THE BOYS OF KOTTI SERIES! It takes a certain kind of character (and yes, apparently some testosterone) to stick it out around Kottbusser Tor. We talked to the bikers, shopkeepers, artists and punks who’ve made the Kiez their own.
Most Berlin journalists probably have Erçan Yasaroglu on speed dial. With regional and national press hankering after his opinion on everything Kotti-related, he’s become a local celebrity in recent years – but what makes this Turkish-German café owner such a vital part of the debate?
Everyone who walks in the door at Café Kotti is a friend.
Yasaroglu owns Café Kotti, a smoky “transcultural meeting point” at the heart of Kottbusser Tor. He’s lived in Kreuzberg for 33 years, Kotti for six, and between the café and his day-to-day efforts as a state social worker, he’s pretty much as active as you can get in the community. And it’s not just journalists looking to Yasaroglu for answers: after settling down with his coffee (milk and about five sugars) and lighting a cigarette, his smartphone buzzes. Some rapid Turkish and a few chuckles later, he ends the call with a snort. The guys outside saw him rushing to the café for our interview and thought something must have happened.
Seeing Yasaroglu in a rush might be worrying. This is a guy who seems to have life sussed. From the sculpted grey locks he pushes back from his face every few minutes to the thoughtful, collected way he talks about his neighbourhood, there’s something reassuringly put-together about him. Originally from Balıkesir in Turkey’s Marmara region, he studied literature at Anadolu University. But fleeing Turkey as a political refugee in 1980, he found himself “stateless, homeless,” roaming through Syria and Lebanon before reaching Germany in 1982. And back then, this wasn’t an easy place to be a refugee. “The Willkommenskultur that’s developed in Germany over the past year, it just didn’t exist then,” Yasaroglu remembers. “Back then, the Berliners saw us with our shortcomings and differences… and there was prejudice, there was fear. Turkish, Muslim, dark-skinned, violent, this and that…” Arriving in Germany completely alone, the young immigrant built his life in Kreuzberg – and by 2009, when he took over the café on Adalbertstraße, he knew Kotti was where he wanted to be. “So much happens here, with influences from across the world… I wanted to live in the middle of it all.”
But things changed last year, he says, when a new crop of drug dealers invaded the Kiez. Kotti’s become a “rechtsfreier Raum,” Yasaroglu sighs. A lawless black hole. And it’s sucking in everything, including his business. “Of course dealers try and come into Café Kotti,” he says. “They stand at the door. Look!” He waves an arm and sure enough, there are a couple of leather-jacketed guys leaning on the railings out side, eyes on the ground. There’s no way they’re coming inside, though: anyone caught dealing in Café Kotti gets an automatic Hausverbot. He can ban them from his café, but Yasaroglu can’t pull the dealers off Kotti’s streets. So why stay? “Kottbusser Tor’s my home,” he shrugs. “I’ve started a family here, had children… all my friends are here.” But don’t get him wrong: Yasaroglu knows there’s more to life than Kreuzberg. His next project? A “Café Kotti Zwei”. In Turkey, no less. Under the careful eye of Yasaroglu’s brother and sister, this new café is set to open on the Turkish coast opposite the refugee camps of Lesbos, allowing Europe’s newest arrivals to mix with those from all over the world. Yasaroglu himself employs four refugees in Café Kotti, plus one intern. “Turkey’s really missing something like this,” he concludes.
The English-dominated chatter beneath the veils of smoke may have alienated the locals, but it’s all part of Café Kotti’s international appeal. And what do the customers think? “Everyone who walks in the door at Café Kotti is a friend,” Yasaroglu corrects us. “Not a customer. A friend. It doesn’t matter whether or not we speak the same language.” We think we’re being told off – but then he smiles. “Like you and me. If we sit here for long enough, talk together, drink coffee together… we’re friends!”