April 3rd, 2008


Alcohol-oriented districts

White people -- if you'll forgive the generalisation -- drink, and the further north you go the more immoderately and self-destructively they tend to drink. Or, to put that a little differently, the whiter your district gets, the more bars are going to pop up, and the more your Friday and Saturday nights will fill up with piss, shouting, boom-boom -boom, swagger and bravado.

When I first moved to London I lived in Streatham Hill, a residential district to the south of Brixton with a significant black population. There were certainly pubs there, but alcohol didn't entirely dominate Friday and Saturday nights in Streatham. For that you had to go uptown. A few years later I moved (via Chelsea and Fitzrovia) to Brydges Place, a tiny alley just off St Martin's Lane in Covent Garden.

I thought that being in the midst of a district dominated by theatre and retail I'd be living in a refined environment. Instead, I found I was living in a sewer. Brydges Place, of an evening, became an open toilet, used as a slash-wall of last resort by many of the thousands of people who descended on central London every evening to drink... heavily. My friend Thomi, who had a studio above John Calder's publishing house on Green's Court in Soho, had it even worse: people would stand on his step and pee right through the letterbox. Later I moved to the Chinese end of the Lower East Side just in time to see it teeter between a quietly industrious Asian district by day and a burgeoning, boisterous white people's drinking district by night.

Experiences like these taught me that sometimes what's passed off as a fashionable district, an artist's district, can actually turn out to be nothing more than an alcohol-oriented district. Where pubs and clubs dominate a district, the only artists are likely to be piss artists (and the odd DJ).

Yesterday Hisae and I revisited Friedrichshain, the Berlin district where we lived for over a year. Our only active tie to the area now is Smart Deli, the Japanese cafe where we eat salmon teriyaki and pick up our month's supply of Japanese rental DVDs. But every time we return to Friedrichshain there are a couple more glitzy new bars, a few dozen more people carrying beer bottles, some more drunks in the park, and lots more piss and broken glass underfoot. It's become an alcohol-oriented area. And -- no coincidence, I suspect -- it's predominantly white.

It's not that bars in themselves are a problem, or beer. I like a quaff of the old dunkel weissbier of an evening myself. It's when bars are the only expanding business in your neighbourhood that alarm bells should start ringing. Your neighbourhood, to stay liveable, needs to be more than a mere alkie magnet. And for that, I'd argue, it needs to stay mixed -- not just in the mixed use sense, but the mixed race one too.

Neukolln, where we live now, has a 35% immigrant population, most of whom are muslims. Our streets are dotted with Turkish, Iraqi and Lebanese social clubs where muslims play dominoes, smoke pipes, watch satellite TV and chat under bright fluorescent lights (white people's bars never have such bright white light -- drunk people know how gormless they look in that kind of blaze). What they don't do, of course, is drink alcohol. Islamic culture frowns on it.

It's been interesting following not just the embourgeoisment of our corner of "Kreuzkolln", but also its coverage in the Berlin media. My own coverage of Neukolln's transformation has followed a "creative class" template borrowed from Richard Florida: I've been focused on workshops, art galleries, shops. But when the Berlin media declares that "Neukolln rocks", what they mostly seem to mean is "Here are some new bars for you to drink in". It isn't even about house prices (Berlin is still mostly a rental city, and rents don't radically alter the way house prices do -- they tend to be controlled). It's about the Kneipenszene: drinking.

Two trendy new bars have just opened round the corner from us on the Hobrechtstrasse: Mama and Raumfahrer. Raumfahrer is an interesting case: the curvy-windowed 70s storefront it's housed in strugged for a year as a designer workshop where earnest girls converted Chinese laundry bags into inventive, quirky clothes and bags. They were offering cheap creative studio space in there, but didn't seem to get any takers, and suddenly they were gone, and their space re-opened as a bar.

The bar is doing amazingly well -- at weekends it mills with people, and the windows go opaque with condensation from all the chat. The contrast makes me a little bit sad. It seems to suggest that what I thought was shaping up to be an art-oriented district might just be turning into an alcohol-oriented district, another Friedrichshain. But we have one secret weapon -- our much higher muslim population. As long as they stay, the demon drink can never take more than 65% of Neukolln's soul.