It’s a sunny afternoon at Kottbusser Tor. On the southern end of Adalberstraße, in the shadow of the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum, a demonstration is taking place. The yellow-lined windows of the towering 1970s development stand out against the bright blue sky. On the street, a couple of hundred people are sitting cross-legged on the tarmac as speakers and rappers take turns on the microphone; the sound radiates from a white van parked in the middle of the blocked-off road. Banners hang from the railing of the bridge above it: “No to the planned police station.”
Historically one of Berlin’s most socially troubled neighbourhoods, the busy intersection at Kottbusser Tor is a place where diverse communities converge – with dealers, users, homeless, refugees, tourists and party-goers among them. It’s also one of Berlin’s seven kriminalitätsbelastete Orte or ‘crime-ridden areas’.
These areas are described by the Berlin police as locations where significant offences are repeatedly committed, including “robbery, arson, grievous bodily harm, commercial or gang-related theft and drug trafficking”, often in an organised manner. The designation gives police in these crime hotspots special powers: they are free to stop and search people and property without any particular reason. In an area where 70 percent of the population is of immigrant origin, this has given rise to accusations of institutional racism.
The money set aside for the police station should instead be used to improve infrastructure and create a place where everyone can live together without fear.
As of October 19 this year, 1576 offences including shoplifting, pick-pocketing and grievous bodily harm were reported at Kottbusser Tor. That’s approximately five crimes per day. Official figures would suggest a slight reduction in reported crime numbers in the past three years, though they are almost three times as high as the first full year following the KbO designation in 2006 (in 2007, 723 crimes were reported).
Kottbusser Tor’s housing associations and businesses have long called for the authorities to help them deal with the situation. But when Berlin’s SPD Senator for the Interior Iris Spranger announced she would push through long-anticipated plans for a permanent police station at Kottbusser Tor by the end of this year, the news was met with widespread criticism.
Behind the demonstration is Kotti für Alle, a network of initiatives and individuals with links to Kreuzberg youth groups who have come together to oppose the planned police station. The Polizeiwache, set to open in the former Betinsider betting shop on the NKZ bridge overlooking Adalbertstraße, will cost an estimated €3.75 million.
Protesters believe this to be a cosmetic move that fails to address the roots of Kotti’s deep-seated problems. “Social solutions for social problems,” they proclaim, proposing that the money set aside for the police station be put to better use to improve infrastructure and “create a place where everyone can live together without fear”.
“What would you do with soooo much money?” Demonstrators are invited to answer the question on colourful post-it notes and stick them on a green cloth-covered board. Public toilets, a supervised injection site, a cultural centre, a public meeting place open around the clock and a daycare centre all feature among the answers. Increased police presence does not.
A lack of trust
“Something happens here every day,” says social worker and mother of two Günes Yildiz*, who has lived in her NKZ apartment for 25 years. She has witnessed a lot: local children recruited as mules by the drug gangs operating in the area and a friend’s son dying from an overdose metres away from home. “We’re not living in normal standards,” says Yildiz, who says she avoids the shortcut to the shops from her flat for fear she’ll be attacked, as has happened in the past. “We need to be twice as careful as people in other Bezirke.”
People prefer to solve their own problems because nobody here believes the police will help.
In 2001, sick and tired of the sight of “litter, blood and syringes” on her doorstep, Yildiz was one of a group of mothers who took it upon themselves to create a safer environment for their children to grow up in. Mutter Ohne Grenzen patrolled the streets of Kotti after dark and organised awareness-raising initiatives for local families. After 10 or so years, when the free space that the Bezirk had allocated them fell through, the project came to an end. “It was such a shame,” Yildiz recalls. “We’d tried so hard.”
This is one of many examples Yildiz recounts of how the authorities have failed the residents of Kottbusser Tor. Despite showing empathy for their plight, successive administrations have generally turned a blind eye to what was happening on the streets, creating widespread mistrust. “Many families here don’t call the police at all,” Yildiz explains. “People prefer to solve their own problems because nobody here believes the police will help.”
