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February 2010
June 5th, 2006
Mon, Jun. 5th, 2006 09:26 am

I'm flathunting. I'm flathunting in Berlin. And I'm flathunting at a time when, thanks to my Wired column, I have a regular income for once, and can afford something really quite nice, especially in a city where rents are on average one third what they'd be in London or New York. I could be flathunting in one of Berlin's four trendy districts -- Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg. Instead, I'm flathunting in Neukölln.

Neukölln, by most accounts, is Berlin's worst district, an area with "problem schools" where teachers walk in fear of assault and students are passed through metal detectors every morning. Reports on the area stress that "Neukölln is not South Central LA. But..." (They always add the but.) Wiki-Travel says: "Neukölln was and likely always will be an under-class working borough with a big migration scene. Neukölln offers big contrasts between the poor northern part of Neukölln and the more village-looking south parts..."

On my first visit to Berlin, back in 1987 (I was touring with Primal Scream), I took the U-bahn to Neukölln to check out what had inspired David Bowie to write the fractured, angsty track on the instrumental side of "Heroes" -- his sax seems to splinter like a breaking mirror. What I discovered -- that misty evening back in the time when Berlin was still segmented, walled, and cordoned -- was the villagey-looking southern part. The place I'm now targeting for my new home is the high-density Turkish quarter in the northern part of the district. (By the way, it turns out that Bowie just wanted to pay tribute to the band Neu! The track had little to do with Neukölln itself.)

So why am I focusing my housing hunt on "Berlin's worst district"? I'll need to give you a multi-part answer:

a) As in all "bad" districts, the rents are pretty low. You get lots of space for your euro, and I have a shipment of boxes arriving soon from New York, all the books and records that have been sitting there in storage since I lived on Orchard Street.

b) I want to be near my favourite Berlin food market, the Turkish Maybuchufer market that operates, two days a week, alongside the Landwehrkanal. (This market was the site of my Fashion Muslim action last September.)

c) Districts like Prenzlauer Berg are full of yuppyish shops selling twee jewelry, expensive coffee, exotic chocolate and so on. They're full of middle class people and their children. Laidback, slow-paced, yet often uptight. (How can you be laidback yet uptight? The Germans manage it.)

d) Friedrichshain gets more and more like the Lower East Side; invaded at weekends by obnoxious people who bar-hop, ear-marked by developers who turn charmingly fusty buildings (like the big corner block on Kopernicus Strasse and Simon-Dach Strasse) into horrible "luxury apartment" complexes. The dirt and patina are being squeezed out. Money ruins everything.

e) I prefer Turkish-German culture to German-German culture. Turks, being Muslims, don't drink. They also don't rock, an important consideration! Their food is better than German food, they dress better than the Germans dress, and they embrace the sort of high-vitality, high-density lifestyles I prefer: Asian-style living.

f) Perhaps this is the most important thing, but it's the least definable: there's just some sort of magic in the corner of Neukölln where it meets Kreuzberg at the canal. It's got leafy cobbled streets, charming old buildings with atmospheric lobbies, lots of mature trees, grubby high-density bargain shopping (the kind I like) on the main streets, a subway line (the U8), water and fresh vegetables, immigrant exoticism. Yes, I refuse to condemn the exoticization of immigrants. Seeing immigrant quarters as "Romantic" or "exotic" is a valid counter-balance to seeing them as "problematical" or "undesireable".

g) I can sense that this area (eight or ten blocks) is on the cusp of something. In other words, there's a chance that this part of Neukölln (like Wedding, the other poor area currently being infiltrated by artists) will increasingly be a destination for creative people. There are already two or three art galleries on Bürknerstrasse. They're the kind of places which seem to be run entirely for the benefit of the owners, who sit outside on chairs, recognizing but ignoring others of their type and race. It's pretty much just Turks and creatives here at the moment, no yuppie babies, little dogs (with their little blobs of little dog shit), Thai restaurants or luxury apartment developments.

It's probably this "on the cusp" thing that I'm mostly responding to in this part of Neukölln. I really enjoy that feeling of being part of the birth of an area's hipness, that time when people open eccentric, short-lived businesses: funny cafes with shabby chairs and hardly anything to eat or drink, frequented by oddly-dressed people. Secret cinema clubs. That fragile period (it might last three, four years) before the real cafes and cinemas move in, and everything becomes marketed, slick, targeted, sewn-up.

Of course, even writing this "Neukölln-hype" I'm hastening the day these ten or so blocks at the north end of Neukölln become as trampled and herded as Bedford Avenue or Ludlow Street. But that day is still far off for "Berlin's worst district".