Espiner's Berlin : Berlin doesn´t love you

This time, our Columnist Mark Espiner is exploring Neukölln - with the help of his readers and Dr Billy, wo actually is'nt a doctor, although everyone calls him one.

Mark Espiner.Foto: Thilo Rückeis

Berlin doesn’t love you. Actually, what the sticker outside my flat really said was Berlin doesn’t “heart” you. Whatever. The message was clear. See for yourself.

Coming as it did only a few days after the scratched swastika, I felt a little bit paranoid. Could it really be that this city that I had taken a risk on and adopted didn’t heart me?

It was unsettling, especailly since I was about to embark on my expedition to Neukölln. So I decided to ignore the stickers of hate and carry on exploring my new city regardless. In a taxi ride later I chatted to the Turkish driver. “What do I need to do to really understand Neukölln?” I asked. “Neukölln?” he replied, “If you want to go to Neukölln, you need to speak to Doctor Billy.” I reassured him that I wasn’t ill. Dr Billy, he said, runs a shop on Wipper Strasse. He isn’t a doctor, but everyone calls him one. A bit like Guttenberg? I asked. Dr Billy, he said, knows the heart and soul of Neukölln. He picked up his mobile, dialled his number, babbled in Turkish and then hung up. Give him a call he’s expecting you, he said, and scribbled down his phone number. I stuffed it in my pocket.

A few days later, the news broke. This xenophobia wasn’t just a sticker slogan campaign, it was real. The burghers of Kreuzberg were fed up with being a zoo and didn‘t want any more foreign visitors. Like all good Kreuzbergers, they were demonstrating against it. Meanwhile, Neuköllners were raising their voices in anti-Gentrification and blaming the rising rents on the foreigners. Thankfully, there were oppositon voices - including Joel Atlas who brilliantly pointed out here in Tagesspiegel that the roots of the changes lie in political decisions, and nobody can claim that he or she “was here first”.

But this video, made by the owner of Freies Neukölln, a grungey-fashionable bar on Neukölln’s Panierstraße, seemed really agressive. Or was it ironic? Or just a publicity stunt? It’s hard to tell. His warning made me think twice: “You stomp our borough to death... You are and will ever be tourists... Have fun, but be on the alert.” Did I need to worry about my safety if I went to Neukölln and accidentally showed an English accent?

“On this street, the places that used to be brothels are now chic bars,” said Marc, a resident who had offered to take me on a walk through the borough. It was night. I remarked how low-level the street lighting was, how different that is from London where sodium glare floods the streets. Here it almost seems as if a lighting designer has dimmed the lamps so that the bars and shopfronts can glow beautifully - and people can hang in the shadows. “So, are we in Kreuzkolln or Neukölln?” I asked. The woman walking a few paces in front of us, with her untethered dog, stopped. Turned around. “This is Neukölln,” she said. “Neukölln.” It was on the edge of agressive. Then she walked off. 

It was time to go into the lion’s den: Freies Neukölln. The owner wasn’t there. Perhaps he was in Freiburg where he comes from, so I chatted with the barman instead who didn’t share his boss’s feelings. He had lived in London for a while, thought it was great to see new people in the area. Which, I thought, was a good thing because most of them seemed to be drinking in this bar.

At Das Gift down the road, which felt like a British pub and is run by two Glaswegians, a British artist and Sinisa, a Serbian-born British passport holder, I tried to get a bit of the feeling on the ground. “I’m probably a part of the problem,” said Sinisa, acknowledging that gentrification occurs with an influx of new people like him. But he and his partners had wanted to create a place that had a sense of community and which connected with what was already there. We talked about how he’d had to pass a citizen test to become British. He asked me when was St Andrew’s day. I couldn’t answer. I would have failed the test, he said. Perhaps there should be a Neukölln citizen test to decide who can live here, I suggested, you know, who’s the archtiect who designed the Rathaus and the Stadtbad - that kind of thing. The Stadtbad. Of course! I’d not yet been, but so many of you suggested it as Neukölln landmark. The perfect way to cleanse myself of the xenophobia, I thought.

I went the next day and immediately hit a cultural barrier where my British shyness had me as the only one in the sauna in a bathing suit. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go FKK (with a towel) and I came away from the relaxing surroundings liberated, purged and perhaps just a little more German-integrated. It really should be part of a Neukölln test, I thought, that way it becomes blatantly obvious that none of us are that different.

As I put on my clothes, I found Dr Billy’s number scrunched up in the bottom of my pocket. I dialled the number. He’d been waiting for my call. Come and see me in my shop he said.

“Dr Billy’ Pflegestation” says the sign outside the door. The customers gave Bulent Yorulmaz that nickname. “They’re my patients,” he says laughing and they call him doctor, he says, because he has an answer for every question. They probably voted for him too when he stood for the Bundestag on what he called a WIN ticket (Wir In Neukölln) in 2009. He has lived in the borough for 37 of his 41 years, but will, he says, one day move back to Turkey.

He showed me a private room, where friends can meet and chat and have a beer together. An old lady. A youngish couple. A Bulgarian labourer. It wasn’t a chic Neukölln bar, but it was what a bar should be - a community service. He offered me a coffee and greeted the two Bulgarians who had come in to buy beer. “Lots of Bulgarians have moved here,” he says. So what, I ask him does he think about “outsiders” settling here in Neukölln? “It’s better when people come! It’s not at all a negative thing, it’s only positive that they come,” he says. But what about the rent problems? The rising prices? Yes, that’s a problem he replied, but not in the way everyone else was talking about it. He said that property owners are extorting greater rents out of the Bulgarians, because, he says, the landlords know they won’t complain because it will reveal they are here illegally.

The real problem with Neukölln, he says, isn’t gentrification, though. It’s drugs. The heroin trade, the drug dealers, the crime. And even though he’s the doctor with an answer for everything, that’s something that even he can’t instantly cure.

Many thanks to all of you who sent me your Neukölln tips.

You can email Mark on and follow him on Twitter @deutschmarkuk

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