An activist and pillar of the local community, Café Kotti owner Ercan Yasaroglu echoes Yildiz’ fears that, despite the rhetoric, the residents and businesses of Kotti will be left to fend for themselves yet again. Sitting at a tiled coffee table, he waves an unlit Dunhill in the air as he speaks. One of the people who has wished for a police station at Kotti for years, Yasaroglu believes that the chosen location is the problem.
“Everything happens down there,” he says, looking out the front door of his smoky café to the street. “Harassment, drug dealing, violence. If the police station is up here, it will be like an old watch tower, looking down on people from above.” Not only will it take longer for the police to respond to calls as if they were at street level. Rather than encouraging integration and communication between the police and the citizens, it reaffirms a toxic hierarchy in an area where anti-police sentiment is already high.
The city has other plans for Kreuzberg.
Yasaroglu co-signed an open letter in which businesses and housing associations called for the Berlin Senate to consult with locals: people who experience the area daily. The aim was to draw up plans that will really respond to the needs of the community.
On October 7, round tables were held between representatives of the main groups involved, including city and borough politicians, police and housing associations and Café Kotti. “This is an important step towards improving safety, quality of life and quality of sojourn at Kottbusser Tor,” said Senator Spranger in a statement to the press. She seemed to acknowledge the need for concertation: “A joint effort from all actors involved is required to ensure that Kottbusser Tor is once again a safe place for all.”
The Senate, however, refused to budge. For Yasaroglu, this undemocratic process is symptomatic of the contempt administrations have held for the locals over the years. He questions whether the police station really is for the people of Kotti at all.
“The city has other plans for Kreuzberg. Rents here are too high for ordinary people. And once you bring in security, you’ll attract all of the big companies – Adidas, Nike and so on and so forth. Instead of Café Kotti, you’ll get – what’s it called? – Starbucks.” Without measures to cap commercial rents, existing businesses will be soon priced out – and residents will eventually follow.
Security or gentrification?
Just past the Adalberstraße bridge, two buildings offering “creative workspace in a Kreuzberg neighbourhood” are in the final stages of construction. Adil and Berta, scheduled to open for business early next year, offer office space for rent at a staggering €32 per square metre. They are but the most in-your-face markers of the process of gentrification that has been closing in on Kottbusser Tor. In the past two years alone, neighbouring factory buildings have been sold and their tenants served with eviction notices.
“I used to think that anything would be better than a betting shop, but a police station?” asks Magnus Bjerk. The Norwegian artist has been renting a space in a former Adalbertstraße hat factory since 2007. The property, empty for years, was being rented at €3.80 per square metre by a friendly landlord who ran a carpentry workshop downstairs. Outside the window of Bjerk’s fourth-floor studio, the clang of construction is relentless. “It’s like they are trying to fix the problems with the fire extinguisher instead of making the ground fireproof,” he says.
The police station will change Kotti completely.
The tiled-exterior building Bjerk rents in, which became a shared studio and meeting place for a community of international artists over the years, has since been sold to Corus Invest, a multinational investment fund with links to one of Germany’s self-described “best-known property investors”.
Bjerk, with a group of fellow artists who have to leave the building by June 2023, is working on a group exhibition project to mark the mass eviction. He is convinced that what the neighbourhood needs is long-term social planning, good housing and property politics. “Not triple bullet-proof windows. That’s a provocation!”
“Hell yeah we should clean up the neighbourhood of crime and drug dealing and gangs,” he continues, “but we should clean it up for the people who live and work here. Not evict everybody.”
Yasaroglu agrees: “This has to do with a housing policy that is being pursued in cities worldwide and results in the displacement of ordinary people.” Though he remains open to being proven wrong about how the police will interact with the community, he has no doubt: “The police station will change Kotti completely.”
*Name has been changed
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