing. This misguided housing policy was the work of the Berlin government. I can’t blame it on a young Spaniard who has come here to study or look for work! If we had some space for alternative housing in the inner city districts, there would be fewer problems. But social flats were sold off as objects of speculation. Then there is the question of globalisation and Europe: if I come from Italy and want to invest my capital somewhere and the flats in Berlin cost a third of what they cost in Munich or Rome or a tenth of what they cost in Paris, it’s understandable I buy here. But what the Senat neglected to do was to create protective mechanisms for the local population. All this “Berlin is open to the world, Berlin is sexy, Berlin is cool. Here you can party day and night. People, come!” I’m a fifth-generation Berliner and I am happy that the world is happy to come to Berlin, but at the same time, I have to protect the local population – which, with an average income of €1500, is very poor.
What can you do as district mayor?
We can’t do much. We can create Milieuschutzgebiete (preservation zones)… my predecessor already did much of this. We should make sure that the Zweckentfremdungsgesetz (stricter regulations on commercial use of residential flats) gets passed…
Meaning fewer holiday flats.
Holiday flats are a major issue. Entire buildings have been bought up, totally renovated, and completely rented out as vacation flats. But I can’t blame a Spanish family for spending their holidays here. They are not responsible for this problem. The responsibility lies with those who make the rules.
Doesn’t the district profit from tourism at all?
No, the district profits from people who participate… not from people who come here with the idea that this is the biggest party zone in the world, and everything that I’m not allowed to do at home, I am allowed to do in Kreuzberg. I expect that they acknowledge that people live here and that this is not a movie set. We’re very hospitable but expect guests to behave like guests.
But those are just the tourists. There are also a lot of people who come here for a year, or maybe longer…
There I also have expectations. I expect them to participate. It’s not just a cool place to live. It’s not just a place to party. The coolness of the district has something to do with the fact that we want to live here together. It has something to do with the fact that you meet in your pub at night, regardless of which language you speak. There’s a danger that this will slowly disappear, because some people just want to invest in a cool area, which they don’t really care about.
Görlitzer Park is one of those places in Kreuzberg where people come from all over the world, mostly to drink beer and buy drugs. You had the idea of opening up a ‘coffee shop’ there. How close is this idea to realisation?
It’s a lucrative business. I can only advise the kids not to buy the stuff, because it’s very thinned-down by putting stuff in it, in order to increase profits. The reality is that cannabis has become an everyday drug, just like alcohol and tobacco. In order to protect consumers and young people, I’d need to put a stop to the illegal sale of drugs. The police’s restrictive measures have not been successful. So we said we would like to bring the cultivation and sale of cannabis under state control. First of all as a state monopoly. It doesn’t have to stay that way; it can enter the free market later, if it works. But if I can guarantee protection of minors – you have to be 18, you get this amount and the stuff is clean – then we have to do it ourselves. Which is why we submitted a request to legally grow and sell cannabis.
Is it legally possible?
It is possible, legally. The last time such an application was submitted was 16 years ago. A long time ago. Society has changed. Though not the conservative government! Social Democrats also tend to be more conservative in this respect. But we would try to bring it before the Bundesverfassungsgericht (constitutional court).
You would need a lot of allies…
We have them. A lot of them. Hamburg is discussing the same thing in the Schanzenviertel and we’re going to get other cities on board. We’re not alone.
Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.