Prescription for gentrification

Defeated by high rents and low profits, Kotti's historical corner pharmacies are being occupied by chic bars and cafés. Cause to break out the antidepressants?

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Photo by Christoph Mac

Defeated by high rents and low profits, Kotti’s historical corner pharmacies are being occupied by chic bars and cafés. Cause to break out the antidepressants?

When café and cocktail joint Ora opened last year amid the boutiques, bookstores and bars on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz, it was a near-instant blogosphere hit. But it’s not just the homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon buns that get the Instagram treatment from a clientele of fashionable young internationals juggling Voo Store bags. It’s also the magnificent location, with stucco ceiling, stone floors and a rich wooden counter backed by a wall of medicine bottles and tiny shelves, all over 150 years old.

This was the Oranien-Apotheke, once known as the “Purveyor of the Emperor and King of Germany, its Colonies and Armies”. Founded in 1860 by the pharmacist Rudolph Ernst Emil Kade, it operated as a neighbourhood pharmacy until its final owners the Dallmann family, unable to find a successor, had to close it in 2013. Now, it’s yet another Kotti business that caters more to expats and tourists than to the neighbourhood’s longtime residents.

And it’s got company. Just around the corner from Ora, on Mariannenplatz, is the site of the former Mariannen-Apotheke, also founded over a century ago. After closing in 2014, the pharmacy has become the Apotheken Bar, a high-end cocktail bar started by mixologist Sinan Gültekin. With an impressive selection of liquors – including homemade coriander-infused gin, and orange and vanilla bitters – it’s become an atmospheric place to relax amid rows of amber antique pill bottles. Last but not least, there’s the Apotheke am Kottbusser Tor, right by the U-Bahn station, which shut down last year to become a second location of burger joint Burgermeister. Their largely English-speaking client base of tourists wanting to see “gritty Kreuzberg” hints at Kotti’s dramatic conversion from a low-income neighbourhood to a hub of hipster culture and sightseeing.

Nobody’s kept a better eye on this transformation than the humble and earnest members of the group Kotti & Co, based since 2012 out of a wooden Gecekondu (“house built overnight” in Turkish) off Admiralstraße. There, people like Ahmet Tunter give a political voice to the people being priced out of their own neighbourhood. Tunter moved to Kreuzberg in 1977, and remembers when rents in the area were “between 50-200 deutschmarks (€25-100) per month. Kreuzberg was the poorest quarter in Berlin.” Now, according to the latest Mietspiegel, rents for apartments around Kotti average €9.80/sqm per month – up 5.3 percent in the past year alone. Commercial space, meanwhile, goes for €30/sqm and up.

These increases are a particularly bitter pill to swallow for independently owned pharmacies, which already must struggle with high financial strain due to rising drug prices, not to mention stiff competition from websites and big chains. Overall, the number of independent Apotheken in Berlin plummeted from 761 in 2008 to 700 in 2014. Those that have been able to thrive are usually located in upscale neighbourhoods, central business districts or malls, where clientele don’t mind paying full price for medicine, or else they profit from booming sales in pricey cosmetics and wellness products. Pharmacy owners around Kottbusser Tor have no such luxury.

At a quick glance, it´s difficult to distinguish photographs taken of the pharmacy in 1860 from the Instagram snaps taken by the cafe’s guests.

But maybe the demise of the mom ‘n’ pop corner pharmacy isn’t the worst form of gentrification – especially when the new owners are eager to pay homage to their old tenants’ past. While the physical pharmacy may no longer be in their hands, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Kade launched in 1860 in Oranien-Apotheke is still in business today, and spokesperson Sebastian Hamsch reports that the company is enthusiastic about the new café. “It really looks exactly like the historical photographs of Oranien-Apotheke. So much of the original furniture is still there.” At a quick glance, it’s difficult to distinguish photographs taken of the pharmacy in 1860 from the Instagram photos taken by the café’s guests… albeit with a few changes. The pharmacy counter now glistens with sugary Zimtschnecken (cinnamon rolls) instead of ampoules, and the former back room laboratory is now the kitchen.

As for the Apotheken Bar, it was opened by a local who knew the original Mariannen-Apotheke from his childhood and caters primarily to locals in need of an after-work drink. Upon taking over the location, Gültekin strove to keep the history of the place alive, keeping the old shelving and even the old sign – with a fake stone crashing through it, a gimmick meant to commemorate the destruction caused by May Day riots some years ago.

By catering to a clientele willing to shell out over €6 for a coffee and pastry, €10 for a cocktail and €9 for a burger and fries, these places might just be symptoms of our time – reflecting the changing demographics in Kreuzberg. Meanwhile, they’ve become neighbourhood institutions in their own right. For Ora owner Lukas Schmid, the café “isn’t just antique, but has grown its charm from 1860 to today by adding pieces and bits each decade. When we entered it for the first time, it was this trip back through the different eras of Berlin that took our breath away.” Kotti’s present might hang in uncertainty, but traces of its past are preserved in these former pharmacies.